On a crisp, sunny weekend afternoon, Winona Abayomi-Cole and her 2-year-old godson Shawn attend a pre-Kwanzaa lecture at the Museum of African Art.

Embracing Shawn closer, Abayomi-Cole smiles knowingly. She is just recently learning about the holiday, but finds the Kwanzaa rituals as old as her African ancestors.

Her father is West African, her mother American, she said. As the lecturer talked about pouring libations to honor the ancestors, a childhood picture of her African uncles pouring libations on the floor at the family table in Northwest Washington suddenly popped into her mind, she explained.

"I remember as a child I used to think, 'what are they doing?'" she chuckled.

"It's important to mix the cultures," Abayomi-Cole said. "Just as Jewish Americans do in observing Hanuka, or Irish kids in making a big thing out of St. Patrick's Day. It's important for kids to be given a background."

Kwanzaa, the seven-day, black American holiday celebrating the spiritual and cultural heritage of the African family, begins Dec. 26. But in schoolrooms, museums and homes all across the United States, children have already joined their families to sing the praises of black tradition.

"Umoja is unity," chorus 150 children in Kiswahili at the Malcolm X School at Alabama Street and Congress Place SE.

In turn they complete the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Kujichagulia is self-determination. Ujima is collective work and responsibility. Ujamaa is cooperative economics. Nia is purpose. Kuumba is creativity. Imani is faith.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by black nationalist Ron Karenga. The holiday borrows ancient African customs from traditional harvesting ceremonies celebrated throughtout the continent, said Amina Dickerson, educational director at the Museum of African art. But there is no ceremony in Africa called Kwanzaa, nor should Kwanzaa be considered a black Christmas, said Dickerson referring to two common misbeliefs about the holiday.

Rather, Kwanzaa is an everyday lifestyle that is celebrated in the annual holiday. The weeklong ceremony is similar to Odewira and Afahye -- the 40-day harvest and new-year celebrations observed in Ghana in October -- said Kojo Fosu, an associate professor of art at Howard University.

Fosu, who has lived in the United States for nine years and is married to a black American, said he celebrates Kwanzaa "with the same kind of respect as I would celebrate Odewira and Afahye in my own country. It shares the same kinds of (African) concepts . . . the idea of togetherness, the hope of improving on the year before . . . that endurance must increase, the family must increase.

"(Kwanzaa) is an important contribution to black America. We need to commemorate in terms of our history."

That the holiday is only 13 years old is "insignificant," said Agye Akoto, program director of Nationhouse Watoto School at 503 Park Rd. NW.

"Everything has a beginning. The significance of Kwanzaa goes much farther than Ron Karenga. I felt he spoke to a need being felt by the people," said Akoto.

That need, said Akoto, was to establish an American tradition exclusively for black people.

On Dec. 26, families across the U.S. will take time each day to gather around the Kwanzaa table and ask, "Habari gani? (what's happening?)" Lighting a candle, each family member will then answer the greeting by discussing the principle of the day.

"Kujichagulia is self-determination," a group of fifth graders recite at the Malcolm X School. Individually, they promise: I am determined to finish my work. I am determined to stop clowning in class.

At Ujamaa Sule in Northwest Washington, Baba Zulu, the director and founder of the school, signals his daughter Akina to light the candles representing the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles) of Kwanzaa.

Then, turning to the children and teachers standing around the table of Kwanzaa symbols, Zulu softy asks the children to sing.

"Watoto (children), the Kwanzaa Song."

The air erupts with the rhythmic thundering of drums that the boys beat with reckless abandon. The room swells with the sound of childish voices.

To a melody slightly reminiscent of the spiritual "Wade in the Water," they sing:

"Kwanzaa is a holiday.

Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa, is an African holiday.

Seven candles for seven days.

Seven special days for Africa."

In Kwanzaa, universal human values are personalized in rituals that are meaningful to the African heritage, observers of the holiday said.

The mkeka -- straw mat -- represents the foundation of the African family. The kinara stands for African ancestors. A mishummaa (candle) is lit daily, as the principle of the day is illuminated in one's life. Muhindi (corn) represents the seeds of fertility or the children in a family. Mazao -- crops -- represent the fruits of labor. Zawadi -- gifts -- the rewards of achievement.

Out of the kikombe -- unity cup -- juice or wine is poured on the ground in honor of the ancestors. Following the libation, the leader drinks from the cup and exclaims "Harambee!" meaning, let's all pull together. The family members agree, repeating the ritual.

Observed with dignity and solemnity, the Afro-American holiday encourages family unity, creativity and self-respect, said Zulu. Children participate in the ritual with their parents. Zawadi (gifts) are usually homemade. And on the last day, a karamu (feast) is extended to the community.

"I think the reason (Kwanzaa) has stayed alive is it is more meaningful to us," Zulu said.

Media reports have estimated that a small percentage of the black population celebrates Kwanzaa annually.

"Most all of the brothers and sisters here go home and celebrate Kwanzaa with their mothers and fathers. It's about what's in your heart," said Zulu.

Though Kwanzaa -- the word means first -- evolved from the decade that also produced affirmative action and dashikis, it alone has apparently transcended class, religion, culture and politics in its appeal.

It is celebrated by Christians, black nationalists, the young and old, black and brown, street activists and brahmins of city hall.

"Intially, Kwanzaa was something observed by grass-roots community organizations. It has since spread and become more widely accepted by members of the community," said Rasafik Weusi, director of the Kwanzaa coordinating committee of the United Black Community (UBC), a coalition of six community organizations.

Last year, then Mayor-elect Marion Barry and his wife Effi gave a Kwanzaa disco party to commemorate Ujima and to collect donations of Christmas toys for needy children. In Weusi's way of thinking, "that's an example of the commercialization of Kwanzaa," the kind of thing Kwanzaa purists try to discourage. "That's one of the reasons the planning committee was formed -- to fully inform the community of the basic concepts of Kwanzaa. It (Kwanzaa) was begun to focus our people on our cultural roots," said Weusi.

In the weeks leading up to Kwanzaa, the UBC is distributing a Kwanzaa brochure to help people understand the basic concepts of the holiday as they go through the ritual.

"People with different (cultural) perspectives are going to bring their own perspectives to Kwanzaa," said Akoto, commenting on the commercialization of Kwanzaa. "What needs to be reaffirmed is the purpose of Kwanzaa. We need to try to reassess who we are."