In the spirit of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday celebrating African-American culture, continues to bring steady sales -- although a relatively small percentage -- to black-owned businesses in the Baltimore area 37 years after it was founded by a scholar and activist in California.

Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of the Black Studies Department at California State University, founded Kwanzaa in 1966 to reaffirm the values of African-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 (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kuumba (creativity); and Imani (faith).

Those who celebrate the holiday spend about $70 to purchase a mat, seven candles, a kinara to display them in, a unity cup and ears of corn representing children to participate in daily rituals, according to a price list featured on the official Kwanzaa Web site.

Gifts, particularly educational ones, may be exchanged, although it's not required. Because the items to celebrate Kwanzaa are used for years, most families do not need to spend money every year to observe the holiday.

"The focus is on morals and values," said Chimbuko Tembo, co-vice chairwoman of the Organization Us, the holiday's Los Angeles-based founding organization. "It's not a time of mass buying and selling."

But if Kwanzaa observers must buy items for the holiday, they are encouraged to do so from black-owned establishments in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, Tembo said.

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

According to the National Retail Federation in Washington, 1.7 percent of the nation's consumers will celebrate Kwanzaa, spending an average of $852.40 during the winter holidays.

That money will be spent on greeting cards, candy, food and flowers, the federation said.

Overall, the country is expected to spend $217 billion this holiday season, up 5.7 percent from last year -- 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 for 10 years, said Kwanzaa sales represent about 2 percent of his December sales.

"It's been the same [for years]," he said. "I'm hoping this year will be different. Kwanzaa is not promoted enough. They should get started with it earlier."

Molen added that he hoped more people purchase Kwanzaa items from his store instead of opting for cheaper items at big retailers.

Kmart opts out

In the 1990s, Kwanzaa gained widespread acceptance across the country, with such big retailers as Hallmark, Kmart and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. cashing in on the relatively new holiday.

But in recent years, Kmart, has not sold Kwanzaa items.

"Kmart last sold items in 2001," said Angela Hood, a spokeswoman for the retailer, based in Troy, Mich. "They did not do well, in terms of sales."

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

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

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

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

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

The privately held company does not disclose sales information, but Parks said how a product performs on the market is just one of many factors used to decide whether the company keeps it on the shelves.

"We evaluate every year and make a decision," she said.

'Support our own'

Stanley Butler, branch manager for Walbrook branch of 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 other retailers because "at least they're celebrating Kwanzaa."

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