Columbia resident Wallis Washington has quiet but powerful feelings about today's Kwanzaa celebration at the Howard County Center of African-American Culture, next to Columbia Mall.
"Kwanzaa is a time when we sit down and reflect on the past year, the good things that have happened," said Ms. Washington of the celebration of African heritage and culture. "It's a time of thanks. That's what it means to me."
Co-sponsored by the center, the Howard County NAACP, the African-American Art Gallery and the Original Man Shop, the event begins at 2 p.m. It will feature African-inspired ceremonies, drumming, singing, dancing and entertainment.
Organizers, including Ms. Washington, began planning in October for the weeklong Kwanzaa celebration, which begins today and ends New Year's Day.
Ms. Washington, who has observed Kwanzaa for more than a decade, said she hopes today's celebration will enrich the lives of those who attend, particularly blacks.
"Kwanzaa is celebrated for our link to our culture. It's not like Christmas, which has become a materialistic holiday," she said. "I think the entertainment brings back the awareness of our culture -- the dancing and storytelling, the music. I think we've gotten away from that."
Kwanzaa, Swahili for "first fruits," is a relatively new holiday based on traditional African festivals at which people celebrated and gave thanks for a good harvest.
The holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Mulana Karenga, chairman of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach.
Each night of the celebration focuses on one of seven principles, all represented by Swahili words: umoja (unity), kujichagulia self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose) kumba (creativity) and imani (faith).
Though the specifics may vary from family to family, the typical Kwanzaa ceremony involves a common set of rituals, Ms. Washington said.
On the first night, the family lights the black candle representing unity, which is in the center of a candelabrum called a kinara, and the seven principles are explained.
Each subsequent night, alternating green and red candles are lighted, each representing another principle.
On the last day of Kwanzaa, families hold a feast and everyone drinks from a kikombe, or unity cup. Families also may give love gifts, called gawadi, to the children.
At today's event, a storyteller will read "Lord of the Dance," a tale that explains some of the tradition of African dance, including the use of masks.
"Dancers would wear the masks so that the attention is directed at the dance that he or she is doing," said storyteller Natalie Woodson, a Harper's Choice resident who works with the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "This is deeply connected to the spiritual life of the people. Dance is like a gift of God."
This is the second year the NAACP has sponsored a public Kwanzaa celebration, said Wylene Burch, director and founder of the Center of African-American Culture.
"We try to celebrate the dignity and culture of African-Americans. Kwanzaa is a way that we should worship the gifts that God has given us," she said.
The NAACP "asked us to have it at the center, since we try to preserve the history of Howard County. We are just so proud that they asked us to have it here," Ms. Burch said.
Sponsors of today's event ask that in the tradition of Kwanzaa, guests bring fruits, nuts, or a covered dish for the refreshment table.
The Center for African-American Culture is in Suite 107 on the mezzanine of the One Commerce Center building, directly across the parking lot from Woodward & Lothrop's in the mall. Guests should enter through the middle level of the parking garage.