This blog post was originally published December 14, 2022 and was updated on December 13, 2023.
As the first half of the year comes to a close, classrooms across the country are ending on a high note by celebrating the holiday season — Christmas decoration, secret santa, maybe even a Christmas party! While I love to see students having fun together in classrooms decorated with student art, these holiday activities can have a not-so-jolly effect on some students. To help keep the end of the year a fun, engaging, and inclusive time, it is important for teachers to be culturally responsive to the different students in the room.
How We Talk About the Holidays Matters
Growing up, I lived in a very Jewish community where Christmas never made an appearance in classrooms, and it didn’t cross my mind that it would in many others. Fast forward to my first year teaching at a high school in rural Louisiana as the holiday season approached. Christmas trees began to pop up all around the school, bulletin boards transformed into Christmas displays, students and staff were engaged in secret Santa activities, and the classroom conversations were all about what people were doing, and what people wanted, for Christmas.
Honestly, I was taken aback. I was surprised to see such a focus on Christmas in a public school. I felt very uncomfortable in a setting that so obviously ignored me, my religion, and my traditions, not to mention every other non-Christmas-celebrating person in the school. I thought about how this would make a student feel if they were surrounded by Christmas all day, every day for almost an entire month.
When, as a school, there is a decision to highlight Christmas and Christmas alone, there is a message communicated to students: Christmas is an important holiday that we care about. In this message also comes another: We don’t view other holidays, traditions, or religions as necessary to talk about or make visible.
Students that do not celebrate Christmas may feel alienated by the activities and decorations around the building. They may feel uncomfortable talking about their own traditions when the prevailing narrative is so clearly focused on one version of the holiday season. While I’m sure the goal is never to make any student feel left out or unseen, the outcome remains the same when schools and classrooms make Christmas a focal point.
Small Shifts Can Make Everyone Feel Included
To help ensure all students feel welcome and included during this time of the year, teachers and schools can make small changes that still allow students to celebrate and enjoy the close of the year.
Rather than having students draw Christmas trees or decorating your room in red and green, focus your activities and decor on celebrating the end of the year. Students can create drawings of the highlights from their past year or goals for the new year to hang around the room. Similarly, if your school opts for spirit days at this time of year, consider how you can shift the focus off of a specific holiday and onto students. Rather than a red and green dress up day, students can come in the school’s colors or even just their favorite colors as a spirit day.
When talking about this time of year, think about ways in which you can avoid specifically talking about one holiday. Instead of asking students what they are doing for Christmas or what gifts they asked for, ask students what they are doing over the winter break. This allows students that do not celebrate Christmas to share their own traditions with you. By asking students more open-ended questions, you show that you value all different answers and are excited to learn more about your students’ lives outside the classroom, whether that is celebrating Christmas or not.
If your students look forward to a classroom Christmas party at this time of year, consider how you can shift this celebration to be more inclusive. In my own classroom while teaching 6th grade, we held a Bison Bash in honor of my classroom’s mascot, the bison. This holiday was one that we made up as a class and decided how we wanted to celebrate. Students were able to share the sorts of traditions, foods, and activities they enjoyed from their own families with one another as we planned our celebration. I invited students to bring whatever traditional holiday foods they wanted, whether that meant something they cooked with family or just a favorite snack they always had during special occasions at home. It was incredible to watch my students talk about their own families, holidays, and traditions so openly when they were given a space to do so. I was even able to bring in traditional Jewish foods to share with them!
By working together as a class to decide what your celebration should look like, and avoiding Christmas-specific expectations, all students have the opportunity to feel included and welcomed. The end of the year is a special time that should be celebrated; students have been working hard for months and are about to leave the classroom for an extended period of time. Bringing a culturally responsive lens to this celebratory time ensures that all students feel excited, included, and valued.
At Fishtank Learning, we recognize and celebrate the many different traditions, experiences, and celebrations present in classrooms around the world. We encourage teachers to learn more about their individual students and continually make all students feel confident sharing their unique stories. We wish all of our teachers and school staff a safe and happy new year!