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, who is named for one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa - Nia (pronounced nee-YAH), which means

purpose

in Swahili?

Although many people think Kwanzaa is quasi-religious, it is not. It is a cultural observance in which millions of African Americans celebrate family, community, self-determination, work, purpose, creativity, and faith in parents, authority figures and "the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

Each night, Kwanzaa participants light a candle 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, a retiree in Marlton who works part time at United Parcel Service. "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 Maulana Karenga, who was in the vanguard of the black-liberation movement and later became chairman of the department of black studies at California State University, Long Beach.

After the devastating 1965 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, Howard said, "most black families do not observe it, but I think all black families know it's there."

He and Nia had come to the Discovery Museum, in Cherry Hill, for an hourlong presentation by a performance artist named TAHIRA.

Djembe

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, then join larger celebrations in their communities.

"You light a candle, and you talk about the principle for that day," TAHIRA said. "There's usually food, stories, song, and it is very celebratory each and every night."

Contact staff writer Joe Logan at 856-779-3220 or jlogan@phillynews.com.