John Mayo couldn't keep still. He craned his neck to see, fidgeted in his chair, and finally walked up to the front of the room where Ugene Green was pulling armloads of colorful African raffia out of paper bags.

On this crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon of his 43rd birthday, Mayo had unexpectedly discovered his hertitage.

Nearly 20 adults and children attended a recent pre-Kwanzaa workwhop sponsored by the Museum of African Art in Washington. Like some others, Mayo, who lives in Hyattsville, had come to the workshop holding the mistaken belief that Kwanzaa was a way to celebrate a black Christmas. Instead, they found an observance rich in black history and as old as Africa itself.

Kwanzaa, which began yesterday, is a week long, Afro-American holiday commemorating the cultural and spiritual heritage of the African family.

"You know, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what Kwanzaa is," Mayo said later. "A lot of people feel it's something blacks do as an alternative to Christmas. Coming here today I learned that it's something more meaningful that blacks do. If you deal with it in its entirety, you can evaluate what you're doing as a family."

The workshop was a family event, attended by people who have celebrated the holiday in the past, and others who were learning about it for the first time. Outside the District, workshops and community events celebrating Kwanzaa are virtually nonexistent, they said.

Mayo had come with his wife June, son John Jr., a cousin, Donald Hudley, and an uncle and aunt, Harry and Marjorie Elliot. A neighbor's son, Monte Campbell, also accompanied the family.

They watched closely as Green wove straw mats called mkekas, which represent the foundations of African life.

The room was aglow with activity, the air filled with the rich, warm smell of african plantains frying in peanut oil.

In schools, museums and in their homes, families throughout the Washington area are joining thousands of black people across the United States to sing the praises of Kwanzaa and recite the Nguzo Saba -- the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

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

Is was out of the kuumba of black national Ron Karenga that Kwanzaa was created in 1966. The holiday borrows age-old African customs and rituals from nearly every region of the African 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 black Christmas, said Dickerson, referring to two common misconceptions about the holiday. Rather, Kwanzaa is a life style that is celebrated once a year but practiced daily, said observers of the holiday.

Linda and Ricardo Robinson of Baltimore have celebrated Kwanzaa for eight years, and have introduced the practice to several friends.

"It's very meaningful," said Ricardo Robinson as he helped his two children, Tanea, 8, and Ricardo Jr. 6, wrap raffia strips. "The children have begun to learn the true meaning of Kwanzaa and they're also beginning to see this as an alternative to (a commercial) Christmas. They want to create something to give. They like the togetherness the family unity brings."

On the first day of Kwanzaa, black families ask habari gani? (What's happening?) as they gather around the Kwanzaa table. Each family member answers the greeting with a discussion of the principle of the day.

The family will sit around the mkeka which holds the kinara, a candleholder representing the African ancestors. The mishummaa (candle) is lit daily, as the principle of the day is illuminated in one's life. The fertility of the family is represented by ears of muhindi (corn) and mazao (crops) represent the fruits of year-long labor. Zawadi (gifts, usually homemade) are the rewards for achievement.

During this rite of harvest and beginning, a libation of juice or wine is poured from the kikombe (unity cup) in honor of the ancestors. The week is concluded with a community feast called a karamu.

"Kwanzaa is about establishing tradition," said Baba Zulu, founder of the bookstore and Ujamaa Sule (Familyhood School). "I think the reason it has stayed alive is it's so meaningful to us. It's very practical. Within every family, every structure, every nation, you must have unity."

Observed with dignity and solemnity, the holiday encourages family unity, creativity and self-respect, he said.

The week of ceremonies are similar to Odewira and Afanye, the 40-day harvest and new-year celebration 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 Odewira and Afahye in my won country. It shares the same kinds of (African) cocepts . . . 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 it in terms of our history," said Fosu.

Properly understood, Kwanzaa -- the Kiswahili word means first -- can also promote human understanding, said Erminia Scarcella. As her 21-month-old son, Alexis, scampered around the floor at the pre-Kwanzaa workshop, Scarcella, an Italian psychiatrist, explained why she had attended the workshop.

"I'm here because I'm interested in African art and everything that comes from Africa. We are not always aware that we have the same passage," she said in accented English."Human beginning is always basically the same everywhere. It's very important to know other cultures to understand our (own) culture. I want to understand why a lot of people for generations do the same thing."