The holidays are a magical time. Here in Minnesota, we enjoy a quintessentially storybook December – fat snowflakes slowly swirling down to earth, Christmas lights twinkling on the eaves and doorways, lush pine trees and crisp temperatures that demand cozy sweaters and mugs of hot cocoa. But even on the years when we don’t enjoy a white Christmas, the weeks that stretch from Thanksgiving to New Years are characterized with a warmth and glow that comes from the spirit of giving, brotherhood and community that define the best parts of the holiday season. For adults, who often find themselves falling prey to the cynicism that comes with age, the holidays represent a promise of possibility – the chance to reconnect with loved ones, old friends, and new connections. For children, they’re pure enchantment. They also represent a golden opportunity for educators to impart lessons on generosity, communication, and a multicultural perspective on the world.

With the wealth of cultural traditions that the holidays afford, you may find yourself wondering, how am I going to fit these all in? And, perhaps more importantly, how should I teach them? Religious topics can be dicey, but with the right amount of planning (more on that later), you can transform the content into something that your students will love learning about.  Regardless of the units that you focus on, there are some universal themes of goodness and light that will benefit students of all ages. Chief among them? The importance of family. For many, the holidays ARE family. They’re an opportunity to show the people in your life who are most important to you just how much you care about them. And while this is often achieved through gift-giving, the gift itself doesn’t need to be expensive. Maybe you have your students create a holiday “coupon” book where each of the coupons is actually a service or helpful act. Suggestions could range from doing the dishes for mom or letting a younger sib borrow a coveted toy. Maybe your craft for the week is a picture frame or photo collage that will preserve memories. Whatever it is, it’s a beautiful time to teach students how to think of others.

Second only by a hair, the holidays are just as equally defined by the connections between individuals. Encourage your students to build relationships with older family members, like grandparents, by asking them what the holidays were like when they were kids. The holidays can be wonderfully nostalgic and provide a solid communication channel that just doesn’t exist the rest of the year. And much like the holidays give a focus to showing appreciation for the people you love, they also prompt an awareness for helping others. By showing students how lonely the holidays can be if you don’t have people you love in your life, it teaches empathy and kindness – perhaps two of the most positive attributes of the holiday season. Consider scheduling a field trip to a local nursing or veterans home to make crafts or perform songs where students can learn just how powerful a small act of kindness can be.

Of course, the traditions themselves are a key aspect of the holiday season. Rather than ignore them completely (as some schools have made the decision to), take advantage of a (pardon the pun) gift-wrapped opportunity to broaden students’ perspectives through a multicultural lens. When it comes to exploring how to represent the holidays in schools, Dr. Michelle Herczog, History-Social Science Consultant at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, says it best “As we enter the holiday season, it is important to remind ourselves of the rich, diverse religious and cultural traditions that are represented in schools and school communities across our nation. Public schools should approach the holiday season as an opportunity to inform and educate students about the origins, meanings, and traditions of various holidays in ways that do not engage students in celebratory activities. By treating the holiday season as a ‘teachable moment’ students can learn about the various backgrounds and traditions our diverse society has to offer.”.

With that in mind, here are some of our favorite units to consider incorporating around the holidays:

Holidays Around the World

What is another name for St. Nicholas? What is a menorah? What is a karamu? The answers to those questions highlight a few of the special traditions that are the celebrated around the world. December is a significant month for nearly a dozen world religions, including:

  • Saint Nicholas Day (Christian)
  • Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexican)
  • St. Lucia Day (Swedish)
  • Hanukkah (Jewish)
  • Christmas Day (Christian)
  • Three Kings Day/Epiphany (Christian)
  • Boxing Day (Australian, Canadian, English, Irish)
  • Kwanzaa (African American)
  • Omisoka (Japanese)
  • Yule (Pagan)
  • Saturnalia (Pagan)

Student Traditions and Celebrations

The different ways that we celebrate are part of what make the holidays so special! Take the time to learn more about your students backgrounds – especially the students who may not have been born in the United States and were not raised celebrating a traditional Christmas. By opening the dialogue around how each student’s family’s celebrate around the holidays, kids learn an appreciation for cultures that differ from their own. It’s also a great opportunity to see the traditions learned in the “Holidays Around the World” put into action!

Crafts

This unit will most benefit younger students, but still offers a wonderful perspective on supplementing the learnings found in other units! Steer clear of the “letters to Santa” focus and lean more towards activities inspired by the traditions themselves. Whether you make your own dreidels after a unit on the Festival of Lights or make a Buche de Noel like French children do, the possibilities are endless! You can even infuse subjects like math with a dose of festive cheer with snowflake decorated worksheets or have more winter-centric crafts like creating snowman ornaments.

Hanukkah (The Festival of Lights)

The Hanukkah celebration is a series of rituals and traditions that span the eight days. It’s a perfect opportunity to create eight mini-lessons for your students, with topics ranging from religion to culture to history. The story itself offers a unique perspective for discussion about religious tolerance and the freedom of religion, as the holiday came into being after the Maccabees revolted against the Syrians who were trying to impress their own religious beliefs on the Jewish population.

Las Posadas

One of the earlier holiday celebrations, Las Posadas is traditionally celebrated from December 16-24 and literally means “the inns or shelters”. It’s a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place where Jesus could be born and is celebrated chiefly in Mexico, though there is also a strong history in the Southwestern part of the United States. Depending on your school’s demographic, this may be a particularly apt unit for all students.

Christmas

In a recent study conducted by the Washington Post, a whopping 90% of Americans observe the Christmas holiday. Of those surveyed, approximately half view it as a religious holiday, whereas another third feel that it’s more of a cultural celebration. Regardless of it’s position as a cultural versus a religious occurrences, like the other holidays, it is rooted in deep tradition and offers a wealth of information to explore.

Kwanzaa

One of the more recent holidays (it only came into being in 1966!) Kwanzaa celebrates the African-American heritage, while reminding people of the importance of sharing with family and friends. Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and continues for 7 days. The seven principles on which Kwanzaa is based: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith offer great discussion topics for students of all ages.

Non-denominational Classroom Activities

Embrace the spirit of giving! Outside of any religious focus, for many, the best part of the holiday season is the charitable aspect that accompanies it. According to a recent study conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty, there are 15 million children (which equates to roughly one in five) in the United States living in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. By extension, 42% of American children live in what is considered to be low-income families. Host a toy drive to help students understand the importance of helping those less fortunate than themselves and to teach gratitude for what they already have (even if it’s not the latest xBox game.)

When discussing holidays in schools, the key here is to remember the guiding principle of neutrality: no one religion or belief structure can be promoted over another and none can be disparaged. This philosophy has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, but still leaves some grey areas around what constitutes a clear educational purpose as opposed to a religious one. Cheryl Drazin, the Southwest Civil Rights Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, says that there are two kinds of complaints she often hears: religious-based practices and parties in classrooms and all-school celebrations. To help avoid issues with the subject matter, there are some great resources available to help educators navigate the minefields. The first, from the First Amendment Center, gives a short list of directives, while the second from the Anti-Defamation League offers a more in-depth guide.

Whatever unit you choose to explore, keep in mind these guidelines:

  1. Relevance – are the activities connected to children and families in the group? Understanding the holidays through the context of someone’s daily life helps to create tolerance.
  2. Communication – Does every student have the chance to share how their family spends the month of December? Be sure that positive terms are used and that other students are not speaking disparagingly about belief systems that are radically different from their own.
  3. Neutrality – All religions and belief systems should be treated through the same lens, none should be treated as “unusual” or “better” .
  4. Respectful – During the December months, chances are high that holidays will overlap. The values and traditions of each holiday should be acknowledged.
  5. Appreciating Differences  – Activities should demonstrate that not everyone celebrates (or doesn’t celebrate!) the holidays the same way.
  6. Inclusiveness – If, for whatever reason, a student’s beliefs prohibit participating in holiday celebrations, a strategy for an alternative that doesn’t alienate the student should be created in conjunction with the child’s family.
  7. Non-materialistic – The holidays can be a difficult time for families in challenging financial situations. Any holiday celebrations should focus on the traditions and the joyfulness that comes with honoring your culture and spending time with loved ones.

Finally, ask yourself: what is our educational purpose with this activity? By having a clear goal that supports your classroom mission, you will find that the holidays will quickly become just another unit – albeit one with a little more cheer and joy.

Although the conversation around holidays in schools tends to center on whether or not they actually have a place in our curriculums and, if so, how they should be handled, there is also a secondary discussion quietly taking place around the notion of winter break and it’s future in academia. With its roots in holiday celebrations (for many, the break used to be called “Christmas Break” before shifting to a more universal nomenclature), the tradition remains for schools to break of varying length during the days between Christmas and New Years.

As with navigating how to celebrate the holidays, winter break poses its own unique set of pros and cons. One of the primary criticisms against a long winter break is the “forgetfulness factor” – students have a tendency to suffer a temporary learning setback after returning from a long break, especially in subjects like math or foreign language which require repetition to help cement new concepts. Given that American students currently rank 27th globally for math scores, it’s understandable that there would be a desire to limit influences which may unduly influence those scores further. In addition, long breaks tend to be more financially challenging for families with working parents or those who depend on school as an alternative to childcare.

While the solution may seem obvious – a shorter break – there is evidence to suggest that a short break doesn’t provide students the necessary opportunity to unwind. Much like adults, kids need the opportunity to unplug. And, much like their older counterparts, children can’t necessarily unplug immediately. It takes a couple days to get out of the school routine and enjoy the newfound freedom that comes with having unstructured time to play, imagine, and explore their surroundings. This goes double for families who use the break as an opportunity to take a trip or to visit distant family members – a short break often results in all of the vacation time being dedicated to the vacation itself, a situation which can be just as stressful for the child as school itself.

For those who believe that the winter break should be eliminated altogether, consider this: according to a new study by academics at City University London, the Christmas holidays play a critical role in preventing teacher burnout and exhaustion. Regardless of the host of benefits that a break affords a student, which range from the opportunity to experience another culture to simply having a chance to be a kid, an education from a teacher who is experiencing burnout isn’t nearly as fulfilling or rewarding as an education from a fully invested educator. It could be argued that in and of itself, that knowledge alone is enough to outweigh all of the potential harm that a lengthy school break could inflict on an education. Speaking about the study, Dr Paul Flaxman, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology at City University London, said: “Our work shows that breaks for teachers, especially at times like half-term and Christmas, are incredibly important for their psychological health. Ensuring that teachers have regular opportunities to recover from the considerable demands of the job will help to prevent burnout. In my opinion, it is vital that these regular breaks in the school calendar are conserved.”

Ultimately, however, the decision for which holiday units should be the focus each year, as well as how winter break should be handled rests in the hands of those who best know their students, in a manner that is most comfortable for all parties involved. Whatever is decided for your district, have a safe and happy December!