Holiday savvy

Make the most of the holiday season to teach kids about cultural diversity.

Because it is a month of holidays, December is chock-full of "teachable moments," especially ones that celebrate America's cultural diversity. These teaching tips were developed for classrooms, but we think parents will find also find them useful for teaching children about other cultures and holidays.

Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa are three major holidays, but be sure to find out if there are others celebrated by any of your child's friends. Sometimes teachers choose to ignore the holidays, worried by concerns over political correctness. However, multicultural educational experts note that this is kind of like ignoring the holiday elephant in the middle of the classroom!

Our experts suggest teachers include these holidays in their lessons and embrace multiculturalism by looking at the celebrations in a new way: by noticing the secular principles and values these holidays have in common. (For your convenience and a quick review, you will find a brief summary of Chistmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukah at the end of the activity section.) When you think of these holidays in a new light, you will notice that each one emphasizes:

  • Relating to family and community
  • Reaching out to help others
  • Remembering/honoring the past

Please keep these three principles in mind as you review the activities. Think of these as the "three Rs" of this holiday season: Relate, reach out, remember.

Suggested lessons and activities, grades K-3

1. Create a "Three Rs" bulletin board

Ask your students what holidays they will be celebrating this month. Write the names of the holidays on the board. Tell students that you are going to discuss how they celebrate these holidays and learn to think about them in a new way. As students tell you the ways they celebrate, they will mention family dinners, lighting candles and gift giving. This gives you the foundation for discussing the "Three Rs," which will help you create a three-part bulletin-board display.

Relating to family and community

List and discuss family get-togethers, including larger events that include the community, such as those held in churches, synagogues or even shopping malls and other public places. As students list their experiences, explain how these events with relatives and friends are ways they relate to, or feel close to, family and community during these holidays. Have students draw or bring family photos of these communal events. Also, challenge students to find notices or pictures of public/community celebrations in newspapers and magazines (i.e., candle lightings in a plaza, decorations in stores, dinners at the Fire Hall, and so on). These illustrations could be the first third of a "Three Rs" bulletin board.

Reaching out to help others

Of course, gift giving and receiving will be a big part of the students' comments. Encourage students to talk about and list what they are going to give, as well as what they expect to get. Have them talk about food drives or other ways that people reach out to help others at this time of year. Encourage students to think about ways they can reach out to help others by doing things, instead of giving material things. Have students draw pictures or bring photos or newspaper notices of such "reaching-out" events. These pictures are the second third of your "Three Rs" bulletin board.

Remembering the past

Discuss and list ways holidays pay homage to the past. Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukah all have rituals, usually including candles, to commemorate past events. Have students bring in photos or draw pictures of these ritual remembrances. These pictures are the final third of your "Three Rs" bulletin board.

2. Create a unique remembrance candelabra

Students can design an innovative December candelabra. Have each student cut a large candle out of construction paper. On the "flame" of their candle, students can draw a picture of something to remember from the past. This can be something from their own holiday heritage, or it can simply be a picture of things or people they want to remember! The candelabra do not have to be related to holidays, only to people or things that children wish to remember.

3. Make a "Relate, Reach Out and Remember" quilt

Provide each child with an 8- to 10-inch square of construction paper. Have them draw and color things that they do (or would like to do) to get close to their family and/or community, ways they can give to others or something in the past that they would like to remember. The children's illustrations do not have to be holiday themed or reality based! Encourage imaginative ideas. Make sure that each child puts his or her name on the square. The squares can be glued together with a border of construction paper (or fabric, if available). This quilt would make a terrific December classroom decoration.

Background information on winter holidays


The story of Chanukah began more than 2,300 years ago in the land of Judea (now present-day Israel) when the Syrian king Antiochus ordered the Jewish people to worship the Greek gods. Judah Maccabee and his four brothers refused and formed an army. After three years of fighting, the Maccabees were finally successful in driving the Syrians out of Judea, and they reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees cleaned the temple, removing the Greek symbols and statues and regaining their religious freedom.

When Judah and his followers finished cleaning the temple, they wanted to light the N'er Tamid, the eternal light, which is an oil lamp that is present in every Jewish house of worship, and once lit should never be extinguished. But there was only enough oil for a single day. The oil lamp was filled and lit. A miracle then occurred, as the tiny amount of oil stayed lit not for one day, but eight days. For this reason, Chanukah, the Festival of the Lights, lasts for eight days.

Today Jewish families gather together and light a candle every night of Chanukah in a special candleholder called a menorah. The menorah holds nine candles, one for each of the eight nights and one to light the other candles. Families exchange gifts, sing special songs and share in traditional holiday meals to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees and the triumph of religious freedom.


Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, conceived in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Kwanzaa celebrates family, community and culture. It is an African and Pan African holiday, which is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. The word "Kwanzaa" comes from a Swahili word that means "first fruits." "First fruits" celebrations are harvest festivals that have taken place in Africa for centuries, dating as far back as the days of Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Kwanzaa is based on the basic activities of "first fruit" celebrations and has seven main principles:

  1. Umoja: Unity
  2. Kujichagulia: Self-determination
  3. Ujima: Collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamaa: Community support
  5. Nia: Purpose
  6. Kuumba: Creativity
  7. Imani: Faith

Families gather together during Kwanzaa and light a candle in a special candleholder, called a kinara, each of the seven nights. They discuss one principle per night and honor family ancestors. Kwanzaa celebrates the connection of African Americans to their African culture and their bonds together as a community.


Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrated worldwide to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus Christ, a carpenter from the town of Nazareth, was the son of God. They believe that God brought him to earth to help people learn how to live together in peace and harmony. In addition to its religious meaning, Christmas has evolved into a holiday of joyous traditions and symbols.

Many countries around the world have unique Christmas traditions, but almost all of them have some form of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Santa Claus is said to be based on Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (which is now Turkey). Saint Nicholas was known for his kindness, charitable deeds and wisdom. After his death, his remains were taken to Italy, and over the years many pilgrims came to visit the church in which he was buried. These pilgrims brought stories of him back to their native lands, and over time many versions of Santa Claus evolved. In Holland Sinterklass doesn't use a sleigh, he sails on a ship. In Australia, Father Christmas arrives on water skis. In Germany, St. Nicolas fills shoes with nuts and apples. In France, Pere Noel brings presents for children; while in Italy, a good witch, La Befana, delivers the goodies. No matter where Christmas is celebrated, it is almost always accompanied by warm family gatherings and caring exchanges of love and gifts.