A few weeks ago Black columnist Jonathan Capehart published a piece in the Washington Post declaring his agreement with far right Wisconsin State Senator (now US Congressman) Glenn Grothman that Kwanzaa is a “made up” holiday. Well, newsflash Capehart and Grothman…ALL holidays are made up! Someone (or some group of people) decide they want to commemorate something, they do some research to justify why their commemoration is worthy, and they lobby folks (sometimes governments) to get their commemoration on the calendar. Even the most sacred holidays are a result of someone deciding to place them on the calendar at a particular time. Most evidence suggests that the Christmas holiday which was started in the 4th century was probably placed in December to counteract the pagan celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Thanksgiving was instituted by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 not because Lincoln was a Pilgrim but because the nation was in the midst of a bloody Civil War. The holiday was “made up” to bring healing and unity. All Saints’ Day, celebrated in the Catholic church exists as a response to Halloween where once again pagans seemed to be celebrating evil or sinister spirits. Mothers’ Day was first celebrated in 1908, just 7 years before my own mother was born. Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation in 1914 making it a national holiday. But it was Anna Jarvis who “made it up!”
One of my favorite episodes of the sit-com “Seinfeld” was the one where Jerry’s friend George Costanza explained his family’s celebration of “Festivus”–a holiday George’s dad made up to avoid having to spend money on Christmas. Instead of a tree, Festivus merely required an aluminum pole and was celebrated by the ritual of “airing of grievances” where people told each other about the things that disappointed them in the past year. The episode was really funny and made me think about the socially constructed nature of all holidays and celebrations. They have meaning because we GIVE them meaning.
Think about all of the holidays Americans celebrate–Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Fathers’ Day, Flag Day, Arbor Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Grand Parents’ Day, Columbus Day, Sweetest Day, Veterans’ Day, etc. They are ALL “made up!” Even New Year’s Day is not consistent across cultures. The Jewish New Year is different from the Chinese New Year which is different from the January first Julian calendar new year.
I am old enough to remember the activism that made the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday a reality. Although individual states had been celebrating Dr. King’s birthday for sometime, it took the work of people like entertainer Stevie Wonder, Senator Edward Brooke, and Congressman John Conyers to galvanize public sentiment and basically force Ronald Reagan to make it a holiday. Yes, it is a MADE UP Holiday.
So Kwanzaa was created in 1965, almost 2 decades before the MLK Holiday. It was designed expressly to counteract the commercialism of secular representations of Christmas (of course Santa Claus is real, right?). Borrowing from the customs of harvest in some African countries, Prof. Maulana Karenga culled principles that would uplift the Black community and remind the community that its history and heritage extends far beyond US History and especially far beyond slavery. The Nguzo Saba outlines powerful principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity, purpose, and faith
Had I continued to live in my native Philadelphia or my adopted home of the San Francisco Bay Area I probably would not devote much time to celebrating Kwanzaa. After all, I am a Christian who celebrates Christmas. But, more important in those two areas there are plenty of Black people who remind me of and support my cultural heritage. However, when we first moved to the upper Midwest in a city where only 5 percent of the residents are Black I was determined that my 6-year-old daughter would learn about and appreciate her heritage. Kwanzaa was Black cultural lifeline (and so was Juneteenth). So, is Kwanzaa a “made up” holiday? Indeed it is. Just like EVERY OTHER holiday!
Stay Black & Smart!