What brought Andrew Howard to the Garden State Discovery Museum yesterday, on the first day of Kwanzaa, was the chance to expose his 6-year-old granddaughter to an annual seven-day celebration he has come to embrace.
Besides, how could Howard not bring his granddaughter, considering she is named for one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Nia, (pronounced nee-YAH), a term that means "purpose" in Swahili?
Although many people think Kwanzaa is a quasi-religious observance, it is not. It is a seven-day cultural observance for millions of African-Americans, meant to celebrate family, community, self-determination, work, purpose, creativity and faith in parents, authority figures and "the righteousness and victory of our struggle."
Kwanzaa celebrants light a candle each night representing one of the principles, then talk about what they did during the year to live up to that principle.
"It means a lot to me because it reminds me of where I was brought up, in South Carolina," said Howard, 68, now of Marlton, a retiree who works part-time at UPS. "I am familiar with the harvest of the crops and vegetables, because we grew up with that."
Kwanzaa was born in 1966, the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, then in the vanguard of the black-liberation movement.
After the devastating riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Karenga was looking for a way to bring the African-American community together. His research led him to African "first fruit," or harvest, celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of the first fruit traditions from several African nations to form the basis for Kwanzaa.
Today, "most black families do not observe it, but I think all black families know it's there," Howard said yesterday.
He and Nia had come to the Discovery Museum for an hourlong interactive presentation by a performance artist named TAHIRA.
Djemba drum in hand, TAHIRA led about 50 youngsters and grown-ups in theatrical sing-alongs, wave-alongs and discussions of Kwanzaa's principles, traditions, terms and symbols, from the Kinara (candle holder) to the Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup).
TAHIRA, who lives in Delaware, became interested in Kwanzaa in 1979, after a presentation at Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was a student.
"When I asked my dad about it, he said, 'I've been telling you about it, you just haven't been listening.' Then we started celebrating it in my family."
These days, many people observe Kwanzaa at home with their family members, then join larger celebrations in their communities.
"You light a candle and you talk about the principle for that day," said TAHIRA. "There's usually food, stories, song and it is very celebratory each and every night."