The Slate Gist


“I’m still having trouble with Hanukkah,” a Texaco executive says on that controversial tape recording. “Now we have Kwanzaa.” Although his expression of concern may have been extreme, that executive is not the only American confused about Kwanzaa. Each year we hear more and more about this holiday. What is it, and where did it come from?

Kwanzaa is a holiday honoring African-American heritage and culture. Celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, the holiday was created after the 1965 Watts riot by Maulana Ron Karenga, a graduate student and black nationalist, who observed that black Americans had no holiday of their own. In the 1960s, Karenga feuded openly with other black leaders, and some of his followers were convicted in a plot to assassinate members of the Black Panthers. In the 1970s, Karenga himself was imprisoned for ordering and directing the torture of a young woman. Now 54 years old, he is chair of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach. Last year, apparently rehabilitated in the eyes of many African-American leaders, Karenga served on the national executive committee for the Million Man March.

Karenga’s early attempts to popularize the holiday were directed at a relatively small group of activists. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, Kwanzaa began to attract coverage in the mainstream press. The attention grew as Karenga modified his rhetoric to appeal to a broader audience, and as interest in multiculturalism burgeoned in the late 1980s. Kwanzaa was taken up by many in the expanding black middle class, whose buying power has supported such marketing ventures as the “Kwanzaa Expos,” convention-center gatherings at which Afrocentric goods and art are sold.

Karenga took the holiday’s name from the Swahili phrase matunda yakwanza, meaning “first fruit.” Swahili words were chosen because the language, a hybrid of Arabic and Bantu tongues, is tied to no particular African tribe. Although there are no directly analogous African holidays, Karenga drew his inspiration from various African harvest festivals. From these he extracted seven principles–unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each of the holiday’s seven days is meant to symbolize one of these principles.

The central Kwanzaa ritual is candle lighting. First, the mkeka (straw mat) is placed on the table, along with the kinara (candleholder) and the mishumaa saba (seven candles). The three candles on the right in the kinara are red, symbolizing the blood of the African people; the three on the left are green, symbolizing the hope of new life; and the black candle in the center represents the African people. Around the candles are placed the mazeo (fruits), the vibunzi (an ear of corn for each child in the family), the zawadi (gifts, preferably handmade), and the kikombe cha umoja (cup) for shared juice or water.

On each day of the celebration, a child lights the appropriate candle, and the principle for that day is discussed. The highlight is the karamu, or feast, on Kuumba, Dec. 31. It celebrates creativity, and is “an opportunity for a confetti storm of cultural expression: dance and music, readings, remembrances,” according to Eric Copage, author of Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking. The food can be highly symbolic. Angela Shelf Medearis, author of a Kwanzaa cookbook, recommends the following karamu menu: Jambalaya Salad, Moroccan Honey Chicken, New-Style Collard Greens, and Fruits of Africa Pie.

How widely celebrated is Kwanzaa? In Karenga’s own words, “It’s widespread but not mainstream.” Some enthusiasts, such as writer Linn Washington Jr., claim that Kwanzaa has as many as 13 million celebrants, and the Detroit News reports that researchers estimate the Kwanzaa-related market at $500 million annually. Despite Karenga’s original intention, Kwanzaa takes on a more commercial flavor every year. Hallmark makes Kwanzaa cards, and there are Kwanzaa posters, books, CDs, and mass-produced kinaras. But Kwanzaa was not intended to replace Christmas, and many African-American families celebrate both holidays.

And Hanukkah? It too, if not invented in the United States, has taken on a different shape and gained importance here. Although Hanukkah has been on the Jewish calendar for more than two millennia, it was, until recently, a relatively minor holiday. The pressures of Christmas, however, have elevated Hanukkah for many Jewish families to eight days of celebration and gift-giving. (A new book maintains that even Christmas is a trumped-up holiday. See “Summary Judgment.”)

Hanukkah commemorates the victory in 165 B.C. of a small band of Jews, led by Judas Maccabaeus, over the Greeks who ruled Palestine at the time. The Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks, and rededicated it as their place of worship. But they had only one day’s supply of oil to light the flame, which was supposed to burn constantly. Miraculously, the flame burned for eight days and nights, until the oil supply was replenished. Following the rebellion, the kingdom of Israel was restored for 200 years.

Some Kwanzaa rituals, most notably the focus on candles, seem to have been borrowed from Hanukkah. The center of the eight-day Hanukkah celebration is the nightly family gathering to light candles in a candelabra known as the “menorah.” Oily foods, particularly latkes (potato pancakes), are served during dinner to symbolize the Temple miracle. By tradition, family members play with the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, and children receive Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins covered with gold foil) and other presents.

Unlike Kwanzaa, Hanukkah enjoys no agreed-upon spelling in English. The most common variant is “Chanukah,” reflecting the proper pronunciation of the opening consonant, which is like the “ch” in “Bach.” The spelling employed in this article is from The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, Slate’s guide in such matters.


If you’d like to know more about Kwanzaa, you can read The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating our Cultural Harvest, by Dorothy Winbush Riley; A Kwanzaa Keepsake: Celebrating the Holiday With New Traditions and Feasts, by Jessica B. Harris; or Merry Christmas, Baby: A Christmas and Kwanzaa Treasury, edited by Felix H. Liddell and Paula L. Woods. Karenga, Kwanzaa’s creator, has also written two books on the celebration, Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice and The African American Celebration of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture. And Anna Day Wilde describes how the holiday gained popularity in “Mainstreaming Kwanzaa,” in Public Interest, No. 119, Spring 1995.