What Is Kwanzaa?

K, 1, 2

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.
  • Seven Candles of Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney and other Kwanzaa resource books (see Bibliographical References)
  • African drum music (see Bibliographical References)
  • CD/tape player
  • Map of the world
  • Materials for making a kinara. See Attachment One: Kinara Patterns or directions for a 3-D kinara in Kwanzaa Fun (see Bibliographical References)
  • Students copies of Attachment Two: What We Learned
  • Chart paper and marker (Reproduce the chart from Attachment Two 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

Kid’s Domain. Kwanzaa Clip art http://www.kidsdomain.com/holiday/kwanzaa/ January 7, 2004 [no longer available] 

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:

    Have the students sit on the floor with their eyes closed as you play one track of some African drum music (see Bibliographical References). Tell them to let their imaginations create pictures in their heads as they listen. After the piece is done, ask the students to describe what they heard and “saw” and how it made them feel.

  2. Tell the students that this music comes from Africa (name the specific country, if possible). 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 the distinct places in Africa. Define culture as a form of civilization or group of people that share particular beliefs, arts and customs (traditions).

  3. Tell the students that Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday. 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. (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.)

  4. Read aloud the introduction from the book Seven Candles of Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Read some of the other resources to give the students some general information about the celebration (see Bibliographical References).

  5. Check the students’ understanding of Kwanzaa by asking the following questions:

    • 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)
  6. Discussion Questions: How does Kwanzaa develop a sense of community? What community is enhanced? How is Kwanzaa an action for the common good? What need did Dr. Karenga seek to meet by developing Kwanzaa?

  7. 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 think about 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.) Keep this list to see if any of their ideas are principles of Kwanzaa.

  8. Each student makes a kinara. Each day for the rest of the 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 Attachment One: Kinara Patterns or directions for a 3-D kinara in Kwanzaa Fun (see Bibliographical References).

  9. Play the African music and allow the students to create free movement as they chant the new vocabulary words (Kwanzaa, mishumaa and kinara).


Students will demonstrate their understanding of Kwanzaa by filling in the columns they can in the chart on Attachment Two: 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.