Each December, high atop the choir loft of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, sit the traditional three purple and one pink Advent candles for several Sundays.

But as the month comes to a close, another candelabra appears when the Kwanzaa kinara — with its seven black, red, and green candles representing principles of black heritage — is placed on the altar below.

"We'll light the Advent candles and we'll light the Kwanzaa candles," said the Rev. Tyrone Gordon, pastor of St. Luke, where stained glass windows depict the civil rights movement. "Both have prominent places. The Advent candle, of course, is higher up and that's symbolic because we're Christian."

At some predominantly black churches, celebrating Christmas and Kwanzaa is a matter of both/and instead of either/or. Some congregations, especially those with an Afrocentric emphasis, mark both holidays, singing carols about Jesus and reflecting on Kwanzaa's principles of unity and collective responsibility throughout December.

But some Christians say Christmas should be the sole holiday at year's end because Kwanzaa lacks a clear biblical message.

Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a California State University professor of black studies. The seven principles it highlights are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Writing in a 40th anniversary message last year, Karenga explained that the last point — faith — is not related to a particular religion: "It is a faith founded in the ancient ethical and spiritual teachings of our ancestors, forged in struggle, and reaffirmed in the reality of everyday life directed toward doing good in the world," he wrote in an essay on www.OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org.

Churches that celebrate Kwanzaa, which officially is observed Dec. 26-Jan. 1, don't necessarily stick to the exact dates chosen for the holiday.

At Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Gainesville, Fla., the congregation usually observes Kwanzaa on the first or second Saturday in December. Karen Cole-Smith, chair of the church's marriage and family ministry, said the early observance reminds people of the actual upcoming dates and allows time for lessons in how to observe each day by lighting a candle and talking about each of Kwanzaa's seven principles.

This year, when the church celebrates Kwanzaa on Dec. 8, local vendors will sell African artifacts and clothing. Ancestors will be honored as part of a program that features African stories and poetry, music and dance.

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"We actually have the Kwanzaa table set up as it should be set up in their homes," said Cole-Smith. "Seven different families come up and light the candles that reflect the principles. … .If it's faith, they talk about how they live out faith in their homes each day and then they light the candle."

Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., hosts one night of an annual weeklong community Kwanzaa observance.

"We always give gifts, recognizing the eldest person in attendance," said Patricia Sadler, who helps lead social-action activities at the church.

Amid festive decorations, including African statues and fabrics, church members share their family histories, light the candles and teach young people about black culture.

"This is not to take the place of Christmas," said Sadler, whose church also commemorates the middle passage, in which many slaves perished during the journey from Africa to America. "It's really to look at our community, where we are, how we need to unify."

Yet Kwanzaa has its critics. Carlotta Murrow is a San Diego computer technician who runs a website, www.christocentric.com/Kwanzaa, which questions how Christians could observe Kwanzaa.

"One of the primary reasons people celebrate Kwanzaa is because the belief is somehow our self-worth is inherent or wrapped up in our culture," said Murrow, an evangelical Christian, in an interview.

"Our self-worth only comes from knowing Christ as Lord and Savior, so we can't really do both."

The observance didn't sit well with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, either; last December he called it "wholly anti-American." The Rev. Eric C. Redmond, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md., also has been an outspoken opponent of Kwanzaa.

"The unity and the faith and the collective work in Kwanzaa is all centered around our culture, our ancestry, our community," said Redmond, who also is the second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "But unity, faith, even our work ethic as believers, is centered around the message of the gospel."

Just as individual churches take different stances on Kwanzaa, so do various denominations.

"As a Christian denomination, we don't condemn it," said the Rev. Loran E. Mann, spokesman for Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake of the Church of God in Christ. "However, we don't endorse it either."

The Rev. Daryl Ingram, executive director of Christian education for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said his denomination doesn't have any official guidelines on the holiday.

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"Congregations on the East Coast and on the West Cost would probably celebrate Kwanzaa more over against congregations in the South," he said. "Congregations in the South and Midwest tend to be more conservative and more traditional."

The United Methodist Church's General Board of Discipleship has published a "frequently asked questions" segment on the topic, which notes, "Because the focus of the celebration is on affirming African culture, values, and history, there is no conflict with Christian churches observing the holiday, as many currently do."

The Rev. Kelvin Sauls, a staffer for the Methodist agency, estimates that about 40 percent of predominantly black United Methodist churches mark the holiday.

"My response to people who think that it should not be celebrated is … that you certainly have a right not to celebrate," said Sauls, who has written a prayer for Kwanzaa for his agency's Africana Worship Book. "I don't think we ought to dictate … whether people should or should not celebrate it."

Just like Protestants, some predominantly black Catholic churches observe the holiday and some don't, said the Rev. J-Glenn Murray, a Jesuit priest at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, who is writing about ways to incorporate Catholicism into Kwanzaa's rituals for a forthcoming revision of a black Catholic hymnal.

"There are no guidelines," he said. "People sort of do what they want."

Related Elsewhere:

The Dartmouth Review posted an article on the history of Kwanzaa.

Tike.com has instructions for celebrating the holiday.

More articles on Advent and Christmas are available in our special section.