Some 44 years since its creation, the Kwanzaa celebration continues to stir a bevy of emotions.
Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa was created as a means for African-Americans to reflect on their past, pay homage to their ancestors and connect with their African roots and heritage.
Known by some to be an alternative to Christmas, many Christians have become largely critical of the seven day celebration which begins the day after Christmas. Some consider Kwanzaa to be a non-holiday. However, proponents of Kwanzaa consider its teachings and principles to parallel the same teachings of Christianity and believe it has a place in the church.
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson has been a longstanding critic of Kwanzaa. He considers Kwanzaa to be a form of socialism and believes that any church that celebrates Kwanzaa is not of God.
“Kwanzaa is a made up holiday created by a Godless man who is anti-Christian,” said Peterson, founder and president of BOND, the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny. BOND, according to their website, is a national, nonprofit religious organization dedicated to rebuilding the families.
“I would advise the members of a church where the pastor recognizes Kwanzaa to leave,” Peterson said. “That pastor is blind and cannot see.”
Peterson references an article written in the late 70s as evidence to discredit Karenga and Kwanzaa. He said Karenga told a Washington Post reporter that Kwanzaa is not African by any means, even though many believe it is.
“He says, ‘If black people knew Kwanzaa was American they wouldn’t celebrate it.’” Peterson said, adding that Kwanzaa falls around Christmas because, according to the interview with Karenga, a lot of blacks would be out partying.
Peterson believes most black people celebrate Kwanzaa because they believe it to be pro-black. But by celebrating Kwanzaa black people are actually celebrating further segregation, he argues.
“Until black folk wake up, become individuals and stop hating whitey, they will continue to be used by others,” he said. “If you believe in God then why would you need a Godless holiday like Kwanzaa that some racist, ex-felon created.”While Peterson points out that Kwanzaa has no mention of God, Karenga states in a 1994 “Message from the founder” that Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities. Of those five, a “special reverence for the Creator and creation which recognizes and reaffirms the bond of mutuality between the divine, social and the natural” is the second activity mentioned.
And while Peterson, along with many others on internet message boards, consider Kwanzaa to be more of paganism, witchcraft and a practice of black arts, Angela Harrington Rice sees Kwanzaa as an opportunity of unification.
Rice is senior associate minister of Hillside International Truth Center in Atlanta, GA. Hillside International Truth Center is one of many churches in the country who holds a Kwanzaa celebration.
“There has always been a Kwanzaa celebration at Hillside for as long as I have been there,” she said. “I came to Hillside in 1994 and there has either been some inclusion as a separate program or even a part of the traditional Sunday service.”
Their Kwanzaa celebration would start at the church and then throughout the week someone would host the celebration at their private home. Most recently, Rice said, the members have been encouraged to have celebrations in their own homes.
“Kwanzaa gives us a sense of racial pride, which I think is needed especially for our children,” Rice said. “It gives us an opportunity to celebrate our values and see how they fit with our spiritual traditions.”
In the late 70s, Rice said she celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time. She said she is still surprised by the number of people intrigued by Kwanzaa.
And for those arguments that Kwanzaa has no place in the church because it lacks God and does not mention God, Rice said Kwanzaa allows us to come together whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian. She said many times religion separates us when the holidays are supposed to be unification, a commemoration of who we are.
“We do not see God as anything separate from who we are. God lives within us. God lives in each and every one of us,” she said. “Kwanzaa teaches us to live and be better.
Kwanzaa teaches us self-determination, cooperative economics and carrying on building something that is meant to better our people. When we celebrate Kwanzaa I think we are experiencing God.”
Black people, she said, are everywhere and worship in many different traditions.