Winter Holiday Activities for the Middle and High School Classroom

Students Can Mark Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or the Winter Solstice

How can teachers, especially in public schools, use the December holidays to their advantage? One way is to celebrate customs and holidays from around the world with students using a variety of activities. 

Here are some ideas for meaningful and educational activities for students ahead of their winter break, making use of holiday themes celebrated near the end of the year.

Christmas 

According to Christian belief, Jesus was the son of God born to a virgin in a manger.

Countries around the world celebrate this holiday in various ways. Each of these customs as described below are ripe for investigation by students.

Christmas Around the World

  • Costa Rica - The weather is warm at Christmastime. Trees are popular. Tamales and Empanadas are traditionally eaten.
  • England - Santa Claus is known here by the name Father Christmas. Christmas trees are decorated and stockings are hung. A drink called  Wassail is served. Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26th which is also the feast day of St. Stephen. On this day, it is traditional to give alms to the poor and less fortunate.
  • France - A popular dessert called the "buche de noel" or "Christmas Log" is consumed on Christmas. Often, a feast occurs after Midnight Mass on Christmas eve called the "rveillon." Gifts are given by "pere noel" which means Father Christmas. He travels with a man called Pre Fouettard who tells pere noel how the children behaved during the previous year. In some parts of France, gifts are given on both December 6th (St. Nicholas' feast day) and on Christmas. Adults give gifts on New Years.
  • Italy - Christmas is celebrated with a large feast after a 24-hour fast before Christmas. Children usually do not receive their presents until January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. These gifts are brought by Le Befana, a woman who flies around on a broom.
  • Kenya - Lots of food is prepared, especially goat. They serve a flat bread called chapatis. Groups often go singing house to house and receive gifts of some kind from the occupants. On Christmas, these singers give any gifts to their church.
  • United States - Christmas trees, real or artificial, are put up in homes early in December. They are usually decorated with multi-color lights and various ornaments. Stockings are hung, often on the fireplace mantel. On Christmas eve, children set out cookies or other goodies for Santa Claus. On Christmas morning, children rush to the tree to see the gifts there and in their stockings.

Ideas for Christmas-Themed Projects

  • Investigate the legend of Santa Claus.
  • Investigate different aspects of the Christmas celebration including the tree, the decorations, the stockings, the carols and more.
  • Perform Christmas songs in either English or other languages.
  • Investigate traditional foods for each culture and create them for the rest of the class to sample.
  • Present skits representing each cultures' customs.
  • In many countries, Christmas celebrations are becoming more like those in America. Debate whether the loss of the countries' traditional celebrations is good or bad.
  • Read O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and discuss its meaning.
  • Students could write in their journals about numerous topics including:
    • Worst Christmas experience
    • Best Christmas experience
    • Family traditions
    • What Santa Claus means to them
    • Is Christmas too commercial?

    Winter Solstice

    The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the sun is closest to the earth, occurs on the 21st of December. In ancient times, this was celebrated by various methods by Pagan religions.

    Groups ranging from Germanic tribes to the Roman populace celebrated mid-winter festivals during our month of December. Of course today, three major holidays are celebrated in America during the month of December: Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. We can create our own festival allowing us to experience how other cultures celebrate these holidays.

    Method of Presentation

    Many methods exist for creating this festival atmosphere. These range from simple classroom stations presented by groups of students about each culture to schoolwide activities that take place in a large auditorium/cafeteria and allow for more than just static presentations.

    Students can sing, cook, give presentations, perform skits, and more. This is a great opportunity to have students work cooperatively in groups to gather information about holidays and customs.

    Chanukah

    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. On Chanukah:

    • Every night for the eight days of the festival of Chanukah, lights are lit on a Menorah to commemorate the miracle at the Temple over 2000 years ago.
    • While work is not prohibited, people generally refrain from work while the Chanukah lights are lit.
    • The dreidel is used by families to play a game. The history behind this game played during Chanukah is believed to relate back to a ban on work while the Chanukah candles are lit.
    • Those celebrating the holiday eat traditionally ​oily foods to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
    • Children are given presents and money during the holiday. Many families give out presents each day of the holiday. This relates to rewarding children for Torah study.
    • Many different traditions exist around the world for this celebration. Read about a few of these here.

    Ideas for Chanukah Presentations

    In addition to adapting the ideas listed above for Christmas celebrations, here are some ideas for Chanukah-themed projects.

    Students can:

    • Research the background to Chanukah
    • Play dreidel games
    • Perform Chanukah songs

    Kwanzaa

    Kwanzaa, meaning "the first fruits," was developed in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. It gives African-Americans a holiday dedicated to preserving, revitalizing, and promoting African-American culture. It focuses on seven principles with emphasis on the unity of the black family: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. This holiday is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st.

    • On each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, greetings are exchanged in Swahili. The question, 'Habari gani?' is asked and each day the principle for that day is the answer. For example, the first day's answer would be 'Umoja' or unity.
    • Gifts are given to children and 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. One is black and represents the people. This candle is lit first. Three red candles are placed to the left of the black candle representing the struggle for African Americans. Three green candles are placed to the right of the black candle representing the future and hope. These candles are lit from left to right, one for each day.

    Ideas for Kwanzaa Presentations

    • Have students discuss each of the seven principles and why they are important.
    • Students can discuss the necessity of holidays in making up group identities.
    • Speakers can come in to discuss Kwanzaa and how it is celebrated.
    • Students can create a traditional Kwanzaa celebration in the classroom.
    • The Civil Rights movement can be discussed in the context of the Kwanzaa celebration.