Kwanzaa: Cultural or Religious?

Despite the different religons among African-Americans, many have Kwanzaa celebrations in common.

During Kwanzaa this year, the youngest son in a Muslim household will light the candles in the kinara and recite the daily guiding principles; the children of a Baptist congregation will give homage to their ancestors through songs, poems, and praise; and a Brooklyn family practicing the ancient African religion of Ife will host its annual Karamu, the community gathering that culminates the Kwanzaa holiday.

These people, with divergent religious backgrounds, share a common goal--to connect with the rich cultural roots of their African heritage through this uniquely American celebration.

Since its 1966 inception, millions of African-Americans have embraced Kwanzaa. Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a self-described cultural nationalist, Kwanzaa originated as a cultural idea. For many celebrants, however, the rituals associated with Kwanzaa have taken on deeper significance. The cultural celebration has evolved into a spiritual connection.

The nature of the holiday's spiritual significance depends on the religious tradition of the Kwanzaa participant. "It's a part of Africa, a celebration of creation and Christ," says the Rev. Dino Woodard, assistant pastor at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Meanwhile, Muslims say they feel a sacred bond to Allah when they engage in the elaborate Kwanzaa rituals. "I believe Kwanzaa represents the essence of Islamic belief," says Shareef El-Amin, a youth program director for the city of Philadelphia who is Muslim. "It's the concept of unity and the faith in one God."

Ancestor veneration, a critical Kwanzaa component, is not widely practiced in the major monotheistic religions. Yet African-Americans of all faiths acknowledge this aspect of the Kwanzaa celebration.

"I am a Muslim," says El-Amin. "And I pour libations to the ancestors to pay homage to them. I call on their spirits to lead and guide me--but I only worship one God."

Says Woodard: "Ancestral reverence predates Christianity. It's important to understand the past and respect those beliefs. "

Those who practice Ife, the traditional African religion for which ancestor worship is an important part, generally don't recognize Kwanzaa as a spiritual holiday. But ancestor reverence is part of everyday life and not something commemorated by a specific holiday, according to Dr. Gail Bell-Baptiste, a principal at Intermediate School 308 in Brooklyn. Baptiste is also a Yoruba Priestess of the Orisha (God) Aganju.

"Kwanzaa to us is cultural, not spiritual," she says. "Ancestor reverence is a key part of everything we do as a matter of course. It's not just attributed to Kwanzaa."

The concept of children as the sacred fruits of Kwanzaa's harvest is an undisputed theme. At Baptiste's school, for instance, classes alternate presenting the Kwanzaa program each year. "The children learn that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors," she says. At Abyssinian, the youth ministry is responsible for the church's Kwanzaa festivities because, says Woodard, the children are future leaders.

"It's important," he says, "that they understand and live the principles."

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