PHILADELPHIA When Ayana Jackson was growing up in the 1970s and '80s in West Oak Lane, she knew of no one else outside her family who celebrated Kwanzaa.
"It was really hard seeing all of your friends getting Christmas gifts," she said. "When I was a kid, people would say, 'What's Kwanzaa?' and then they couldn't be bothered when you explained what it is."
Times have changed.
On Saturday, Jackson was among hundreds who celebrated the cultural holiday at Universal Audenried Charter High School in Grays Ferry. The "Kwanzaabration" event honored African and African American cultures through food, dancing, and music.
Jackson, 43, took part, taking the stage at one point to discuss Kwanzaa's seven principles, one for each day of the weeklong holiday, which ends Wednesday. The principles, usually uttered in Swahili, include unity, purpose, and self-determination.
As a probation officer and former teacher, Jackson said, the purpose principle - Nia in Swahili - is one of her favorites.
"I'm always trying to teach and instill positivity in young people," she said. "Even as a probation officer, a lot of the adults are younger than me, and I'm always trying to get them to have a purpose."
Jackson, who now lives in South Philadelphia, said she was still the only one among her friends who celebrates Kwanzaa, which was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a university professor. But she said awareness of the holiday had grown significantly: She sends "Merry Christmas" texts to friends, who wish her "Happy Kwanzaa" in response.
"I feel a lot more comfortable now," Jackson said.
Philadelphia music legend Kenny Gamble was one of the cosponsors of Kwanzaabration, and he said the principles of the holiday can help strengthen the black community.
"We'll be able to use this as a guide to unity and community development," Gamble said. "I'm looking for something that brings people together."
Shirley McDougald has been celebrating the holiday since the late 1980s, allowing it to complement her Christmas celebration. McDougald, who lives in North Jersey, is a Philadelphia native who attended Kwanzaabration with her family.
"It's almost like a continuation of Christmas in terms of family and a celebration of African American culture," she said. "And it's a tradition that many people are coming to have more of a regard for because it has longevity now."