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In the spirit of Kwanzaa

Special to SunSpot

Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday celebratingAfrican-Americanculture, continues to bring steady sales -- although a relatively smallpercentage -- to black-owned businesses in theBaltimore area 37 years afterit was founded by a scholar and activist inCalifornia.

Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of theBlack Studies Department at California StateUniversity, founded Kwanzaa in 1966 to reaffirm thevalues ofAfrican-American life.

The term "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanzaa" -- meaning first fruits of the harvest. It is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

Celebrants reflect on the holiday's seven principles:Umoja (unity);Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collectivework and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperativeeconomics); Nia (purpose); Kuumba (creativity); andImani (faith).

Those who celebrate the holiday spend about $70 topurchase a mat, seven candles, a kinara to displaythem in, a unity cup and ears of corn representingchildren toparticipate in daily rituals, according to a pricelist featured on the official Kwanzaa Web site.

Gifts, particularly educational ones, may beexchanged, although it's not required. Because theitems to celebrate Kwanzaa are used for years, mostfamilies do not need to spend money every year toobserve the holiday.

"The focus is on morals and values," said ChimbukoTembo,co-vice chairwoman of the Organization Us, the holiday's LosAngeles-based founding organization. "It'snot a timeof mass buying and selling."

But if Kwanzaa observers must buy items forthe holiday, they are encouraged to do so fromblack-ownedestablishments in keeping with the spirit of theholiday, Tembo said.

"We urge people to buy from black businesses,vendors and artists or make the items themselves," shesaid.

According to the National Retail Federation inWashington, 1.7percent of the nation's consumers will celebrateKwanzaa, spending an average of $852.40 during thewinter holidays.

That money will be spenton greeting cards, candy, food and flowers, thefederation said.

Overall, the country is expected to spend $217billion this holiday season, up 5.7 percent from lastyear -- and the biggest increase since 1999.

Cards, books sell well

Few specific figures on Kwanzaa sales are available. But a cursory check around the Baltimore region found that sales have remained constant at several African-American retailers.

Kingsley Molen, owner of Wazobia's, a gift shop in Charles Village for10 years, said Kwanzaa sales represent about 2 percentof his December sales.

"It's been the same [for years]," he said. "I'mhoping this year will be different. Kwanzaa is notpromoted enough. They should get started with itearlier."

Molen added that he hoped more people purchaseKwanzaa items from his store instead of opting forcheaper items at big retailers.

Kmart opts out

In the 1990s, Kwanzaa gained widespreadacceptance across the country, with such big retailersas Hallmark, Kmart and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. cashing inon therelatively new holiday.

But in recent years, Kmart, has not sold Kwanzaaitems.

"Kmart last sold items in 2001," said Angela Hood, aspokeswomanfor the retailer, based in Troy, Mich. "They did notdo well,in terms of sales."

At Wal-Mart, headquartered in Bentonville, Ark.,Kwanzaa items -- mostly cards and wrapping paper --aresold at stores with higher concentrations ofAfrican-Americans, said spokeswoman Danette Thompson.

Thompson said she could not provide specific figureson Wal-Mart's Kwanzaa sales.

Customers also may request items, and buyers work toget those to them, Thompson said.

Hallmark, based in Kansas City, Mo., introduced itsfirst Kwanzaa card in 1992. The company has offered aKwanzaa line of cards and gift wrapping since 1993.

"We try to offer products for a diverse consumerbase," said Deidre Parks, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

The privately held company does not disclose salesinformation, but Parks said how a product performs onthe market is just one of manyfactors used to decide whether the company keeps it onthe shelves.

"We evaluate every year and make a decision," shesaid.

'Support our own'

Stanley Butler, branch manager for Walbrook branchof the Enoch Pratt Free Library in West Baltimore, has celebrated Kwanzaa since the mid-1980s.

He said he doesn't disparage people who buy from otherretailers because "at least they're celebratingKwanzaa."

But, he added, "We should always strive to support ourown."

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