Celebrants drop Christmas for Kwanzaa

African-American holiday gains popularity as time to reflect on heritage

December 26, 2003|By Gregory Lewis | Gregory Lewis,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Mecca Marcelin stopped celebrating Christmas in 1994. Instead, he and his family spend the seven days after Christmas honoring their Haitian and African roots in daily Kwanzaa ceremonies and rituals he says renew his soul.

"The spiritual growth wasn't there for Christmas," Marcelin said. "I was searching, seeking information. Someone gave me literature about Kwanzaa. It was along the lines of being closer to the roots, giving back to the culture, teaching children, and the principles are vital. They can be practiced every day."

Marcelin's family is part of the growing trend of black people who have given up Christmas and instead celebrate Kwanzaa, which begins today. They will be among the more than 20 million people worldwide who recognize at least one day of the seven-day Kwanzaa holiday.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a black studies professor at Long Beach State University in California and head of the Organization Us.

Karenga believed black Americans needed a connection to their African roots - and Pan-Africanists and Afrocentrists took to it avidly. Since then, the celebration has expanded beyond African-Americans to include black people worldwide.

Today, Umoja (Unity) is observed, the first of the seven principles. The others are: Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kuumba (creativity); and Imani (faith). The seven principles, collectively referred to as Nguzo Saba, constitute a value system designed to rescue and reconstruct black people.

The Marcelins, unlike many, go all out, honoring each day and holding a feast, featuring Haitian dishes and vegetables but no meat, on one of the days.

"It's a time for spiritual enrichment," said Marcelin, 34, a United Parcel Service driver who lives in Miami Lakes. "New people come to my home every year, and it's a chance to share information about Kwanzaa."

His 7-year-old daughter Maiya Isis has known no other holiday celebration in her home. He and his wife, Rosa, 30, don't prevent her from participating in Christmas rituals at school. But the Marcelins don't buy presents, pretend there's a Santa Claus or put up a Christmas tree.

This year's Kwanzaa holds a special place in family lore: Maiya's 10-month-old brother Amir Cebdonne will experience his first Kwanzaa. It's fitting because of the focus the Marcelins put on family in their ritual.

The day of the feast, which Mecca Marcelin likes to hold Jan. 1 but will shift to accommodate relatives, takes on ceremonial aspects, with all the rituals and symbols used in an authentic Kwanzaa celebration.

But the holiday, which some observe as an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas, has been criticized. It restricts nonblacks from participating. Some complain that it is becoming commercial and that the holiday is a made-up one.

The Web site (www.official- kwanzaawebsite.org) on which Karenga posts his annual message instructs that those observing the holiday "should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture."

The Web site goes on to explain that inviting other cultures to participate "would violate the principles of Kujichagulia [self-determination] and thus violate the integrity of the holiday."

This month at the University of Washington, Karenga called for people of African descent to come together.

"It is a time to reinforce ties, a time to put away differences," he said. "It is a time to remember how good it feels to be a member of a circle of concern."

"The holiday is about family connectedness, everyday principles and the up-building of the community," said E. Carol Webster, a Fort Lauderdale psychologist. "Not who's got the most kinte cloth. We should not get so caught up in the decorating, the food and the process that we forget about the basic purpose."

Chimbuko Tembo, vice chair of Organization Us, the founding group of Kwanzaa, said the association separates vendors "with items that have nothing to do with the holiday" from those who market "instructive instruments like symbols and books."

"We realize that in the world we live in, there will be attempts to commercialize Kwanzaa. But the people have upheld the practices and value the principles," Tembo said.

Webster said Kwanzaa has become an important celebration for black men and women, especially those who don't take time during the year to focus on their roots or history through such things as African study groups.

"The identification with the basic tenets of Africa is ritualized through Kwanzaa," she said. "Where else is it ritualized than during the seven days of Kwanzaa?"

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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