For the bulk of white America the occasion marks the birth of a saviour. Jews observe Hanukkah, commemorating the rededication of the temple of Jerusalem in 165BC. But for millions of black Americans, the festival that spiritually matters most this Christmas season will be Kwanzaa.
On 26 December, just as the country fitfully returns to business, millions of blacks will begin a week-long celebration. Since its inception in 1966 as a way of honouring their African heritage, the Kwanzaa holiday has grown into a major festival and - inevitably - a commercial undertaking in its own right.
Bookstores stock Kwanzaa cards and T-shirts. There are recipes, cookbooks and presents, showcased this year at a ``Kwanzaa Holiday Expo Market'', that has turned one of New York's largest convention centres into a giant shopping mall. Whether all this is quite what Kwanzaa's founder, black activist Maulana (Ron) Karenga, had in mind 29 years ago is another matter.
For Karenga, Kwanzaa was a festival aimed at counterbalancing Christmas, whose commercial excesses were beyond the means of poor black Americans. It was not religious or political, nor dedicated to some vanished hero. What Karnega wanted was a cultural event, a celebration of family, community and black identity in a secular, soulless age.
And it remains basically that. If anything, Kwanzaa's original intentions have not been so much to the fore in a quarter of a century.
This has been the year of black awareness, ranging from the OJ Simpson case to the near-presidential candidacy of General Colin Powell to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March in October.
The word is Swahili, meaning "the first fruits of the harvest". Kwanzaa is built on the seven principles of unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), co-operative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), collective work and responsibility (ujima) and faith (imani).
Kwanzaa's symbol is a seven-stem candle holder called the kinara. Each day of the festival a candle is lit for each of the principles. But the true high spot is the karamu, or feast, on 31 December, part commemoration of ancestors, part summons to unity and part old-fashioned New Year's Eve revel.
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