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Rational Inquiry -Volume 7 Number 1

Celebrating God Versus Celebrating Good, Or, Why I Put Kwanzaa Stamps on my Christmas Cards.

By Karen Graves

I wish I had read for myself the book The Great Disruption by Francis Fukuyama (Simon & Schuster, 1999) quoted by David Brooks in his own book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Touchstone Books, 2000), because the one passage I have from Fukuyama regarding modern American religious revival is certainly intriguing, and worthy of repeating at length: "Instead of community arising as a byproduct of rigid belief, people will return to religious belief because of their desire for community. In other words, people will return to religious tradition not necessarily because they accept the truth of revelation, but precisely because the absence of community and the transience of social ties in the secular world makes them hungry for ritual and cultural tradition. ...They will repeat the ancient prayers and reenact age-old rituals not because they believe they were handed down by God, but rather because they want their children to have proper values, and they want to enjoy the comfort of ritual and the sense of shared experience it brings. ... Religion has become a source of ritual in a society that has been stripped bare of ceremony, and thus a reasonable extension of the natural desire for social relatedness with which al human beings are born."

As word after word of this passage entered my mind, my fears about the increasingly heralded "rise of the moral majority" vanished from it, statistic by 90%-of-all-Americans-believe-in-God statistic. I feel reassured by this assertion that churches are filled with people who are much more "members of the club" than ardent devotees of Biblical law and logic. And then I am frustrated all over again—why can't everyone see as clearly as I do that the true comfort of a church community is the celebration of human ritual and relationships rather than the divine one? (But this is not an article about the nature and purpose of religious worship, and so I leave this point unpondered.)

December, 2000. I stumble across some "Argument for Kwanzaa" in one of those humanist or skeptical rags littering the coffee table at Richard's house. I am enthused enough to mention it to a non-religious friend across the dinner table at a noisy Christmas Eve party, but not well-versed enough in Kwanzaa's history or precepts to argue coherently on its behalf. We vow to celebrate it in 2001. December 2001. Across the dinner table at a noisy Christmas Eve party, non-religious friend and I vow to celebrate Kwanzaa together in 2002. I go on the web (where else?) to see what I can find.

Kwanzaa has its own official web site, located (appropriately) at Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, the holiday draws on ancient African traditions that celebrate the "first fruits" of a harvest (taken from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza of the same meaning). The official web site explanation reads, "Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community, and culture." For six nights and seven days, Kwanzaa celebrants adhere to "definite guidelines and core values," ensuring a universal (dare I say catholic?) ceremony "engaging [everyone in] an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people's culture." Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is devoted to one of the specific principles—the Nguzo Saba—defined by Dr. Karenga on the web site.

First and foremost, Kwanzaa was founded as a "cultural holiday, not a religious one." Missing from the Nguzo Saba are references to Our Lord, God, Creator, or Jesus Christ. Also missing is any tacit approval of the writhing orgy of gift-giving and receiving that so many people in this country find mentally and financially exhausting. Significantly, the seventh principle of Kwanzaa, Imani, represents a faith in people, not the divine. Kwanzaa celebrants exchange only the gift of their love and friendship, and by sharing in an experience of a community that stretches back generations. (Children, traditionally, are given a book and an article that represents their African American and African heritage—the first to remind them of the value of education, and the second the legacy of their culture.) There are no distractions to pull the mind and heart off of the primary purpose for gathering as a community (what few gifts are exchanged are not opened until the very last day of Kwanzaa), and during the evening ceremonies, ritual chants and greetings constantly reaffirm the core values lest the splendors of the feast and the busy details of a decorated the home distract a person from Kwanzaa’s purpose.

Kwanzaa Stamp In 1997 the US Postal Service released a stamp to commemorate Kwanzaa and has continued its issuance every year since. The transcript of Dr. Karenga's "acceptance" speech is on the web site, and is as moving and inspirational document as any I have read in the past year or so. Not only is it an excellent elaboration of the values and traditions of Kwanzaa found on the web site (just to read lists, definitions, and instructions is a terribly sterile means of learning about culture), but it adds more than three decades of historical and cultural perspective to the original precepts of the holiday. Dr. Karenga now implores all citizens of the United States to "respect, celebrate, and build on the rich resources of its diversity of peoples and cultures, to see [themselves] as an ongoing multicultural project to create a truly just and good society [emphasis added]; and to embrace an ethics of sharing—shared space, shared wealth, shared power, and shared responsibility of all peoples—African, Native American, Latino, Asian, and European—to conceive and build the world they want to live in." (References to a divine Creator are now sprinkled liberally through his comments and speeches, but from the start, Kwanzaa was never intended to be anti-religious. It was just never pro-religious, either.)

This "World of Kwanzaa" is definitely a world I want to live in. To wax melodramatic, contemplating the ceremonies and rituals and the community that believes in the seven Nguzo Saba brings tears to my eyes with its meaningful beauty (I can wax melodramatic with the best of them, but I am sincere about how this speech affected me). But then I am back to being frustrated by the Americans who look to churches (even when God is not forefront on their conscience or in their behavior) for ritual and community when there are such fulfilling holidays as Kwanzaa that can meet their needs for tradition and ancestral connection without requiring unreflective and unrelenting cooperation with faith-based doctrines.

I am readier than ever to celebrate Kwanzaa with my non-religious friend, two days after the upcoming noisy Christmas Eve party, but sadly, there's a catch, dictated by the founder himself: you should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with any other culture, lest you "violate the integrity of the holiday." Kwanzaa is not to be co-opted and diluted by careless and sloppy observance, in the same sneaky way early Christians adopted and transformed long-established "pagan" ceremonies and their meanings to suit their own purposes (I think Pagans are still mad about that, by the way). The celebration of Kwanzaa, then, serves as both a duty and reward for African Americans and Africans who cherish the institutions of family, community, and culture and revive them daily in their personal lives. The rest of us, the Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and European, can honor the example Kwanzaa has set for all Americans by keeping it pristine—and search within our own communities for ways to celebrate our achievements, friends, and families as joyfully. As Dr. Karenga said in his speech, Kwanzaa is about "accept[ing] the values of harmonious ingathering of the people, reflective commemoration of the past, [and] profound recommitment to the highest cultural ideas."

Religion is an acceptable forum for the celebration of the supernatural and divinely attributed, and in a church is the proper place to acknowledge it. But surely we can find better ways to celebrate the triumphs and accomplishments of human (God, after all, didn’t discover DNA—Watson and Crick did) efforts than in temples on holy days. I wish more people would look around a little harder, like Maulana Karenga did.


I found this recipe here and invite you to try it, although one meal does not a Kwanzaa feast make. This recipe is fittingly multi-cultural—tomatoes and avocados originated in the Americas and found their way into African soup pots during the past 500 years. For the more ardent Southern Californians, it's even vegetarian.

African Tomato-Avocado-Buttermilk Soup (served cold)

3 lbs tomatoes, peeled and seeded
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 c buttermilk
1 tbsp olive oil 1 avocado, mashed to puree
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp finely minced fresh parsley
Salt & pepper to taste
Hot pepper sauce

Garnish: 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced; sour cream; plain yogurt

Puree tomatoes in a food processor or food mill, then press through a sieve to remove seeds. In a large mixing bowl, beat the pureed tomatoes, tomato paste, buttermilk, and oil. Toss pureed avocado with 1 lemon juice to hold the color. Add the avocado, remaining lemon juice, and parsley to the tomato mixture, stir to mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and a generous number of drops of hot pepper sauce. Refrigerate several hours before serving.

At serving time, taste soup for seasonings. Ladle into individual bowls. Guests can garnish their servings with cucumber, sour cream, or yogurt. Pass hot pepper sauce around for added piquancy.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

The Nguzo Saba

UmojaUmoja / Unity: To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

KujichaguliaKujichagulia / Self-Determination: To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

UjimaUjima / Collective Work & Responsibility: To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems, and to solve them together.

UjamaaUjamaa / Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses, and to profit from them together.

NiaNia / Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

KuumbaKuumba / Creativity: To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial that we inherited it.

ImaniImani / Faith: To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

A Farewell Statement to
Speak at Kwanzaa

An excerpt from a farewell statement by Dr. Maulana Karenga.

Strive for discipline, dedication, and achievement in all you do.

Dare struggle and sacrifice and gain the strength that comes from this.

Build where you are and dare leave a legacy that will last as long

as the sun shines
and the water flows...

May the year’s end meet us laughing and strong.

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