The Advent Of Kwanzaa

For African-Americans,- There's more to celebrate at the end of December that. Christmas and New Year's Eve. This year, an estimated 10 million black Americans will set the week aside for Kwanzaa, a festival of family, roots and community that is rapidly winning a place on the nation's holiday calendar alongside Chanukah and Christmas. But like all things that succeed in America, Kwanzaa (a word that derives from the Swahili meaning "first fruits of the harvest") has become big business. What was conceived 29 years ago in California as a low-key, low-cost ritual centered on table and hearth is now beginning to look a lot like, well. . . Christmas.

Although the festival doesn't begin until Dec. 26, about $00 vendors in New York City will open a four-day Kwanzaa Holiday Expo at the huge Jacob Javits Convention Center next week. There, shoppers will be able to purchase the candelabras, straw mats and libation cups used to celebrate the holiday-- plus a growing list of Afrocentric crafts, clothes, books and dolls for after-Christmas Kwanzaa-giving. The expo will also feature black entertainers and politicians in an effort to get customers into the Kwanzaa spirit before Christmas shopping leaves them financially tapped out. "Our aim is to have folks support black businesses," says author Cedric McClester, creator of Nia Umoja, the figure of a bearded African storyteller who symbolizes Kwanzaa much like Santa Claus embodies Christmas.

Cooperative economics (ujamaa in Swahili) is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, along with unity (umoja); self-determination (kufichagulia); collective work and responsibility (ujima); purpose (nia); creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). Like Jews at Chanukah, 'African-Americans light a candle each night of their festival. They honor one of these principles and tell stories to illustrate their importance. On the last day family members exchange small gifts, preferably homemade items like dashikis, that have cultural significance.

But as Kwanzaa grows in popularity, some African-Americans worry that it will become- like Christmas-just another capitalist marketing tool. Among the sponsors for New York's Kwanzaa exposition, for example, are such corporate giants as AT&T and Chemical Bank. Ebony magazine features ads by automobile manufacturers heralding the Kwanzaa season. Can the department stores be far behind? "I'm wondering when they're going to announce a big Kwanzaa clearance sale," says Dawad Philip, a senior editor at the Daily Challenge, a black newspaper in Brooklyn.

All this activity means that Kwanzaa has made it into the mainstream. If it's featured in shop windows and McDonald's ads, then it has arrived. Hallmark, the greeting-card giant and cultural arbiter, has been selling Kwanzaa cards, based on designs by African-American artists, as part of its Mahogany line since 1992. Now it's testing Kwanzaa gift wraps and handle bags as well. "If we want to embrace all cultures of the world, we need companies marketing to all people," says Rashcna Lindsay, Hallmark's spokesperson in Kansas City, Mo. "What Hallmark tries to do is make cards for people regardless of color." Like Christians at Christmas, African-Americans now have a choice. They can ignore the inevitable commercialization of Kwanzaa and keep the home candles burning. Or they can celebrate Kwanzaa in the old-fashioned American way--by commodifying it.