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What Happened to Kwanzaa?

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Long before the giant mall usurped the American urban landscape, Hallmark was cheapening our age-old religious traditions and turning nuanced theological messages into platitudinous feel-goodisms to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Out of a singular, sinister force, Hallmark conspired to transform a suffering servant into a jolly present-giver and a fundamentalist victory into a celebration of assimilation. Hallmark was late capitalism's ubiquitous signifier before Starbucks was in operation in Seattle and Disney was in operation in Times Square. "Hallmark moments" elicited mild forms of queasiness, a mix of nostalgia and sentimentality under the guise of the universal.

Perhaps, then, it's a good thing that Kwanzaa has all but vanished from the local greeting card store. But what led to its disappearance? And where did it go? As recently as 1993, Kwanzaa was America's fastest-growing holiday. I recall a chilly December evening of that year when on the campus of Brown University my girlfriend and I took a study break and paid a visit to the campus' Third World Center. We used to go there a lot--mostly when we detected the distinct aroma of free ethnic food. We waded through a throng of students of color to the buffet table, gathered some fried plantains and okra on a tiny paper plate and found some room in the corner to take in the scene. We knew that Kwanzaa honored African heritage, and soon learned that it meant "first fruits" in Swahili. The place was packed and the music was booming--A Tribe Called Quest (of course)--while red, black and green-clad bodies bobbed their heads in sync. That year Ben & Jerry's began making sweet potato ice cream, J.C.Penny offered Kwanzaa products in stores nationwide, local news stations wished their viewers a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Kwanzaa, and Hallmark printed 12 different varieties of Kwanzaa-themed cards.

Fifteen years later, I publish an irreverent Jewish culture magazine called Heeb and immediate circles supply me with more anecdotal information about lower back pain than they do about Kwanzaa observance, but I still can't help but notice not noticing Kwanzaa at the greeting cards store. Certainly people are still celebrating the holiday, but clearly corporate America no longer seeks to capitalize on Kwanzaa the way it once did. At a time when a black man can be elected President, the powers-that-be seem to be saying African-Americans are much more ready embrace the de facto American civic religion, Christianity.

Multiculturalism was supposed to highlight our differences in radical ways, not transform them into different flavors of ice cream. But I worry about how Kwanzaa's disappearance will get understood. In a few years (if not already), Americans will probably remember it the way they remember parachute pants or the Rubik's cube--the irony, that removing Kwanzaa from the aisles of greeting card stores might end up forever enshrining it as a pop cultural relic. Meanwhile, the meanings of Christmas and Hanukkah continue to be contested and questioned as they reside in the marketplace, Whether it's gone because nobody knew how to sell it, or because nobody wanted to buy it, Kwanzaa is now nowhere to be found.

Joshua Neuman is the Publisher of Heeb Magazine. A graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School, he has taught undergraduate courses in the Philosophy of Religion at New York University, written for Slate, eMusic and ESPN and appeared on VH1, A & E and National Public Radio. His first book, The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2005.