New Approaches to Holiday Celebrations

by Teresa Narey

The month of December can feel like a whirlwind. As educators, we often think about how to approach holidays in our classrooms this time of year. Three major holidays are highlighted this month—Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah—but culturally, we know that so much more is at play in the lives of the children in our care and in the world at large. If all of the children in your setting celebrate the same December holiday, then you may simply embrace it and move along. However, for more diverse groups, it may be a struggle to know what to do—to know what families would like for you to do. Before promoting any holiday in your setting, it is best to talk with families and caregivers about their preferences. You might also consider taking an anti-bias education approach, which seeks to promote fairness and inclusion in school settings by offering alternative and informed approaches to celebrating mainstream holidays. Here are 5 examples to consider:

1. Host a “Celebration of Family Traditions”

Christmas is the premier December holiday in the U.S. For those who do not celebrate Christmas and for those who face economic hardship, the season can be a sensitive time. The work of an anti-bias educator is to limit emphasis on the commercialization of holidays and support each family’s tradition during this time. Even if all of the families in your setting celebrate the same holiday, invite grandmother and grandson are reading story book togetherthem in to share a recipe, book, song, or other ritual that is important to them. For families who cannot join, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, authors of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, recommend that you ask them to share a song, book, or experience with you so you can share it with the group. Consider soliciting photographs to share, too, so that those in attendance can see the family enjoying the activity you are describing. Talk with children about the similarities and differences in how they celebrate, even if they are celebrating the same holiday. According to Derman-Sparks and Olsen Edwards, “The aim is for children to understand that ‘Families are different. Each family’s way of celebrating works for them.’” The emphasis should be on the actions or rituals, not on holidays themselves.


2. Welcome Winter Solstice

Keep December simple by welcoming winter. The solstice is observed across countries and cultures. Read winter storybooks and talk about how people and animals prepare for the cold. Go for a walk outside and observe nature. Or, schedule an evening walk with families and offer lanterns. Collect twigs and sticks and offer yarn for children to wrap around them to make simple hanging decorations or even winter wands! If twigs are thin enough, children may be interested in stringing beads on them. If your setting is immersed in nature, consider making a “winter spiral” with pieces of evergreen, sticks, rocks, and other materials. Tinkergarten, an education organization that provides nature-based classes for children, offers easy directions for making winter spirals.


3. Study the effects of light

Light is significant to all December holidays and it’s essential during the winter when we receive less daylight. Use the month of December to observe light in various ways. Visit with children about sources of light—light bulbs, candles, lanterns, streetlamps, etc. Talk about uses for each. Play with light and shadows in your classrooms by making shadow puppets, attaching large sheets of paper to the wall to Child Shadowtrace children’s shadows, and dimming the lights and having scavenger hunts with flashlights. Share images of how light is used across cultures. Talk about the importance of the sun for growing plants and food. Explain how plants conserve energy in the winter when there is less sunlight and warmth to support growth.


4. Explore the concept of giving

The month of December includes a cultural emphasis on giving. Consignment shops and organizations that work with individuals in need often seek clothing and bedding for the winter months. Food donations are also common. Nonprofits solicit end-of-the-year donations to meet fundraising goals and for tax purposes. Children are likely encountering the concept of giving somewhere in their Child Making a Donationdaily lives, regardless of the holidays they celebrate. Read books (see below for suggestions) about giving and talk with children about the relationships between characters. Ask children, “Does giving always involve a wrapped present?” Come up with a group definition for “gift” or “giving.” Can children think of times when they received a gift that wasn’t a present? Perhaps someone gave them a hug when they were really sad or shared a snack when they were hungry. Invite children to think of as many alternatives to wrapped presents as they can. If you know of an organization in need, collect donations from families and other caregivers to donate. You may want to consider ways to integrate the concept of giving into your curriculum all year long to support children’s social awareness.


5. Create your own December tradition with children

After you’ve taken some time to learn about and share the traditions of the children in your setting, visit with them about winter and the holiday season. List all of the information you’ve learned. What questions do children still have? Invite children to make suggestions for how you can commemorate this time of year. Maybe you can host a “show and share” where everyone brings a special item from home and tells a story about it. Maybe you can visit the library and choose a special book to read, or maybe you can invite the librarian to your setting to do a program on winter traditions. Perhaps you decide to make a group collage, where everyone works to paint, draw, and paste a winter scene with images or symbols that reflect their customs. Whatever you decide, be sure it’s a reflection of the children’s inquiries and ideas.


Books

  • The Quilt Maker’s Gift by Jeff BrumbeauQuiletmaker
  • What Makes a Shadow? by Clyde Robert Bulla
  • The First Day of Winter by Denise Fleming
  • Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman
  • Harold Loves His Wooly Hat by Vern Kousky
  • The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
  • The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell
  • What Is Light? by Markette Sheppard
  • All About Light by Lisa Trumbauer
  • Snow Party: A Story of Winter Solstice by Harriet Ziefert

Songs

  • “Nightlight Medley” by Zee AviNightlight
  • “Winter Party” by Caspar Babypants
  • “Solstice Is Here (Winter’s Come”) by Charlie Hope
  • “Friends Make the Best Presents” by Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (PBS Kids)
  • “Solstice Time Is Here” by Dinosaur Train (PBS Kids)
  • “Stars” and Skinnamarink” by Lynn Kleiner
  • “This Little Light of Mine” by Elizabeth Mitchell
  • “Use Your Light” by Peg + Cat (PBS Kids)
  • “One Light, One Sun” by Raffi

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