Celebrating Kwanzaa

It’s two days before Christmas, and many friends and family members are pulling their hair out with last-minute shopping as they brave the malls to scavenge bargain remains. Sound familiar? Many Americans put themselves in debt with holiday shopping, and 45% of Americans would prefer to skip Christmas altogether because the holiday “brings so much financial pressure.” According to a recent survey from Mental Health America, financial concerns top the list of holiday stressors.


All of this spending should make lots of people happy, right?  Instead, according to the National Institute of Health, “Christmas is the time of year that people experience the highest incidence of depression.”  Further, rates of suicide and attempted suicide rise.

If Christmas is so stressful and depressing for so many, and only 77% of Americans identify as Christians, it is surprising that virtually everyone in the U.S. (95%) celebrates this holiday. Perhaps we hold onto fond childhood memories of toys and candy and a jolly old man who magically delivers gifts to every house on the planet in one night.

I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m not a Christian and I’m a not a consumerist. As a theological noncognitivist and a minimalist, it makes zero sense for me to celebrate this holiday. However, I can see the emotional benefits of family gatherings in the middle of winter to buoy spirits during the long, dreary months. Enter Kwanzaa.

If you’re looking for a great holiday celebration to supplement or replace existing traditions, Kwanzaa is the ideal commemoration of family bonds, community, and meaningful values. Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa is a non-religious, Pan-African and African-American holiday that means “first fruits” in Swahili. It was first celebrated during the turbulent 1960s to develop cultural awareness and unity in the African-American community, but, as this post on the Top Ten Misconceptions About Kwanzaa notes, it is “an African-American cultural celebration that is inclusive of anyone who shares its values.”

“Kwanzaa has always been about the celebration of values that transcend through racial boundaries. The seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective  work/responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith; find purchase in the mind and hearts of everyone. These principles reinforce the  concept of community – in a community – not just African-American ones.”

There is wide variation in family practice of Kwanzaa, but one central aspect is gathering with family each evening from December 26th through January 1st to discuss one of the seven principles or Nguzo Saba:

Nguzo Saba

We would live in a much healthier, kinder world if everyone embraced these values. My personal favorites are collective responsibility (“to make our brothers and sisters problems our problems”) and cooperative economics (mindfulness about who benefits from how we spend our money.)

Many families also display a candle holder (Kinara) surrounded by fruit and other symbols of harvest, history, unity, love, and commitment.  One candle is lit each evening to correspond with one of the seven principles.


In the past decade, scientific thought has converged in concluding that humans are a relatively new species with African origins. Or as I suggested (tongue in cheek) to the group of women living in the New Orleans Women’s Shelter who introduced me to Kwanzaa, “while not all Americans have experienced what it means to be black, all Americans are African-Americans.”

In all seriousness, as a so-called “white” person, it’s important to be cognizant of the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation when it comes to celebrating Kwanzaa. White privilege too often leads “whites” to assume that everything is for us, a “privilege” that comes at the cost of our humanityMarjorie Bowens-Wheatley acknowledges the extreme complexity of celebrating Kwanzaa in a public space:

 “A radical position would be that Kwanzaa should be celebrated only by African Americans. A more liberal position would say that Kwanzaa cannot be celebrated authentically without African Americans leading the ritual, and that Whites who wish to participate as an act of solidarity can honor African Americans by  substituting the word ‘yourselves’ for ‘ourselves.’ In either case, it needs to be stated clearly that Kwanzaa’s historical context is the suffering of  African American people, and that the ritual is designed to affirm  their commitment to self-renewal, self-reliance, self-determination, and self-redemption.”

One culturally appreciative way to celebrate Kwanzaa is with family members in the privacy of one’s home in a serious and respectful way that acknowledges the origins of the holiday without asserting “ownership” of the tradition. I can’t think of a better way to bring in the new year than to learn more about the history of the people who built the Capitol Building, the White House, the U.S. economy, and the world economy, while discussing edifying values with loved ones.

As we become a less religious nation, it is my hope that more Americans move away from consumerist Christmas to celebrate more meaningful holiday traditions, like Kwanzaa.