Classroom Activities to Try During the Winter Holidays

Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa

Santa Claus Blueprint

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How can teachers, especially in public schools, use the many December holidays to their advantage without excluding any groups of students? One way is to celebrate the rich customs and holidays of the season from around the world with students through a variety of informational activities. 

Try these meaningful and fun activities in the weeks leading up to winter break to keep your students engaged and teach them about a few common end-of-year celebrations and customs.

Christmas

According to Christian belief, Jesus was the son of God born to a virgin in a manger. Countries celebrate the religious aspects of this holiday in very different ways. Christmas is also a secular holiday of which the figure Santa Claus is often the focus. Santa is believed by many children to travel in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer to deliver them presents on Christmas Eve.

Learn more about Christmas around the world by reading the traditions of these countries, both religious and secular. Have your students investigate their unique customs.

United States

Christmas trees, real or artificial, are usually put up in homes early in December in the United States. They are often decorated with multi-color lights and ornaments. Stockings, a decoration in the shape of a sock, are also hung. On Christmas Eve, many children set out cookies and other treats for Santa Claus and his reindeer. On Christmas morning, children rush to the tree to open gifts.

England

Santa Claus is known by the name Father Christmas in England. Here, Christmas trees are decorated and stockings are hung as well. A spiced cider drink called wassail is usually served. On Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26th, the tradition is to give to those less fortunate. This day is also the feast day of St. Stephen.

France

A popular dessert called the Bûche de Noël or Christmas log is consumed on Christmas day in France. Often, a feast called the réveillon takes place just after Midnight Mass, a Catholic time of worship, on Christmas Eve. Gifts are given to children by Père Noël, which translates to Father Christmas. He travels with a man called Père Fouettard, who tells Père Noël how children behaved during the previous year. In some parts of France, gifts are given on both December 6th (St. Nicholas' feast day) and Christmas day. Adults also give gifts on New Year's Eve.

Italy

Christmas in Italy is celebrated with a large feast after a 24-hour fast before Christmas. Children do not typically receive their presents until January 6th, the day of Epiphany. This day symbolizes the day that the Magi visited Jesus Christ at the manger. Gifts are brought by Le Befana or Befana, a woman who flies around on a broom. The legend goes that Befana, a housewife, was visited by the Magi on the night they visited Jesus.

Kenya

Great quantities of food are prepared and goat is especially abundant during Kenyan Christmas celebrations. A flatbread called chapati is often served. Houses are decorated with paper decorations, balloons, and flowers. Many children in this African country also believe in Santa Claus. Groups frequently go from house to house singing and receiving gifts of some kind from the houses' occupants in the days leading up to Christmas. On Christmas day, they give any gifts they received to their church.

Costa Rica

The weather is warm at Christmastime in Costa Rica, making it a beautiful holiday full of life. As Costa Rica is predominantly Catholic, Christmas is customarily observed as both a religious and commercial affair. Most Costa Ricans attend Misa de Gallo, Midnight Mass, and display nativity scenes. On Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes out to be filled by the baby Jesus or Niño Dios. Tamales and empanadas are commonly eaten at celebrations.

Christmas-Related Projects

These are only some of the ways that students will enjoy studying Christmas traditions. Remember not to assume that your students celebrate this holiday themselves.

  • Investigate the legend of Santa Claus in a given country.
  • Study different aspects of the Christmas celebration including the tree, decorations, stockings, carols and more.
  • Perform or translate Christmas songs in at least one other language.
  • Research traditional Christmas foods of a culture and make them for the rest of the class to sample.
  • Present skits representing the origin story of each culture's version of Christmas.
  • In many countries, Christmas celebrations are becoming more like those in America. Debate whether the loss of traditional celebrations is positive or negative.
  • Read O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and discuss its meaning.
  • Journal prompts such as:
    • Worst/best Christmas experience
    • Family traditions
    • Important aspects of the holiday for them
    • Has Christmas become too commercialized?
    • Should people be allowed to say "Merry Christmas" wherever they want to?

Hanukkah

This holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated over eight days beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. In 165 BCE, the Jews, led by the Maccabees, defeated the Greeks in war. When they arrived to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, they found only one small flask of oil to light the Menorah. Miraculously, this oil lasted for eight days.

Hanukkah Traditions

Today, Hanukkah is celebrated in many different ways. One common tradition is, for every night of the eight days of the festival of Hanukkah, lights are lit on a Menorah to commemorate the miracle at the Temple over 2000 years ago. While working during this time is no longer prohibited as it was many years ago, people generally refrain from working while Hanukkah lights are lit. However, working within one hour of lighting the candles is not allowed.

The dreidel is used by many Jewish families to play a game. This game is said to have been invented as a way for Jews to conceal their Torah studies from Greeks in a time when this was outlawed. There are many rituals performed by Jews in their homes with only their families, such as reciting blessings each night and lighting the candles.

Those celebrating the holiday traditionally eat ​oily foods, such as gefilte fish and fried potato pancakes, to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Children are often given presents and money during this holiday, often for each day of the Hanukkah festival. This custom arose as a way to reward children for studying the Torah.

Hanukkah-Related Projects

Try these Hanukkah-themed projects with your students to get them thinking about this religious holiday.

  • Research the origins of Hanukkah.
  • Compare and contrast Hanukkah with another major Jewish holiday.
  • Study the traditional foods of the holiday and prepare them for the class.
  • Identify differences between how Hanukkah was celebrated shortly after its origin and how it is celebrated now.
  • Study the relationship between the Jews and the Greeks around 165 BCE.
  • Research the Jewish calendar and note key differences between that and the Gregorian calendar.
  • Speculate as to why the oil was meaningful to the Jews that celebrated the first Hanukkah.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which translates to "the first fruits", was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. This professor wanted to give African Americans a holiday dedicated to preserving, revitalizing, and promoting African American culture. Though not as old as other holidays, it is rich in tradition.

Kwanzaa focuses on seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The most emphasis is placed on the unity of the Black family. This holiday is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st.

Kwanzaa Traditions

On each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, greetings are exchanged in Swahili. People celebrating Kwanzaa ask Habari Gani?, meaning "What is the news?". The answer is the principle of that day. For example, the first day's answer would be "Umoja" or unity. Gifts or zawadi are given to children and these include a book and a heritage symbol. The colors of Kwanzaa are red, black, and green.

Seven candles in a kinara are lit, one for each day of the holiday. These are called mishumaa saba. The candle that is lit first is black and represents the people. Three red candles are placed to the left of the black candle representing the struggle of African Americans. Three green candles are placed to the right of the black candle representing the future and hope of African Americans. After the center candle, the black candle, has been lit, the rest are lit from the outside in, alternating from left to right.

Kwanzaa-Related Projects

This holiday might be unfamiliar for many of your students and that's why it's especially important for them to explore.

  • Discuss each of the seven principles of this holiday and why they are important to Black Americans.
  • Invite speakers to come in and share about Kwanzaa and how it is celebrated.
  • Discuss the role of group identity in this holiday.
  • Study traditional Kwanzaa celebrations and choose one to recreate.
  • Talk about the Civil Rights movement in relation to Kwanzaa.
  • Examine the ways that the origin of this holiday differs from the origins of others such as Christmas.
  • Debate whether Kwanzaa should be considered a public holiday.