MARY CARTER SMITH held up a plastic bag stuffed with chicken feathers to show what happened to her Great Grandma Sally's mattress. The children sitting around her laughed and listened for more.

"When none of the grandchildren could use Great Grandma Sally's feather mattress, because it was too soft to sleep on, Grandma Minnie decided to slit it open, scoop the feathers into clear bags, tie them with shiny black, red and green ribbons and attach the greeting: 'Joyous Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa.' Each grandchild could then have part of the mattress. That would be a fitting end for Mama's feathers."

Carter Smith's story explained kuumba, making or doing creative things for others, one of the seven principles of the African-American holiday known as Kwanzaa. A griot storyteller from Baltimore, Carter Smith clapped, danced and sang with a few dozen children and their mothers inside the Anacostia Museum last week to illustrate the holiday.

"Kwanzaa is not to take the place of Christmas. It's not a black Christmas. It's a way of coming together as people realize their identity," Carter Smith says.

Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili, is rooted in an African tradition of producing and celebrating the harvest. Created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, an American black nationalist, the seven-day holiday begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1. Each day celebrates a different principle, instilling values to strengthen families and black communities.

The first day, Umoja, is named after the principle of unity. The following days are: Kujichagulia, or self-determination; Ujimi, or collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, or collective economics; Nia, or purpose; Kuumba, the creativity principle described by Carter Smith; and Imani, or faith.

The Anacostia Museum will offer a series of Kwanzaa activities for children throughout December. Films and stories have been selected to teach and reinforce its principles. Discussions and hands-on art activities will follow the films.

At one workshop last week, children were taught how to make shisima, a game from Kenya, with pieces of board and markers. The winner was the one who could get three imbalavali -- water insects -- in a straight line on the shisima, a source of water.

To avoid making Kwanzaa too commercial, only homemade presents, zawadi, are given.

"The gifts are educational and mostly cultural, {such as} jewelry and clothes. They try to stay away from store-bought things," says Tonya Lawson of the Roots Activity Learning Center, which will also offer Kwanzaa activities this year.

Families celebrating Kwanzaa encourage their children to help prepare for the holiday by decorating, cooking and participating in a nightly candle-lighting ceremony.

At the museum, a traditional Kwanzaa table-setting has been arranged. A cloth decorated with winding branches and flowers drapes to the floor. On top, wicker baskets filled with oranges, green apples and pineapple surround the kinara, which holds seven green, red and black candles.

There is one candle for each of the principles. As each night's candle is lit, the candles from the previous night are lit also. Then the unity cup is passed around. Each person sips from the cups and says "Harambee," which means "We are pulling together."

After the storytelling session last week, Carter Smith and the children joined hands and danced around the kinara, singing: "Harambee/Pull together in fair or stormy weather/ Brothers and sisters now are we/Working together in harmony."

KWANZAA DAYS

The Anacostia Museum's schedule of Kwanzaa activities is listed below. Admission is free, but call 202/287-3369 to register. For information on related events, call the Roots Activity Learning Center at 202/882-5155.

THE ANACOSTIA MUSEUM -- 1901 Fort Place SE. 202/357-2700. Open 10 to 5 daily; closed Dec. 25.

FRIDAY -- From 10 to 11:30, meet author Sharon Bell Mathis and view an audiovisual program of "The 100 Penny Box," a moving story about a young African American boy and his beloved grandmother. Mathis discusses the story and reads from her latest work, "Red Dog/Blue Fly: Football Poems." For all ages.

DEC. 11 -- At 10 and 11. "Tiger and the Big Wind," a film illustrating umoja, followed by discussion and arts activity. For preschool children.

DEC. 14 -- At 10 and 11. "Modupe and the Flood," a film illustrating ujimi, followed by discussion and arts activity. For grades four through six.

DEC. 18 -- "Simon and his Steel Drum," a film illustrating kuumba, followed by discussion and arts activity. For preschool students.