Despatches: US blacks swap white Christmas for merry Kwanzaa

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The politically correct greeting `Happy Holidays' supplanted `Happy Christmas' in much of urban America this year. The change reflects the growing popularity among blacks of their winter celebration, Kwanzaa. Our correspondent reports on a new holiday - and a new controversy.

It was a bitter-cold evening in the barren downtime between Christmas and New Year, yet here, in the blighted depths of inner-city Washington, there was buzzing activity. Cars drew up, vans were double-parked, and a steady stream of people climbed the steps into the dilapidated school building.

Inside, about 60 people were already gathered in the draughty hall. Most were young families with broods of demonstratively washed and brushed children, hushed by attentive mothers. Some of the men wore embroidered shirts, Mandela-style, and round embroidered hats.

All eyes were fixed on the platform, where a table stood laden with fresh fruit, an assembly of dried and coloured corn-cobs, a large cup, and a stand of seven candles - three of them lit. Behind the table, berobed and bewhiskered, stood Boba C, leaning slightly on his carved staff.

No, he told his audience, the concept of the candle-stand had not been borrowed from the Jewish menorah, Kwanzaa had its own symbols. As well as the candles - one for each day of the festival - there were also the corn ears, signifying the family and abundance, the cup, for everlasting youth, and the fruit, the "first fruits of the harvest", which is what Kwanzaa means.

"Kwanzaa," Boba C said, with mild indulgence, "is not a religious holiday, it is a cultural holiday." And Boba C, he might have added, is not a priest, but a story-teller, or "griot", whose mission is to entertain and teach. Co-opting some young children members he launched into the tale of the ant and the giant crumb (the ant could move it to his colony only by sharing it) to illustrate the principle of collective responsibility, the third of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Others include unity, purpose, self- determination and faith.

Kwanzaa was born of the black consciousness movement of Sixties America. It was conceived in 1966 by a black American teacher, Maulana "Ron" Karenga, as a celebration of the African roots of black Americans - and offered a past that could, unlike slavery, be a source of pride.

The idea was that black Americans could gather as families and recognise a common heritage in the wholesomeness and simplicity of a lost agricultural past. The holiday was designed to contrast both with the run-down urban surroundings in which so many American blacks live, and the brash commercialism of Christmas.

The symbols and rituals of Kwanzaa are said to derive from African harvest festivals. The gifts are supposed to be simple and home-made - food, sewn or knitted goods, jewellery from shells or beads. "You don't give loads of junk, like you do at Christmas time; give gifts that stand for something, that aren't extravagant," Boba C reminded his young audience. The food is also simple - mostly southern dishes: chicken, beans, rice and greens.

But Kwanzaa is also seen as inclusive: you can celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Ramadan as well. The trend among some younger black parents who grew up in the aftermath of the civil rights movement seems to be towards rejecting Christmas and celebrating Kwanzaa instead, starting in a low-key way on 26 December and ending with a big family feast on New Year's Day.

That Kwanzaa is so new has laid it open to charges of artificiality. After slow beginnings, however, it has been growing apace. The number of people celebrating Kwanzaa is reported to have grown by a million a year in the past five years, to reach around 20 million - the vast majority in the United States.

In the mid-Nineties, it seems to have tapped into two changes in social mood: among blacks, the growing feeling that the civil rights movement had run into the sand and that self-reliance might be the best alternative; and among whites the increasing acceptance of cultural diversity.

This has brought a giant Hanukkah menorah on to the ellipse in front of the White House alongside the national Christmas tree in the US capital. It has also brought Kwanzaa festivities to the Smithsonian Institution.

This growth in Kwanzaa's popularity and liberal encouragement for a black American festival has brought dilemmas. American commerce has been doing its bit to promote Kwanzaa. Finding a Christmas - as opposed to holiday - card in Washington this year may have been hard, but there were Kwanzaa cards aplenty, and commercially produced Kwanzaa goods, food and presents.

That a festival devised as a reaction to the commercialism of Christmas was rapidly being captured by the same commercialism has riled some blacks and elicited a protest from the main black business organisation in the US. The Washington-based International Black Buyers' and Manufacturers' Expo and Conference accused big producers of being "arrogantly exploitative of the culture of African people" and called on blacks not to buy Kwanzaa goods from non-black owned companies.

Kwanzaa is still developing. Bookstore shelves are full of manuals and cookery books for Kwanzaa novices. And of the objections to commercialism, the young people who thronged in for the disco that followed Boba C's story-telling could take it or leave it. They wanted a good time in a safe place, and that Kwanzaa could supply.