WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 26: The seven-day African-American festival founded in 1966 may not be a growing trend in Americans’ homes—but, even before Kwanzaa reaches its 50th anniversary, the holiday established by Maulanga Karenga certainly is a fixture in American life.
There is no exact data on how many households observe Kwanzaa—but a number of experts conclude that Kwanzaa’s night-by-night observance has leveled off and may even be shrinking in individual homes. One study looked at annual sales of Kwanzaa-related supplies. Another often-quoted source is Keith Mayes, author of a book about Kwanzaa’s history who says that 500,000 to 2 million African-Americans are likely to celebrate each year. However, Mayes points out: Now, white Americans mark Kwanzaa.
There is much more to this story …
WHITE HOUSE DECLARATIONS
Of course, the current residents of the White House are African-American. The Obamas’ annual, official Kwanzaa greetings usually list all seven principles of Kwanzaa, as in this White House message for the festival: “The seven principles of Kwanzaa—Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith—express the values that have inspired us as individuals and families; communities and country. These same principles have sustained us as a nation during our darkest hours and provided hope for better days to come.”
However, the Obamas certainly did not start this annual, official recognition! White presidents, including George W. Bush, have issued annual Kwanzaa greetings as well. In one message, Bush said: In honoring the traditions of Africa, Kwanzaa strengthens the ties that bind individuals in communities across our country and around the world.
KWANZAA AND 50TH ANNIVERSARY
OF U.S. HOLIDAY STAMPS
Clearly, Kwanzaa has become a standard part of America’s civic calendar of cross-cultural observances. There’s no stronger evidence of that than the U.S. Postal Service’s celebration this year of 50 Years of Holiday Stamps—which includes proud recognition of its Kwanzaa series.
Way back in 1962, our nation’s postal service issued the first holiday stamp on November 1, 1962. The modestly designed, 4-cent, red-and-green stamp showed a wreath and two lit candles above the word “Christmas.”
If you are a stamp collector—before you email us to debate this anniversary—it is true that postal officials had recognized the popularity of earlier stamps with a Christmas-like theme. Earlier stamps showing woods and fir trees had been popular around Christmas. The Postmaster General in 1962, J. Edward Day, knew what he was doing as he released that first festive 4-center. Then, that first Christmas stamp sold more than a billion copies—far more than Day had even hoped.
Flash forward and our central post office added Hanukkah in 1996—in an unusual joint arrangement with Israel so that the stamp’s candle-lit design appeared on postage in both countries. Then—and this is a sign of Kwanzaa’s mainstream acceptance—the postal service actually started issuing Kwanzaa stamps (in 1997) before it began issuing Eid stamps to celebrate two different Muslim holidays. The word Eid means festival or celebration so is appropriate on more than one Islamic occasion. The Eid stamp debuted on September 1, 2001, and given what happened 10 days later, that stamp displaying beautiful Arabic caligraphy drew both the highest number of complaints ever received about a stamp—and the most notes of thanks for a stamp.
Clearly, marking holidays in this way has a deep and personal connection for Americans.
KWANZAA AND AMERICAN RETAIL CREATIVITY
In addition to the four U.S. Postal Service Kwanzaa stamps—shown with our story today—many creative celebrants of Kwanzaa traditions have created their own specialized postage stamps. Now, the postal service allows Americans to use approved stamp-making services to create their own personalized stamps. You can even make stamps showing your children or family pets. And for Kwanzaa? We see lots of creativity surfacing. For example, the Zazzle customized retail website now has a whole host of user-generated Kwanzaa stamps offered year ‘round.
Truly, Kwanzaa has gone mainstream. The giant Hallmark website boasts an entire contemporary Kwanzaa section. Walk into a Target store’s holiday section and you might not locate many Kwanzaa choices—but the Target online store offers several family-oriented books about the festival. Among online retailers, Amazon is the mother lode of Kwanzaa options: Listing thousands of Kwanzaa items—and, within that larger list, more than 100 items related to the Kwanzaa kinara (the colorful candle holder that is lit night by night). Amazon sells everything from versions of the actual kinara to candle sets, decorative table mats, kinara banners, books about the candle-lighting ritual—even kinara-themed Christmas stockings to mix holidays in your home!
In fact, news stories from across the U.S. over the past couple of years indicate that the most elaborate Kwanzaa observances may be in community centers, churches, museums and other public places. We are still six years away from the golden anniversary of Karenga’s dream—and Kwanzaa seems to be solidly enshrined as a part of American cultural life.
HANDS-ON KWANZAA: RECIPES, IDEAS & MORE
Whether your family has celebrated Kwanzaa every year or is new to the scene, everyone can get in on the fun with recipes, craft ideas and coloring printables from Disney’s Kaboose, Scholastic and FamilyEducation. Check out easy Kwanzaa recipes (with bright photographs), or try a hand at corncob painting, crafting a Kwanzaa chain or creating a Unity Cup with help from these sites. Scholastic also offers plenty of reading materials on the culture behind Kwanzaa, and its history—past and present.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.