The annual Kwanzaa celebration began today, kicking off a week of activities in the Charleston area where expressions of African culture such as drumming and dancing are blended with lessons about universal values such as self-reliance and unity.

“It’s such a life-changing event,” said Mary Brown, a nurse from Johns Island who is an organizer of an event Tuesday, co-sponsored by the Tri-County Black Nurses Association.

“It gives you a different perspective, and can put people on a better path,” she said.

Based upon African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by California State University professor and activist Maulana Karenga. The secular holiday runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, and each day is dedicated to one of seven principles and marked by the lighting of a candle.

“To me, one of the most important ones is today, talking about unity,” said Charleston Councilman William Dudley Gregorie. “All of them are important, collectively.”

Gregorie is among scheduled speakers at a Kwanzaa event tonight, a service that begins at 7 p.m. at Nichol’s Chapel AME Church in Charleston, at President and Kennedy streets.

Follow David Slade on Twitter @DSladeNews.