December 8, 2014

The Key to Celebrating December Holidays in School

(This post has been updated for 2022.)
December used to be very difficult for me. For many years, I fought the transition to the new year, was generally exhausted at the end of the year, and just wanted to hide. I described myself as a 'cranky Jewish kid who felt left out by Christmas.'
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I have a love-hate relationship with December.  On the one hand, November is over and all the attendant craziness of Election Day (a day off for students in my former district but devoted to professional development for teachers), Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, report cards (at least if your district operates on a quarter system), and parent conferences is done.  But on the other hand, winter vacation is imminent and it's not just the kids who are excited.  The last week of the calendar year is, for many students and teachers in the US, the first long vacation they have since the start of school and, naturally, people are not as focused on schoolwork as they are at other times of the year.

Guidelines for Celebrating Holidays in Public Schools
Unlike November, the holidays in December are religious in origin and this can be problematic for public schools.  How should educators handle displays of Christmas trees or Hanukkah menorahs in classrooms or offices?  What is acceptable and what is not?  How can teachers be sensitive to students who are not Christian yet still acknowledge Christmas for the majority of students who celebrate it?
These are not easy questions to answer but, fortunately, there is an excellent guide available that can help.  Years ago, I got a hard copy of this booklet and I am happy to see it now available online for free.  Published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), it's a concise explanation of what kinds of religious objects and activities are permitted in public schools in the US, with plenty of examples as additional guidance. 
Images of Hanukkah and Christmas decorations with title of blog post overlaid in yellow circle on top
Source: The ESL Nexus
It always bothered me as a student when my teachers made us do Christmas-themed activities in class.  Didn't they know that not everyone was Christian?  But as a kid, I didn't speak up.  Decades later, the same thoughts went through my head whenever I saw my teaching colleagues do lessons that included symbols of Christmas but not other religions or when I saw them put Christmas trees in their classroom without also displaying objects exemplifying Hanukkah or Diwali or other religious holidays.  But as a fellow teacher, I did speak up, depending on how well I knew the other teacher.  In one case, I even gave a large dreidel and cloth menorah to a teacher friend to put next to his Christmas tree.

December Holidays Classroom Resources for Students
As long as instructional materials contain images of more than just one religious tradition, then according to the ADL they are acceptable in public schools.  Here's an example of a resource I created that includes both Christmas and Hanukkah symbols:
Cover of Color by Number Winter Fun TPT resource
Click HERE for more info
And activities that teach about religions are also acceptable as long as they do not promote those religions.  Here's a resource that teaches about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa:
Cover of If-Then Statements about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa TPT Resource
For more info, click HERE
More Resources for Teaching about Holidays in December 
And here's a link to a compilation from MiddleWeb of resources for teaching about religious holidays -- it has a wealth of good information.  It includes links not just to resources about December holidays but religious holidays that occur at other times of the year as well.


Given the diverse student population in the US nowadays, I think educators are much more aware of the necessity and importance of not promoting one religion over the other than when I was a kid.  However, sometimes people do not realize how something might be doing that.  The booklet by the ADL is a great resource that can help educators determine if their activities and displays are acceptable or not.  The TPT resources will help you keep your students engaged during the busy December holiday season and the resources from MiddleWeb give you even more options for teaching about religious holidays in general.

Happy Holidays!