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November 3, 2010 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Does Kwanzaa really exist?

Does anyone actually celebrate it? I know it was conceived in the 1960's, with the purpose (in theory) of being a true African-American holiday... But all the black people I have ever met are Christian (or culturally Christian) and celebrate Christmas, or are Muslim.

I learned about Kwanzaa from my ultra-progressive public school system, but I've never met anyone who celebrated it. Do any of you celebrate it? Or have stories of going to Kwanzaa celebrations? Anyone have observations about this holiday as it is celebrated in the real world?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Human Relations (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Um, I know someone who celebrates it.
posted by vincele at 6:33 PM on November 3, 2010


According to Keith Mayes, the author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, the popularity within the US has "leveled off" as the black power movement there has declined, and now between half and two million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Wikipedia.
posted by ND¢ at 6:37 PM on November 3, 2010


Yes, I've celebrated it, for real, in the real world, with candles and everything. There's umoja, kujichagulea, ujima, umm... I forget the rest; it's been a while, and I'm sure wikipedia has the details!

I was raised among progressive African American intellectuals. My church, a black(ish) church, had kwanzaa celebrations for a few years in the 90s. We know that it's a made up holiday, obviously, but it's still a nice celebration of family and a link to the pan-African experience. After all, at some point, someone made up every holiday; it just happened a longer time ago so those celebrations have mutated and grown.

It was pretty cool, and I hope to celebrate Kwanzaa with my kids.
posted by lesli212 at 6:39 PM on November 3, 2010 [8 favorites]


According to this 18 million people celebrate it... That's nowhere near the number who celebrate christmas, but it's not nothing.

To ask "if it exists" is kind of vague, though. Even if no one celebrated it, it could be revived and become popular at a later date. All that matters is that some individuals find the rituals meaningful...
posted by mdn at 6:40 PM on November 3, 2010


The UU church my father and stepmother go to did Kwanzaa every year when I was a young teenager. They also did "anyone can do whatever they want, whether that means hauling in a totem pole or baptizing their child in holy water" dedications of children (there was one family for each of those at my sister's dedication; I was so surprised by the totem pole I managed to forget what we did for her.) The congregation was easily 85% "white." We also observed Kwanzaa at my elementary school, which was close to 90% Hispanic (I was in class with exactly five black students over the course of five grades there.)

Here in Columbus it seems like the big non-religious holiday for blacks is Juneteenth. It certainly gets lots of press attention (more than Flag Day, less than Chanukah;) Kwanzaa does not. Bearing in mind that Kwanzaa is competing with major holidays and Juneteenth isn't.
posted by SMPA at 6:40 PM on November 3, 2010


The comic strip "Curtis" celebrates it every year with a weird faux-folktale storyline.

Serious answer: here, let me Google that for you.

All the people I know who celebrate Kwanzaa are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or atheist/agnostic. Having a holiday to celebrate principles of African culture doesn't conflict with any of those points of view.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:43 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I should say that the people I know who celebrate it tend to celebrate it with public events (the Langston Hughes Center in Queens generally has a kick-ass Kwanzaa celebration).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:44 PM on November 3, 2010


Here in Columbus it seems like the big non-religious holiday for blacks is Juneteenth. It certainly gets lots of press attention (more than Flag Day, less than Chanukah;) Kwanzaa does not. Bearing in mind that Kwanzaa is competing with major holidays and Juneteenth isn't.

Tell me more about that. I have never heard of it, although I learned a decent amount about slavery, the Civil War and emancipation in school. Is it celebrated in any formal, traditional ways?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:47 PM on November 3, 2010


Here in Savannah, GA, there's always a few newspaper stories, with photos, of Kwannazaa celebrations.

Go to any newspaper website in a city that has a lot of black people and you'll find articles and/or photos of it, probably.

Or just do a Google search of "Kwanzaa photo" and a major city, like say Chicago, and you'll get hits.
posted by nomadicink at 6:58 PM on November 3, 2010


Of course people really celebrate it. Some observe it at home, but it also provides an excellent way for schools, churches, clubs, etc to focus on values and ideas associated with the African diaspora.

Not even 150 years ago, there were fewer Americans celebrating Christmas than Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa now. Not just in number, but in proportion. Holidays evolve more rapidly than we imagine.

As to Juneteenth, it's exceedingly well documented, and traditions vary locally. A quick start on Google will bring you to some useful resounces, like this,this, and this. It does seem that the observance of Juneteenth is growing and spreading; it used to be more highly localized.
posted by Miko at 6:59 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes it is real. I would love to go to an authentic Kwanzaa sometime.... So long as Sandra Lee is not cooking.
posted by Felex at 7:24 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ha! Felex, that is part of what inspired me -- the fact that the only people who I ever saw talking about Kwanzaa were white! But this is all very informative.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:27 PM on November 3, 2010


Juneteenth is an officialish holiday (at least in my state, and Wikipedia says a bunch more) but you don't get the day off. There are events at theatres and cultural centers all over town, plus this. I actually know some of the people who run it, apparently. Heh. This surprises me more than it probably should.
posted by SMPA at 7:44 PM on November 3, 2010


Juneteenth is a big deal in Texas, for what it's worth, since it started there. My elementary school principal celebrated Kwanzaa, and she would go around to each grade every year and teach all the kids about it.
posted by MadamM at 7:50 PM on November 3, 2010


I have neighbors that celebrate every year, with decorations in the windows of their home. So, not just for public events.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:49 PM on November 3, 2010


Just a note: if you manage to run into blacks of Caribbean extraction in North America, they might be less likely than African-Americans to celebrate Kwanzaa. This is especially true of those who might be (at least culturally) Catholic or belong to a Protestant church that isn't predominantly black. Not that these associations are incompatible with Kwanzaa, but pan-Africanism tends to play out differently for Caribbeans than it does for African-Americans.
posted by thisjax at 9:04 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


But all the black people I have ever met are Christian (or culturally Christian) and celebrate Christmas, or are Muslim.

It's not a religious holiday so wouldn't necessarily conflict with either of those faith traditions.

The way this question is phrased is a little off to me. Does it "really exist," does anyone "actually celebrate it," since "all the black people [you] know" don't seem to--these all seem like a strange way of asking the question, in that they make it sound like you come from a position of assuming that it's not legitimate, that it's a "made-up holiday," unlike other (let's be honest, here) mostly "white" holidays. I am trying not to say this in a fighty or unkind way, but the way you're asking to be educated about it and about Juneteenth sounds like it's from a place of privilege.

I think a better way to ask, from my perspective, would have been, "How widespread is the celebration of Kwanzaa in the U.S.?" It would probably have produced some of the same answers you got without this sense of needing to have something proven to you.
posted by liketitanic at 9:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [10 favorites]


They're *all* made-up holidays. Some of them were just made up longer ago & we don't know how quickly they were adopted into mainstream culture. I have a friend who celebrates Kwanzaa because he finds other winter holidays distasteful and likes the values Kwanzaa celebrates.
posted by judith at 9:32 PM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


In elementary school we learned about all about Kwanzaa and even sang a Kwanzaa song, but we completely skipped non-winter holidays that millions of Americans celebrate like Passover, Juneteenth, Ramadan, the Moon Festival -- I was even taken by surprise as an adult by Ash Wednesday. I think emphasizing holidays that happen around Christmas is a good way to get Christian students thinking about diversity, regardless of the actual importance of those holidays in their respective cultures.
posted by miyabo at 10:00 PM on November 3, 2010


The one guy I ever knew who celebrated Kwanzaa would ONLY say this about it: "Black Christmas."

*shrug*
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:21 PM on November 3, 2010


It's just as real as Christmas is.

Seriously, Christmas isn't menionted in the New Testament. December 25th isn't even mentioned as the date of Jesus' birth. What it was, however, was a Roman festival to Apollo, the god of the sun. It was a pretty big deal for Romans, so as Christianity became the popular religion of the educated urban populace, they decided to co-opt the Sun God Festival.

Oh, and Christmas trees? You don't find those in the bible either because they come for druidic fertility ceremonies in the germanic areas of Europe.

I hate to say it, but I find your question a little bit offensive. You can't just draw a line between "real" and "fake" holidays. If enough people decide to celebrate something, then it's real enough for them.

At least Kwanza, as far as I can tell, is an ideologically and historically coherent holiday, unlike the mish-mash of various pagan mythologies that go into making Christmas all about the birth of Jesus.
posted by bardic at 10:56 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does it "really exist," does anyone "actually celebrate it," since "all the black people [you] know" don't seem to--these all seem like a strange way of asking the question

Sounds like a perfectly understandable way of asking if the stats given in the Wikipedia article are correct. 1-5% of 12.4% of the US population? Possibly as few as 0.1% of the entire population? You could know a thousand people, with your circle of friends structured along the same lines as the entire US population, and still only have a 1/100 to 1/20 chance of knowing somebody who celebrates Kwanzaa? That's pretty fringe.

It's just as real as Christmas is.

Yeah, right. And so is Towel Day using your criteria.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:12 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does it "really exist," does anyone "actually celebrate it," since "all the black people [you] know" don't seem to--these all seem like a strange way of asking the question''

It's more that, out of all the other aspects of black history and culture which I first learned about in elementary school, it's the only one I'd never run into in the real world -- except as white people simply telling me it's a holiday black people celebrate. I wondered if I was hearing a potentially dated and/or inaccurate white conception of an aspect of black culture. We never learned about Juneteenth, even though my school was passionate about giving the predominantly-white student population a good deal of African-American history. If anything, Juneteenth sounds even more significant. It makes me wonder why we never heard about it.

These answers are very informative, though, particularly the one about the number and proportion of Americans who have historically celebrated Christmas, compared to Kwanzaa.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:34 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


They're *all* made-up holidays.

To me, the question was not whether it's "made up," but whether it took root. For instance, Esperanto is a "made up" language, but it's definitely a language. It just never became what its creator had envisioned, and you don't find a very large number of people who regularly speak it.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:42 AM on November 4, 2010


Thanksgiving is a made up holiday celebrating gratitude, family and cranberry jelly(from a can, the way g-d intended). Veteran's Day is a made up holiday honoring the people who are willing to risk their lives serving their country, and remembering the many who have died. There are holidays with specific dates, honoring individuals - Lincoln, Martin Luther King, et al, holidays commemorating event, like Independence day, and holidays with religious significance. Mother's Day is made up, as is Father's Day. Most countries have more state holidays than the US, and I'm all in favor of catching up.
posted by theora55 at 7:15 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


so is Towel Day using your criteria.

Using the base US population of 310,000,000 (rounded), and latest information from the Census Bureau, the black population in the US is 12.9% (39,990,000). At the top end, 5% of that 12.9% is 1,999,500. At the low end, 1% is 399,900. If we decide to split the difference in estimates and look at 3%, that's 1,199,700.

Jews are only 2.2% of the US population (6,820,000). Less than half of people identifying as Jewish celebrate religious holidays (2,831,000). Some holidays are more popular among American Jews than others (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hannukkah) while others are less widely celebrated (Sukkot, Purim, Shavu'Ot, Tisha b'Av). Many of these holidays are observed by only about 10% of all American Jews (682,000).

So, black Americans who are likely to have some involvement with a Kwanzaa celebration: 1,199,700.
Jewish Americans who are likely to have some involvement with a minor Jewish holiday: 682,000.

Using your criteria, there are many religiously and culturally significant Jewish holidays you've now equated with Towel Day. And which are much less widely celebrated than Kwanzaa.

Are those holidays "fringe" - are they "real?"
posted by Miko at 7:47 AM on November 4, 2010


Many people have answered your question, so I think your understanding of whether it is a real celebration have been answered. Yes, it is a real celebration. No, not many people celebrate it—or, like Christmas, people celebrate their idea of what the holiday is supposed to be about.

I think it may be important for those who read this in the archives to know what the seven principles of Kwanzaa are. I live in a predominately African American neighborhood, and there are children who come to my community center who are named Nia or Imani; I've even encountered a child named Kuumba and one with the middle name Umoja. Their parents often will respond that it's just a name they heard.

I host an Umoja dinner every year at the end of February to celebrate unity in our community. The question comes up as to where I got my Kwanzaa education, since, like the OP, I am white, anglophone, Saxon (my people come from the Hannover area originally), and I protest a lot, which makes me a WASP, I guess, except for that Catholic baptism.

I'll credit another white guy, the late Ray Flerlage, who gave me a copy of Alkebu-Lan, Land of the Blacks, Black Unity themed album from 1971. I was teaching myself Swahili at the time, and although not all of the principles translate directly in Swahili, most of them were there. So while the "holiday" never much got started, the principles of Kwanzaa apply to us all, in my opinion. Here are the seven principles—Nguzo Saba:

Umoja (oo-MOH-jah): Unity
Success starts with Unity. Unity of family, community, nation and race.

Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-goo-LEE-ah): Self-Determination
To be responsible for ourselves. To create your own destiny.

Ujima (oo-JEE-mah): Collective work and responsibility
To build and maintain your community together. To work together to help one another within your community.

Ujamaa (oo-jah-MAH): Collective economics
To build, maintain, and support our own stores, establishments, and businesses.

Nia (NEE-ah): Purpose
To restore African American people to their traditional greatness. To be responsible to Those Who Came Before (our ancestors) and to Those Who Will Follow (our descendants).

Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): Creativity
Using creativity and imagination to make your communities better than what you inherited.

Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith
Believing in our people, our families, our educators, our leaders, and the righteousness of the African American struggle.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:57 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, here's a nationwide directory of Kwanzaa events...

I too have some direct experience of Kwanzaa celebration, despite being white. I'd heard about it growing up, but not in a major way. I became more familiar with it through student-led programs in college. When I was teaching school outside of Philadelphia, two black families from our classsroom paired up to lead an annual session about the holiday in our classroom, and we did mini-celebrations of it - this was part of a study of a range of December holidays that aimed to take in most of the more major traditions in America. Those two families also celebrated it at home. One family attended a Christian church, one was 7th-Day Adventist.

It does seem to me to be a family- and community-oriented holiday, and it has serious purpose, so I would expect to find it less among youngish single people and more in institutions like churches and community groups and homes with young children.
posted by Miko at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oops, directory.
posted by Miko at 8:04 AM on November 4, 2010


It's more that, out of all the other aspects of black history and culture which I first learned about in elementary school, it's the only one I'd never run into in the real world -- except as white people simply telling me it's a holiday black people celebrate. I wondered if I was hearing a potentially dated and/or inaccurate white conception of an aspect of black culture. We never learned about Juneteenth, even though my school was passionate about giving the predominantly-white student population a good deal of African-American history. If anything, Juneteenth sounds even more significant. It makes me wonder why we never heard about it.

Okay. I sort of think my point still stands and is worth your consideration--but thanks for taking something difficult to hear as gracefully as possible!
posted by liketitanic at 8:21 AM on November 4, 2010


If anything, Juneteenth sounds even more significant. It makes me wonder why we never heard about it.

It probably depends on your area and the number of actual black people in it. Being black, I've always known about Kwanzaa and attended ceremonies and celebrations of it, had friends of the family taking active roles it.

Juneteenth was something I was vaguely aware of in Baltimore, but it was never really highlighted. Then I moved to the South and it's a much bigger deal here, perhaps because there are most historic ties to the Civil War in Georgia as opposed to Maryland, while both areas have a large population of blacks.
posted by nomadicink at 8:30 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It probably depends on your area and the number of actual black people in it.

And on their ancestors' experience of slavery in the US.

Here in Boston, there has never been a lot of energy around Juneteenth, perhaps because the Great Migration didn't really happen here so much (thanks, racism! and of course the decline of heavy industry in the North) and, traditionally, most of the black community leaders here have been the descendants of free people of color (and now, an increasing number of the black community leaders are Haitian and Caribbean émigrés, with African émigrés also starting to play key roles in community activism and politics).
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:56 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


To ask "if it exists" is kind of vague, though. Even if no one celebrated it, it could be revived and become popular at a later date. All that matters is that some individuals find the rituals meaningful...

mdn, you're conflating "exists" with "matters".

To use your phrasing, "if no one celebrated it,"... then it wouldn't exist (as an actively celebrated holiday), right now.

If it was revived and became popular at a later date, then it would exist again.

(Of course, it's already clear it exists, and matters to celebrants.)
posted by IAmBroom at 10:32 PM on November 5, 2010


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