A Christian Perspective
By Melvin J. Cobb
Should a Christian participate in the rituals associated with Kwanzaa? This is a question that has surfaced in the decades since the establishment of Kwanzaa and has only been magnified as the tradition has grown in popularity in the American cultural mainstream. Although it is not an official holiday (nor is it claimed to be), its growing acceptance has led to it being celebrated along side traditional religious festivals such as Christmas and Hanukah. While Kwanzaa has been observed annually since the late 1960’s, its recognition as a national cultural event started to grow considerably in the 1990’s.
By definition, Kwanzaa is a week-long series of celebrations honoring African American heritage that is observed from December 26 through January 1. Each day participants think about their African roots and reflect on one of seven principles at the core of the celebration. Festivities feature activities such as candle-lighting, pouring of libations, the honoring of ancestors, and culminates with a feast and the giving of gifts.
My extended family began to observe Kwanzaa regularly during the early 2000’s. In the beginning, I participated in the ceremonies as they provided an additional occasion to spend time with family. Like everyone else, I saw Kwanzaa as a means to acknowledge and preserve the cultural significance of our African roots.
However, something about the rituals started to bother me. After taking time to pray on the matter, I felt prompted to take an analytical approach and began to examine the core elements of Kwanzaa, particularly the symbolism associated with the rituals. As I did so, I began to have a profound sense of uneasiness about the ceremonies appended to the seemingly innocuous string of celebrations. My growing apprehension stemmed directly from my Christian convictions that forbade participation in pagan or idolatrous activities.
Ultimately, it was clear to me that the intent of Kwanzaa was to build a bridge that allows African Americans to relate with a heritage stripped away by slavery and obscured by systemic oppression. However, it was also clear that the raw material it used to build that bridge consisted of African mysticism and elements of witchcraft. To a person who is not a Christian, these items may seem trivial and even non-sensical. However, to a believer with a firm conviction in the tenets of Christianity and a willingness to lay aside the need to identify with an earthly culture, the inherent spiritual hazards of Kwanzaa are apparent as the rituals associated with the festivities can produce a considerable stumbling block in a person’s walk with the Lord.
As a result of my research, I stopped participating in the Kwanzaa ceremonies, and held my children out of the rituals observed by the extended family. As the head of my household, I could not in good faith encourage my children to participate in a ritual that I could not wholeheartedly endorse. I was inevitably questioned by family members who could not understand my decision and perhaps even saw it as an affront to our African heritage. Needless to say, my choice was criticized and produced several awkward moments and more than a few heated debates. Nonetheless, I remained steadfast in the conviction to forgo participation in the Kwanzaa customs, adamant there was more to the rituals than a time of culturally significant fellowship.
Proverbs 4 admonishes us to get wisdom and develop understanding. In an effort to better understand Kwanzaa, I have come to view the components of it in several distinct sections analogous to that of a tree. First, the roots which are generally never seen unless one digs deeper. The roots represent the origin or background. The second part of a tree is the trunk which supplies the structure or frame that supports everything else. The trunk for Kwanzaa is obviously the rituals and symbols associated with the tradition as they are the most visible aspect of the event. Third would be the branches which are personified by the various principles of Kwanzaa. Lastly would be the fruit which represents both intentional and unintentional outcomes.
The Roots: Origin and Background
It is important to examine the origins of an organization or activity prior to committing time, energy and emotion to it. Knowing why an event and tradition exist is just as important as knowing what that event is. Evaluating how and why it was conceived can provide valuable insight on its purpose for existence.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by black nationalist Ron Everett and first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1, 1967. Everett, who was also a convicted felon, later changed his name to Maulana Karenga and went on to teach in the Black Studies department at CSU Long Beach.
I completed my undergraduate degree at CSULB during the late 80’s taking seven Black Studies courses in route to my undergraduate degree. Though he was never one of my professors, I interacted with Dr. Karenga personally on multiple occasions, including interviewing him for a research paper that I wrote for Black Studies 353 – a course on black religion. Kwanzaa was not a topic discussed during the interview; however, he unreservedly discussed his thoughts on religion and how Christianity had adversely influenced blacks in America. He advocated traditional African Religions and stated that blacks were better off embracing those beliefs as he did.
Initially, Karenga claimed that Christians who celebrate Kwanzaa did so because it “provides them with cultural grounding and reaffirmation as African-Americans” and that “it gives them a spiritual alternative to the commercialization of Christmas.” In addition to claiming that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is a myth, he also asserts this in reference to Christianity: "Belief in spooks who threaten us if we don't worship them and demand we turn over our destiny and daily lives must be categorized as spookism and condemned." (Karenga, Kawaida Theory: An Introductory Outline)
Over the years, Karenga tempered his words and altered his pagan intentions – making Kwanzaa more palatable for black Christians. Nevertheless, the original intent is what needs to be examined and measured. Even though recent narratives of Kwanzaa no longer incorporate exclusionary and anti-Christian rhetoric, they have, however, been modified by Karenga to convey that Kwanzaa is a time of giving "reverence to the Creator."
Which “creator” Karenga is referring to is unclear. A Bible-believing Christian should take note and ask for clarification whenever someone ascribes reverence to a "Creator" but yet openly denies the deity of Christ.
The Bible addresses the matter best in the book of I John 4:1-3
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
The Greek term for the word “anti-Christ” is “antichristos” and can mean either “against Christ” or “instead of Christ.” In either case, anything that is anti-Christ denies the existence of the true God. At its root, Kwanzaa is an anti-Christ event crafted by a man who denied the existence of the incarnate Christ with the original intent and purpose of encouraging blacks to celebrate themselves rather than the birth of Christ.
The Trunk: Rituals and Symbolism
As stated by its founder, Kwanzaa was not conceived to be a religious activity, but rather a culturally significant alternative in which African-Americans can participate to build community. More specifically, the events of Kwanzaa are centered around the five fundamental activities of Continental African first-fruits rituals which are listed below:
Ingathering: A time of ingathering of the people...of family, friends and community
Reverence: A time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation.
Commemoration: A time for commemoration of the past and in honor of its models of human excellence...the ancestors...all the people and actions that have come before.
Recommitment: A time of recommitment to the highest cultural ideals...both personal and communal
Celebration: A time for celebration of the good...the good life and of existence itself...the good of family, community and culture...the good in all its manifestations on the Earth
While Kwanzaa may not be a religion or claim to represent a religious act, it does, however incorporate elements of traditional African religious rituals which are embedded in these foundational activities. This includes the erection of an altar. It is important to note that African traditions are almost inextricably linked with African Traditional Religion whose creed, doctrinal and ritual essentials differ markedly from those of the Christian religion.
As a result, the central compromise for Christians becomes clear; any true believer who dabbles in the religious aspects of African traditions is certain to come into conflict with God’s commandments (as listed in the Old Testament), the teachings of Christ (as presented in the gospels), and the fundamental tenets of the church (as denoted in the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles). The end result of such compromise can lead to subjection to a strong delusion that can ultimately lead to a subtle yet fatal separation from God – all in the name of identifying with a culture.
These rituals are typically observed with seven basic symbols and two supplemental ones. The primary symbols in the Kwanzaa activities are used to construct an altar which becomes the central hub of events for the rituals throughout the week. By definition, an altar is “a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity.” An altar is also “a place of sacrifice and a power point to draw spiritual and supernatural strength.”
A summary of the seven basic symbols incorporated in the Kwanzaa altar along with a general description of their functions is listed below.
Mazao (or Crops): Meant to symbolize work and the basis of the holiday. To demonstrate their mazao, celebrations of Kwanzaa place nuts, fruits and vegetables...all of which are representative of work...upon the mkeka.
Mkeka (or Mat): The mkeka is fashioned from straw or cloth and originates directly from Africa and is symbolic of African tradition, history and culture...a foundation upon which to stand and build.
Kinara (or Candle Holder): The kinara is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and is symbolic of the ancestors, who were once earth bound, but are willing to protect their progeny from danger, evil and mistakes.
Muhindi (or Ear of Corn): The muhindi represents fertility and symbolizes that through the reproduction of children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life.
Mishumaa Saba (or Seven Candles): Symbolic of the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles...the minimum set of values by which African people are urged to live. The candles are ceremonial objects with two primary purposes: to symbolically recreate the power of the sun and to provide light.
Kikombe cha Umoja (or Unity Cup): The kikombe cha umoja is a special cup that is used to perform the libation or tambiko ritual during the Karamu feast on the Sixth Day of Kwanzaa. In many African societies, libations are poured for the living dead, whose souls remain with the earth that they tilled. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then, the eldest individual present pours the libation usually water, juice or wine...in the direction of the four winds: north, south, east and west, thereby honoring the ancestors. This person asks the gods and ancestors to share in the festivities and in return, to bless all those who are not present at the gathering. After requesting this benediction, the elder pours the libation on the ground and the group says, "Amen."
Zawadi (or Gifts): When Imani is celebrated on the Seven Day of Kwanzaa, meaningful gifts are exchanged with members of the immediate family especially the children.
Throughout the Old Testament, altars were set up to initiate worship of Jehovah and to make sacrifices for the atonement of sin. The practice continued into the time of Christ in the Jerusalem Temple. However, the final sacrifice of Christ on the cross nullified the sacrificial system and the need to construct altars (Hebrews 10:1-18). Moreover, the only ritual Christians are admonished to partake in is that of the Lord’s Table (or Communion). In short, Christians have no need to set up an altar and participate in any pseudo-religious activity. To do so would constitute a compromise of God’s commandments.
Altars are set up for ceremonies in cultures worldwide. They can be as simplistic as the menorah used to light the candles associated with the observance of Hanukkah, or more intricate, as demonstrated in wiccan altars. The table below juxtaposes a Kwanzaa altar with that of a pagan altar typically set up by an individual who observes wiccan rituals that are based upon occultic practices to cast spells and summon spiritual entities.
There are two seemingly harmless rituals associated with Kwanzaa that a Christian should pause to think about before partaking. Both are highly ritualistic and have roots deeply embedded in the occult. These acts are not limited to the African culture and can be observed in pagan rituals worldwide.
1. Pouring Tambiko
The first activity is called Tambiko. In this act, the kikombe (or cup) is filled with juice or water, which is then poured by a priest or elder into a bowl filled with green vegetables or a plant. The pourer recites a tamshi la tambiko (or libation statement) as the liquid fills the bowl.
A tamshi la tambiko is a statement of praise to the African-American ancestors and a commitment to continue the tasks they have begun. The statement also evokes the notion of a prayer. This ritual employ two problematic actions: First, a sacrifice in the form of a libation or a drink offering. Second, the invoking or appeal to ancestral spirits for acknowledgment, help or guidance.
Participants are encourage by the elder to call out the name of a deceased ancestor as a sign of respect. However the words and actions of the elder performing the ceremony are akin to a prayer and a sacrifice.
These actions are very much a part of African religious observances and are embedded in many traditional customs such as marriage ceremonies, birth and naming rituals, divorce, enstoolment of a chief, burials and funerals or praying for deliverance or exorcism, or for blessings from God. In all these, there is libation pouring ostensibly to God, then to the gods and ancestral spirits.
Some Christians participating in Kwanzaa often struggle with the tamshi la tambiko ritual. This is particularly true of Bible-oriented Christians in Africa who see libation pouring as an anathema in the context of the Word of God and view the words and actions of the elder performing the ceremony akin to a prayer and a sacrifice. Overall, libations in customary African religious rituals were made unto various traditional gods.
Scripturally, Christians are only allowed to make drink offerings unto the Lord – on His terms as denoted in Leviticus 23:9-13 and Numbers 15:1-5. In fact, the Old Testament is replete with scriptures that describe God’s thoughts on libations or drink offerings poured unto other gods:
Exodus 30:9 – You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. (speaking of the altar of incense set up to Him)
Hosea 9:4 – They will not pour out drink offerings of wine to the LORD, Their sacrifices will not please Him Their bread will be like mourners' bread; All who eat of it will be defiled, For their bread will be for themselves alone; It will not enter the house of the LORD.
Jeremiah 32:29 – And the Chaldeans, that fight against this city, shall come and set fire on this city, and burn it with the houses, upon whose roofs they have offered incense unto Baal, and poured out drink offerings unto other gods, to provoke me to anger.
Isaiah 30:1 - Woe to the rebellious children, says the Lord, who take counsel and carry out a plan, but not Mine, and who make a league and pour out a drink offering, but not of My Spirit, thus adding sin to sin;
2. Lighting of the Kinara
The second problematic ritual associated with Kwanzaa involves the lighting of candles. During Kwanzaa, candles are placed in a special holder called the Kinara. There is a total of seven candles, known as the Mishumaa Saba, each representing one of the Seven Principles. The candle colors are red, green and black. These colors are found in the Bendera (the African Flag created by Marcus Garvey).
More importantly, these colors are also symbolic of traditional African Gods.
Red is associated with Shango, the Yoruba God of Fire, Thunder and Lightning, who lives in the clouds and sends down his thunderbolts whenever he is angry or offended (much like the Greek god Zeus).
Green is associated with the Earth that sustains life and provides hope, divination, employment and fruits of the harvest. Though not explicitly stated in descriptions of the Kwanzaa celebration, the earth can be represented by any number of gods or goddesses worshipped in African communities.
Black is representative of the people and Earth as the source of life, symbolic of hope, creativity and faith. In addition, black denotes messages as well as the opening and closing of doors.
The Mishumaa Saba consists of three red candles, which are placed on the left, three green candles, which are placed on the right, and one single black candle, which is placed in the center. On each day of Kwanzaa, a new candle is lit as a symbol of the Kwanzaa Nguzo or Principle of that day.
The lighting of the candle to observe the principle is not the cause of concern. What should be noted is the symbolism behind each candle and the fact they are lit in honor of a pagan deity.
There is no biblical reason why we can’t light candles while we pray or while we do anything else. Candles are inanimate objects that have no power, no strength, and no mystical or supernatural abilities. They are nothing more than a flammable piece of string coated by wax.
Obviously, candles are used in various types of worship rituals and have been for millennia. Witches and shamans, Catholics, new-agers, some Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus all use candles in their worship services.
The use of candles in Kwanzaa is innocent in itself. The danger is in the origination of their symbolism. Although the founders of the activity propose the ceremony is non-religious, burning a candle that symbolizes a traditional African god is an act of worship that pays homage to a demon, regardless if the participants chose to ascribe a completely different meaning to the ritual.
The Branches: The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
Stemming from the rituals of Kwanzaa are the “The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa”, or Nguzo Saba. These principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of these principles, and participants are admonished to meditate upon the values and embodied by each one.
When Kwanzaa was introduced in 1966, it was presented by Karenga as a black alternative to Christmas with a foremost motive being to counter the commercialization of the holiday (Mayes). From a secular standpoint, Karenga’s reasoning had merit, however, from a spiritual perspective, it led individuals away from the gospel message associated with Christmas and down a path in which humanistic principles were used to replace clearly defined godly doctrines.
The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa are listed below including a brief summary of each, as well as the Christian doctrine the principle it minimizes (scriptural references for these principles are also provided):
1. Umoja – means unity in Swahili. Karenga defines this as: “To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.”
Christian Doctrinal Minimized: Unity of the Faith. Jesus defined new relationships in the Kingdom of God (Mark 3:31-35) and believers are given instructions on how to maintain the unity of the faith in Ephesians 4:3-6.
2. Kujichagulia – Or self-determination. This principle refers to defining, naming, creating and speaking for oneself.
Christian Doctrine Minimized: Lordship – Christians are called to adhere to the principle of lordship in which Christ is the head with the Christian’s will deferring to His. The principle of self-denial is essential to the doctrine of lordship (Luke 9:23-25).
3. Ujima – Translated as “collective work and responsibility,” ujima refers to uplifting your community. “To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together,” Karenga writes.
Christian Doctrine Minimized: Communal Practices of the Church. The actions of the early church serve as a pattern for the Christian to follow in terms of building community and bearing the burdens of those around us (Acts 2:42-47).
4. Nia – means to look within ourselves and set personal goals that are beneficial for the community. In addition, Karenga writes, “To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”
Christian Doctrine Minimized: The Great Commission (Mark 16:15). The first and foremost collective vocation of all Christians is the preaching of the gospel and making of disciples. Actions beneficial to the community will flow from an emphasis on the preaching and living of the gospel.
5. Kuumba - Meaning “creativity,” Karenga defines this principle as “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”
Christian Doctrine Minimized: Stewardship (Matthew 25:14-30). The parable of the talents emphasizes the principles of initiative and accountability. It clearly highlights the fact that God provides people with gifts and He expects those gifts to be used to make improvements and a return on His investment.
6. Imani – This final principle translates to “faith.” Karenga defines this as faith in community, writing, “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
Christian Doctrine Minimized: Faith in God (Mark 11:22-24). This principle is misleading in two ways. First it places faith in people as the source of strength. Second, it emphasizes the temporal struggle above the spiritual one (II Cor 4:18). A Christian’s faith should be in God’s ability to help His people overcome the demonic powers of darkness that oppress all mankind regardless of race or culture (Ephesians 6:12).
In short, the seven principles of Kwanzaa secularize Biblical principles and are ultimately used as substitutions for Christian values. It is acknowledged that the root purpose of these principles is to promote a positive self-image and spur people to good works. These traits are essential for any community to thrive and advance. However, the fact that Karenga is coming from an anti-Christ paradigm and is openly hostile to the Christian worldview cannot be summarily dismissed. Nor can one ignore that his antagonistic stance towards Christianity had a profound influence on the development of the ceremonies of Kwanzaa as well as the principles on which they are observed.
Mature Christians free of bias or the need to identify with a culture should be able to discern and detect the inherit threats posed by these seven principles. However, unbelievers as well as Christians who are not well versed in the scriptures may well fail to see when and how the principles deviate from “good thoughts and practices,” to a path that leads to a celebration of self that removes the focus from God and places the emphasis on the actions of men to improve a given situation.
Whether or not Karenga was cognizant of this occurrence when developing Kwanzaa is beyond the point. The main fact is that Kwanzaa appropriates Biblical principles yet does not acknowledge the source of those principles. II Timothy 3:5 summarizes such man-centered principles and issues a warning to Christians:
"holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these."
The Fruit: The Good and the Bad
My personal research in regard to Kwanzaa guided me to scores of websites and articles containing pages of information about Maulana Karenga and the celebration of Kwanzaa. Many sites presented Karenga as a black exclusionist from the 1960’s who embraced Marxist viewpoints determined to build an economic, philosophical and even spiritual wall between black Americans and elements of the white American culture. Other resources emphasized the positive traits of the Kwanzaa celebrations and focused on the community building aspect of the events in general.
Christians are admonished to examine an issue, weigh both sides and then prayerfully make a decision on how to proceed. Scripturally, the best way to arrive at a judgement is to examine the fruit associated with the issue. Jesus said that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. However, arriving at a fair judgement often requires thinking critically about the information and being unafraid to draw an unpopular or politically incorrect conclusion. It also requires using the appropriate criteria to draw the conclusion.
A wise man once said, “you cannot measure spiritual fruit using natural measurements.” In other words, the spiritual fruit of Kwanzaa must be measured or judged by the spiritual tools provided in the Word of God and not by how much it connects a person to their cultural heritage. Two relevant spiritual measuring rods come to mind when inspecting the fruit of Kwanzaa.
First, is God glorified in the celebrations? Given the symbolism and origin of the Kwanzaa rituals it is impossible to conclude that the God of the Bible is being deliberately exalted and esteemed in any of the Kwanzaa ceremonies. While a “creator” is acknowledged during the ceremonies, the founder of Kwanzaa clearly states that the term can mean anything to anybody and is by no means exclusive. This is problematic for the God of the Bible who distinctly declares that He shares His glory with no one else (Isaiah 42:8). In Kwanzaa, culture is celebrated in a quasi-religious fashion, not God.
Second, is Christ acknowledged? This is the central question Christians must answer. Moreover, one must ask, how can participating in an event conceived to be an alternative to the celebration of Christ’s birth effectively lead someone to Christ? The opposite is likely to occur. Jesus said that in the last days false prophets and teachers would arise and deceive many (Matthew 24:11). Kwanzaa was birthed from the spirit of a man openly hostile to the gospel at the time he created the event. That same spirit will subtly and deceptively lead a person away from Christ rather than towards Him. I believe that participation in Kwanzaa can lead a younger, less Bible literate Christian down a path that leads them to think and believe that identifying and esteeming culture is more important than identifying with Christ.
A Christian must ask if it is worth compromising principles of faith in order to observe African heritage (or any other culture-related custom for that matter). Of course, it is completely acceptable for Christians to acknowledge, esteem, and even celebrate their culture as it is a major thread God has woven into the life tapestry of all people. However, motive for esteeming one’s culture must always be examined. The overriding cultural principle for a Christian can be found in Galatians 3:26-29:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
Thus, the celebration of one’s culture should always be placed in the proper perspective in order to prevent it from becoming an idol that is esteemed above all else.
Should a Christian participate in the rituals associated with Kwanzaa? I believe that a person with a strong grasp of the scripture, willing to be led by the Holy Spirit, and humble at heart will ultimately do their own research and likely draw many of the same conclusions that I did. Acknowledging and even celebrating culture is important; however, one should be wary about participating in an event that purposes itself as an alternative to the mission and purpose of the gospel of Christ.
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Karenga, Maulana. "Can People Celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas?" n.d. Official Kwanzaa Web Site. < faq.shtml#10.>.
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Mayes, Keith A. Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2009.
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