Christmas isn’t the only holiday celebrated the week of December 21st: On December 26th, the seven-day festival of Kwanzaa begins. Elizabeth Pleck wrote about the holiday’s founding—and its many ironies.

As a tradition that grew from black nationalism, wrote Pleck, Kwanzaa has much in common with other relatively recent, nation-centric holidays like Bastille Day and St. Patrick’s Day. “The ability of a small group of adherents to invent new myths and traditions is one sign of the strength of nationalism,” she wrote. But the origin story of Kwanzaa is more complicated.

The holiday was created in response to the racial tensions of the 1960s. Its founder, Maulana Ronald Karenga, founded a black nationalist organization after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, focusing on the adoption of Swahili and “a philosophy that elaborated black nationalism more in cultural than political terms.” By fusing black nationalism, pan-Africanism, and anti-capitalist sentiments, and by appealing directly to black Americans who felt that the political and economic odds were unequivocally stacked against them, Karenga had tapped into a zeitgeist. Kwanzaa evolved from a 50-person, Africa-themed feast in his apartment into a bona fide holiday.

But not every black American was quick to adopt Kwanzaa. Some, like black Muslims, objected to the celebration because of their faith. Others found the ritual “divisive” because it highlighted cultural and political differences within black nationalism. The Black Panthers were notably opposed to both Karenga and Kwanzaa. (Maulana Karenga was eventually imprisoned for his involvement in black nationalist groups and was later accused of child abuse, sexism, and anti-Christianity.)

Ironically, Kwanzaa eventually gained acceptance “as a supplement to Christmas rather than as an alternative to it.” As the holiday became more mainstream, it took on other cultural facets like an embrace of Southern black cuisine, the inclusion of Christian songs, and an association with upward economic mobility for its celebrants.

As Kwanzaa became more widespread, it began to affirm black identity in a middle-class context. Pleck noted that the holiday has taken on consumer elements not unlike those associated with Christmas. Today Kwanzaa bridges both racial identities and opposition to white society’s consumer norms, and it has steadily grown into a recognized national holiday.

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Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), pp. 3-28
University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Immigration & Ethnic History Society