Tidings Of Black Pride and Joy

Kwanzaa, the African-American Yule-time celebration, is becoming more popular -- and more commercial

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Add a new seasonal greeting to your list: Habari gani. It is Swahili for "What's new?" and the salutation for millions of African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday that begins on Dec. 26. Inaugurated 25 years ago as a black-nationalist celebration of familial and social values, the festivities are now being embraced by the black mainstream.

Kwanzaa is patterned after various African agricultural festivals, and the name derives from the Swahili word for first fruit of the harvest. It was created by Maulana Karenga, a black-studies professor at California State University, Long Beach. The purpose of the holiday, he says, is to help black people "rescue and reconstruct our history and culture and shape them in our own image."

Unlike Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; the festival celebrates seven principles -- unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith -- assigned to each of the days. Observers gather each evening to light one of the candles in the kinara, a seven-cup candelabrum, and discuss how the principle of the day affects their life. Small gifts are often exchanged.

In the late 1960s, Kwanzaa was celebrated mainly by the more radical members of the black-nationalist community. But now, says the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor at Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, "you find a lot of people trying to return to their roots and cultural values." Each year Wilson's church holds nightly Kwanzaa observances that culminate in a ball, which now draws about 1,000 participants. No one knows precisely how many people observe Kwanzaa, but its biggest boosters are middle-class professionals seeking to give their children a sense of black pride. "My children grew up in a fairly white community, and that motivated me to teach them the value of the African-American heritage," says Vickie Butcher, 50, a lawyer in El Cajon, Calif., who celebrates with her physician husband and their five children. "We sit in a circle, and every person talks about that day's principle," she says. "The creating and sharing is real quality time."

On the final night of the holiday, friends and relatives join the family for a feast known as the Karamu. This year a compendium of celebratory recipes has been published in Eric Copage's Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking (Morrow; $25). The book also contains stories about black history and culture, along with suggestions on how to use them to illustrate the seven principles.

Museums and other institutions have begun to adopt the celebrations. Last year more than 8,500 people attended poetry readings, music performances and puppet shows during the sixth annual observance at Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian added a program of Kwanzaa activities to its Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations in 1988.

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