Source: Dr. Mulana Karenga/OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org
Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people’s religion or faith but a common ground of African culture.
One of the most important and meaningful ways to see and approach Kwanzaa is as a self-conscious cultural choice. Some celebrants see Kwanzaa as an alternative to the sentiments and practices of other holidays which stress the commercial or faddish or lack an African character or aspect. But they realize this is not Kwanzaa’s true function or meaning. For Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one.
Likewise, Kwanzaa is a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one. This point is important because when the question arises as to the relation between choosing Kwanzaa or/and Christmas, this distinction is not always made. This failure to make this distinction causes confusion, for it appears to suggest one must give up one’s religion to practice one’s culture. Whereas this might be true in other cases, it is not so in this case. For here, one can and should make a distinction between one’s specific religion and one’s general culture in which that religion is practiced. On one hand, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, but it is also a cultural holiday for Europeans. Thus, one can accept and revere the religious message and meaning but reject its European cultural accretions of Santa Claus, reindeer, mistletoe, frantic shopping, alienated gift-giving, etc.
This point can be made by citing two of the most frequent reasons Christian celebrants of Kwanzaa give for turning to Kwanzaa. The first reason is that it provides them with cultural grounding and reaffirmation as African Americans. The other reason is that it gives them a spiritual alternative to the commercialization of Christmas and the resultant move away from its original spiritual values and message.
Here it is of value to note that there is a real and important difference between spirituality as a general appreciation for and commitment to the transcendent, and religion which suggests formal structures and doctrines. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality as with all major African celebrations. This inherent spiritual quality is respect for the Transcendent, the Sacred, the Good, the Right. Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Bahai and Hindus as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc. For what Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish. it is this common ground of culture on which they all meet, find ancient and enduring meaning and by which they are thus reaffirmed and reinforced.
Dr. Maulana Karenga is the Creator of Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Chair of The Organization Us and The National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO). His organization maintains OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org and the material on the site is summarized from Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (sankorepress.com)