If you hear the word “Kwanzaa” uttered this year, it will probably be in the punchline of a derivative late night television joke. We get it. Nobody really knows what a Kwanzaa celebration entails, what the holiday is supposed to mean, or can even identify a single person who celebrates it. Yet in the 80’s and 90’s, Kwanzaa was achieving mainstream recognition, receiving almost equal billing at times beside Christmas and Hanukkah. But those days are clearly long gone and even NPR is wondering “Is Kwanzaa still a thing?”
It has been estimated that only between 1 and five percent of African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa today—somewhere between a half million and a million people. Which leads one to ask: why the precipitous drop in popularity?
It’s a totally made up holiday with little to no tradition behind it
Kwanzaa flat out did not exist in any form before 1965. This was the year that Maulana Karenga, a professor of African American Studies and a somewhat controversial figure of the black power movement, created the new holiday as a African American alternative to Christmas. Karenga’s vision was for Kwanzaa to serve as a vehicle to allow African Americans a yearly opportunity to reflect on their history, lost culture, and united heritage with an emphasis on striving towards economic, social and political progress for the black community.
Unlike most holidays, Kwanzaa doesn’t celebrate a specific event or person. It exists floating on its own in space, arbitrarily placed in December just after what is arguably the biggest holiday celebration of the year. Most of Kwanzaa’s symbols and relics are adapted or adopted from other holidays and religious/spiritual traditions. The kinara (Swahili for candlestick), a centerpiece for the Kwanzaa celebration, suspiciously resembles the Hanukkah menorah (one new candle is supposed to be lit each day) and the present-giving aspect of Kwanzaa, which emphasizes educational gifts, is basically just a worse version of Christmas gift-giving. There is nothing particularly interesting about Kwanzaa to set it apart from the other winter solstice celebrations and there is no historical or religious component to reinforce its continued celebration.
It’s not particularly relatable
One of the stranger aspects of Kwanzaa is that it emphasizes the use of Swahili in an attempt to connect more strongly to the concept of Pan-Africanism. Seems like an odd choice considering Swahili is a Southeastern African language and most African Americans have a predominantly West African heritage. It’s a bit like creating a “European” holiday for German-Americans and using Spanish as the primary language of the rituals.
The Pan-Africanism movement in the United States, which gained popularity alongside the civil rights movements of the 60s, actively promoted the idea that all people of African ancestry worldwide should unite in solidarity to lift up black communities and accomplish communal goals. This is a grand idea but in general it’s very hard to relate to a culture that is largely foreign to you. African Americans understandably identify more with American culture (to which they have greatly contributed) than to a diverse group of foreign cultures whom they are tied to, in some cases only genetically.
It takes itself too seriously
At the end of the day, most holidays are supposed to be enjoyable. On Thanksgiving we try to look past the bloody history of our interactions with Native Americans in order to give thanks for the fact that we can now eat turkey and watch football in relative comfort. Easter has become more about a weird juxtaposition of eggs, rabbits, and chocolate than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On July 4th, we allow the spectacle of fireworks and barbecues to overshadow what is supposed to be a celebration of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. Then there is Halloween, which is basically just an excuse to dress our children up and feed them copious amounts of candy. And of course on Christmas we murder millions of trees, hang tacky ornaments from their decomposing limbs, and perpetuate a strange lie about a rotund senior citizen who plans to break into our house in the dead of the night.
These traditions have evolved into great family fun, but honestly, there is absolutely nothing fun about Kwanzaa as far as I can tell. Here are the seven tenets of Kwanzaa, which are supposed to exemplify and reinforce the substantive meaning of the celebration:
- Umoja (Unity)
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
- Nia (Purpose)
- Kuumba (Creativity)
- Imani (Faith)
These deep but ultimately abstract concepts, while perhaps worthy of serious discussion and self-reflection, are going to go waaaayy over the head of a majority of kids. Good luck competing against the simplicity of: “If you’re good, a magical fat man will bring you a bag of presents.”
It has terrible timing
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Kwanzaa establishing cultural relevance is its poor placement on the calendar. Kwanzaa begins on December 26th, the day after Christmas, and continues until New Year’s Day. This pigeonholing between Christmas and New Year’s only makes sense in the context of Kwanzaa’s original role as an ideological alternative to Christmas. However, as early as the late 60’s, it became apparent that Black Christians would not be abandoning Santa Claus or Tree decorations anytime soon, leading Dr. Karenga to revise his previous stance and proclaim that Kwanzaa was not meant to outright replace any existing religious holiday and could be celebrated in tandem with Christmas. But during a time of year with a never-ending onslaught of holiday celebrations, with many Americans experiencing what has been described as “holiday fatigue,” jamming another holiday celebration in such a tight window feels excessive, certainly contributing to Kwanzaa’s waning popularity.
So for Kwanzaa’s sake, let’s move it—maybe to February, as a natural compliment to Black History Month, where it can finally be giving its proper due. And since we’re making improvements, let’s lose the pointless Swahili, the bootleg menorah, and redundant present giving too, while we’re at it. A celebration of Black culture, history and heritage shouldn’t have to resort to blatant imitation or rely on its proximity to more popular holidays to find support within the African American community.
Featured Image via Futurama Wiki