What Is Kwanzaa?

K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Students are introduced to the origin and purpose of Kwanzaa and make a kinara, or candle holder, to use for the rest of the unit as they learn about the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne Forty-Five Minute Class Period

The learner will:

  • recognize Africa on the map and identify it as a continent.
  • state the origin of Kwanzaa.
  • describe the general characteristics of Kwanzaa.
  • construct a kinara, or candle holder, to be used in the following lessons.
  • interpret vocabulary through music and movement.
  • read-aloud book about Kwanzaa (see Bibliography)
  • African drum music (see Bibliography)
  • Map of the world
  • Materials for making a kinara
  • Students copies of handout: What We Learned
  • Chart paper and marker (Reproduce the chart from handout in advance)
Home Connection 

None for this lesson.


Ford, Juwanda. K is for Kwanzaa. Cartwheel Books, 1997. ISBN: 0590922009

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane. Celebrating Kwanzaa. Holiday House, 1994. ISBN: 0823411303

Jay, Stephen. “Africa: Drum, Chant, and Instrumental Music.” Elektra Records 9720732

Johnson, Dolores. The Children’s Book of Kwanzaa: A Guide to Celebrate the Holiday. Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997. ISBN: 0689815565

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Seven Candles of Kwanzaa. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1993. ISBN: 0803712928

Robertson, Linda. Kwanzaa Fun. Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003. ISBN: 0753456850

Various Artists. “All the Best from Africa: 20 Tribal Songs.” Madacy Records. ASIN: B000000K45


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Show the students where Africa is located on a world map. Tell them that Africa is the second largest continent and it contains many countries, cultures and habitats. Share some of your knowledge of distinct places in Africa. Students sit on the floor with their eyes closed as you play one track of African drum music (see Bibliography). Prompt them to let their imaginations create pictures in their heads as they listen. After the piece is done, ask the students to respectfully describe what they heard and “saw." 

  2. Tell the students that Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday. Help students relate this to their own experience by asking if they or anyone they know celebrates Kwanzaa or another holiday related to their family’s cultural heritage.

    Note to teacher: Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, to celebrate the African heritage of many Americans and increase unity and pride within the black community. (Kwankaa is not a traditional African celebration) Although Africa is an incredibly diverse continent, the celebration is based on first-harvest celebrations of various African cultures. The seven principles of Kwanzaa are based on a compilation of many African traditions and spoken in Swahili, which is a language that is spoken in many countries of Africa. 

  3. Read aloud the introduction from the book Seven Candles of Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Read one or more of the other books listed above to give the students general information about the celebration (see Bibliography). There are YouTube versions of most of the books.

  4. Reinforce the students’ understanding of Kwanzaa by answering the following questions after reading:

    • What does Kwanzaa mean? (first fruits of the first harvest)
    • Why was Kwanzaa developed? (to celebrate African heritage and unite black Americans)
    • When does this celebration begin and end? (December 26 – January 1)
    • How long does Kwanzaa last? (seven days)
    • What distinguishes each day, or what is the focus of each day? (a different principle)
    • What is a principle? (a guiding belief—something to implement in daily life)
    • How does celebrating Kwanzaa build community? 
  5. Each student makes a kinara. Each day for seven days (guided by lessons two and three of this unit), they will learn about one principle, and “light” one candle in this kinara. They may color the candles or use colored paper. The first three candles are green, the middle candle is black and the last three candles are red. They should not color or make the flames today. See handout: Kinara Patterns or directions for a 3-D kinara from the Internet.

  6. Teach the students that each day represents a different principle and a candle is lit representing that principle. The candles/principles are called mishumaa (mee-SHOO-mah) and the candle holder is called a kinara (kee-NAR-ah). 

    Talk about what a principle is. Ask the students to reflect on how having principles is good for the community. Brainstorm some principles together that the classroom community values or exhibits in order to get along and get their work done (patience, working together, perseverance, respecting others, honesty and so on.) Write their ideas on the board and see if they come up as they learn the principles of Kwanzaa.


Students will demonstrate their understanding of Kwanzaa by filling in the columns they can in the chart on the handout: What We Learned. You can copy this for each student or small group. After their individual work, complete it as a class on chart paper. Add to the chart as you learn more throughout the unit. Students may use temporary spellings and pictures to communicate what they have learned.

Cross Curriculum 

None for this lesson.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 04. Operational Characteristics of Nonprofit Organizations
      1. Benchmark E.1 Describe how citizens organize in response to a need.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark E.1 Define community as the degree that people come together for the common good.