When you get tired of saying "Merry Christmas," try saying "Habari gani?" It's Swahili for "What's happening?"

What's happening the week after Christmas, in many black homes and at the Museum of African Art, is the celebration of Kwanza. Also Swahili, Kwanza means "first," but in this context it means "first fruits." Though based on traditional African harvest festivals, Kwanza was made in America. It was started in California in 1966 by black nationalist Maulana Ron Karenga.

"It's an alternative to Christmas, but it also has a place of its own," says AMina Dickerson, the museum's director of education. "Its a way to make a connection with your heritage - like Hanukkah is - but it's also an alternative to getting caught up in the commercial aspects of white Christmas. In Kwanza, the gifts are played down, and spiritual and social rejuvenation is played up."

On the first day of Kwanza, December 26, the correct answer to "What's happening?" is Umoja, which means "unity." Each of the seven days of the celebration stresses a particular principle, such as kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Muumba (creativity), Nia (purpose) and Imani (faith).

"Each family shapes its own Kwanza traditions," says Dickerson. "In my home on unity day we're going to show slides of all of us from all the days we've been a family. And on cooperative economics day we're going to try to form a family corporation."

What the creche is to Christmas and the menorah is to Hanukkah, the mkeka, kinara, mushumaa, zawadi and muhinda are to Kwanza. The mkeka, a straw mat, represents tradition as the foundation on which everything rests. The kinara, a seven-place candleholder, symbolizes the original stalk from which black people originated. The mushumaa, or candles, stand for the seven principles. The corn (muhindi) represents the children of the house. The bowl of zawadi, or gifts, represents the fruits of labor.

"The gifts should be small handmade items, or things that have a special meaning that will help the person through the next year," says Dickerson. The gifts, which can't be opened until the last day of the celebration, are placed on the mat with the other symbols.

"Each day the family gets together and lights the candle for that day and talks about the principle for the day," says Dickerson."Then they pour a libation - usually gin or vodka - into the ground to honor their ancestors. In my house we pour it into a basket filled with earth."

The last day - January 1 - features a feast, or karamu. In Dickerson's home, the feast features black-eyed peas and rice, which coincides with the Afro-American and Southern tradition of offering these foods on New Year's Day.

The museum celebration won't include a karamu, though participants are requested to bring fruits to share. Kwanza will be celebrated at the museum, located at 316-318 A St. NE, every afternoon from December 26 through January 1, from 2 to 3. Blacks and whites of all ages are welcome to come to play games, sing songs and listen to stories based on the principles of each day. Children will be invited to don African costumes and join a procession of a King, queen and courtiers.