Hey ho, hey ho, ’tis the season for generosity and sharing, so here’s a bonus blog post to help you get through those last couple weeks of the holiday season before break.
A word of caution: holidays deal inherently with peoples’ religious and family beliefs and traditions, and thus need some sensitive handling. For this reason, many teachers prefer to skip discussion of holidays altogether (jump to the bottom for the section of good non-holiday books). Others prefer to treat the weeks leading up to winter break as a time to explore all holiday traditions. In the short amount of time that I had (a few days – sorry, I was doing NaNoWriMo last month) to compile this list, I’ve tried to be as comprehensive and thoughtful as possible, but I encourage you to think through any holiday project you introduce into your class, and how you are representing.
The little holiday that could – a minor Jewish holiday that holds its own next to the Christmas juggernaut. (If you’re new to Jewish holidays, this one commemorates a miracle of plenty, similar in spirit to the Christian story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but involving lamp oil for the temple instead of food.) Hanukkah’s already well on its way as of this writing, so I’m putting it up top in case you’re a little behind like I am. 😛
Why it’s great: This sweet story, like The Miracle of the Potato Latkes below, is a semi-modern reinterpretation of the Hannukah miracle. Bonus: also touches on immigration. A little Jewish boy coming to America to earn money for his family back home is shipwrecked on an iceberg (he could have escaped, but generously gave the last life-boat spot to someone else). Through the divine intervention of a polar bear, he survives 8 days, all through Hannukah, until he can be rescued – and rewarded.
The bulletin board: Throughout the story, the boy Simon gives. He is going to America so he can give all his hard-earned money to his family. He gives the last life-boat seat to another man. He even gives his Hannukah treats to the polar bear. It is when we give generously that we see the miracle of plenty. Have your students brainstorm a list of things they can give, could be a smile, a hug, a kind word, or maybe use this to launch a canned food drive, and then over the course of the month, have students write what they gave that day on a post-it (one post-it per item given), and use the post-its to graph the month of giving. You’ll have a giant graph by the end.
Why it’s great: Like Simon and the Bear, The Miracle of the Potato Latkes is a story of a Hannukah miracle, this time in a Russian Jewish community. It’s a more Jewish-feeling story since it focuses on potato latkes, and might be a good way to introduce some Hannukah specifics.
The bulletin board: Like Simon above, Tante Golda gives everything she has before experiencing her Hannukah miracle, so you could do the same bulletin board as you did for Simon. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, have a hot plate, a large classroom, and some adult help, you could try making potato latkes in the classroom. They’re fairly simple, here’s a good starter recipe, and the kids should enjoy getting their hands sticky squishing the cakes together, but this does involve raw egg and hot oil, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this for your first cooking-in-the-classroom experiment. Also, as with any cooking project with children, know the status of any food allergies among your students. If you do go the recipe route, you can photograph the whole process, and then have the kids write up the recipe/procedure, and share the latkes with other classes/teachers. (They taste better if you share).
Why it’s great: It’s actually a song, with Woody Guthrie lyrics set to Klezmatics music, and the book comes with a CD (although you can also find it on YouTube). The gist of the song/book is that you don’t need a lot of money to make a special Hannukah, just friends and family and hugs. The song format makes the story a little scattered and fragmented, so maybe not great as a stand-alone book if this is your students’ first encounter with Hannukah, but it would be a great addition to an ongoing study of Hannukah.
The bulletin board: Make a menorah out of construction paper, and have students come up with one thing that brings light to their life for each candle stick (hugs, my family, grandma’s cookies, my dog, etc). (Please note that this is NOT the actual symbolic meaning of the menorah lights, it’s just meant as a heartwarming activity sort of connected to Hannukah.)
Why it’s great: This is perfect if you want to include a more comprehensive look at Jewish holidays. It’s short enough to read aloud in one sitting, which makes its treatment of each holiday too brief to stand alone, but it’s a great supplement or starter book for a mini-unit. Also, it rhymes.
The bulletin board: Have the kids jigsaw seasonal holidays from different traditions (both Jewish and non-Jewish), each student writing about and illustrating a different holiday. You could get a rough approximation of the style of illustration in the book by having them do rubbings or sponge-painting the background for their illustration. Group the holidays by season – winter, spring, summer, fall – and you’ll have a rough calendar of holidays around the world.
Hanukkah and Christmas together
5. Light the Lights! by Margaret Moorman – kinda long, but very simply tells the story of a little girl who celebrates both holidays each year.
Why it’s great: It normalizes the experience of being bi-cultural, which a lot of students live these days in increasing numbers.
The bulletin board: Super-simple, and an echo of #3 above – the theme of lights is carried through both Hannukah and Christmas, so have each kid make a construction paper flame, star, or candle, decorate it, and write about what brings light into their lives (metaphorically, not literally). Have a share-out where you encourage the kids to look for commonalities in their experiences.
The Christmas Classics
I’m going to assume that Christmas needs no introduction, since you can’t escape it after Halloween. I’ve subdivided here a little since there are a bazillion Christmas books out there.
6. Twas the Night Before Christmas – multiple versions, but the classic 2011 edition illustrated by Charles Santore is lovely.
Why it’s great: It’s a very traditional piece of the modern American Christmas canon. It rhymes.
The bulletin board: Have students write and illustrate what they do in their family the night before Christmas (the night before a special guest comes, or a special occasion, if they don’t celebrate Christmas). Put them up on the bulletin board and frame it like a giant window, so we’re peeking into their lives a little. Bonus points if you add snow.
Why it’s great: This one’s a classic for a reason. The Grinch takes all the material trappings of Christmas away, but the Whos down in Whoville have Christmas anyway, and melt the poor Grinch’s undersized heart in the process. A good start on a lesson in the less commercial aspects of Christmas, without being religious.
The bulletin board: Have students create a full-body (but not full-size unless you have a whole hallway!) self-portrait with arms out a little (I would totally pre-cut these and just let them add their facial features, hair, and clothes). On the heart/body area, they write a little about their favorite non-commercial aspect of the holiday season (singing, family, giving, etc.). Then arrange the self-portraits hand-to-hand, like the Whos stand holding hands when they sing their Christmas songs.
8. A Christmas Carol – by Charles Dickens. – There are a couple illustrated versions out, although they may not be abridged. You can pick out the best parts and skip the rest, or show one of the many movie adaptations.
Why it’s great: It’s the original Grinch tale, and goes to show not only that Christmas is about giving, not getting, and love, not money or stuff, but also that it’s never too late to be a better person.
The bulletin board: Give students legal-size paper or something similarly longer than standard letter size, fold it into third, and do a sequencing activity – something nice about Christmas past, Christmas present (what they’re looking forward to this year), and Christmas future – what it’ll be like to make Christmas nice for others. You can expand this to include other holidays like Hannukah, or something nice about school or their family for those who don’t celebrate at all.
Why it’s great – Magical! With battles and presents and candy that comes to life! Susan Jeffers’s version is short enough to read aloud to young children (rare with this story), but very faithful to the classic. There are also some modern takes, like Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew which also tackle the material in an accessible way.
The bulletin board: This story is pretty complex and a bit random (in the manner of magical fantasies), so I would definitely do a sequencing activity with the kiddos to make sure they can follow. Then I’d let them make masks of their favorite characters – you can put the masks on the bulletin board with a blurb from each student about why that character is their favorite (and play the music while they work!).
Incidentally, you could also use the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King as a theme for a few friendly skill-reinforcement competitions. Make yourself a Mouse King mask, and individual students or table teams have to successfully practice a skill (rhyming, spelling, vowel identification, arithmetic, times tables, anything) in order to gain points, and the whole class has to gather enough points to defeat the Mouse King. Prize – Up to you.
Why it’s great: – A Santa story that involves trains – it’s like the Hogwarts Express before there was such a thing. Magic, and fairy tales come to life.
The bulletin board: I wouldn’t even tie this explicitly to Christmas, I’d make every student write a short fantasy about a train taking them somewhere impossible, and what happens to them there. Then I’d give them some (probably pre-cut into train shapes) paper to design their own train car, and pair them up on the bulletin board together. Some questions for them to consider: What kind of setting does the train drive through? Does it have only one destination, or many? What magical creatures would you be most interested in meeting?
Newer Christmas Fare
Why it’s great: What do we most need to have Christmas spirit? Each other!
The bulletin board: Have children write to or about their special person at holiday time. Have a care for foster children in your class, or children who might be having big difficulties at home – they may not have a special person at home, in which case you may want to encourage them (and the rest of the class, so they don’t feel singled out) to think of someone who makes the holiday special at school (a friend, teacher, aide, etc.)
Why it’s great: Speaking of children who might not have a special person available to them, this is a gorgeous true story about a homeless boy and the friend he made in a woman who was passing by and stopped. (Spoiler Alert: 30 years later, they’re still friends). If you can read only one holiday book this month, I’d choose this one.
The bulletin board: You can almost forget the bulletin board – use this book to start a discussion about people who can’t have the nice holidays that they show on TV (homeless, temporary housing, nursing home, animal shelter, refugees, food insecure, pick your favorite cause). With the class, brainstorm ways that you, as a class, can help be a friend to someone during the holidays. Maybe you can organize some caroling (or have them make some holiday cards) at the local nursing home, or hospital, or start a food drive, or a toy drive, or maybe the kids will come up with something more creative. Or for a long-term homework project, have the kids choose someone to actively seek out and make happy this month, someone maybe a little out of their comfort zone, even if it’s just their annoying sibling, and have them record their experiences in a journal. This narrative really gets at the holiday spirit in a deep way, so swing for the bleachers.
Why it’s great: Another colorful, silly, rhyming book about how the holidays are all about the people we share them with.
The bulletin board: Have students write a holiday valentine of sorts to someone (maybe encourage them to write them to each other?) – not to be romantic, but to express appreciation. Suggest the sentence stem “You are my merry because…” “You are my silly because…” “You are my joy because…” etc.
Why it’s great: A truly refreshing spin on the Santa story. Yukio wants nothing more than an EPIC snowball fight, but all the other ninjas won’t play because they’re afraid it will put them on the naughty list. So Yukio ambushes Santa, sets the whole ninja complex on the intruder, and just when things have spun out of control and Yukio is sure that he’s ruined Christmas for everyone, they find all the presents, and a note for Yukio, saying Santa hopes he enjoyed the EPIC snowball fight engineered just for him.
The bulletin board: This story appears to have started with the simple question, “What would a ninja want from Santa?” Have students pick their favorite character/superhero/magical creature and ask the same question. How would Santa go about delivering it? See if you can get them to think about experiences more than things. Perhaps Nate the Great would prefer an epic detective case where he really gets to be the hero. Etc. What would Santa give to fairies? Unicorns? The cartoon character du jour? They can either write letters to Santa as their favorite character, or write an illustrate a scenario in which Santa delivers their character’s wish.
Why it’s great: This book is a little old, but kinda genius if you happen to want to study real-world organizational systems during December. This would be a great companion to any kind of community or community-helpers unit. It breaks down Santa’s operation into divisions, like Reindeer Care, Post Office, Manufacturing, Packaging, Delivery, etc., and really goes into detail about the kinds of jobs that might be included in each division. Very thoughtful. Also fun cartoon illustrations, and lots and lots of DIAGRAMS.
The bulletin board: Have students decide where they would belong in Santa’s organization, and why. Have them write a formal cover letter explaining why they would be perfect for the job. Title the board North Pole Department of Applications. You could also extend this activity by having students brainstorm all the department/personnel it takes to run the school. (Cafeteria Division, Administration, Instruction, Maintenance, etc.) Have kids make a graphic in the style of the book illustrating how the school departments work together.
Good Companion Books
These ones work especially well for a Venn diagram-style comparison with some classic texts. Make a giant Venn Diagram out of wreath leaves, write the titles on the bows at the bottom, and voila. Bulletin board.
Pair it with: A Christmas Carol. Both books look back on Christmases past and reflect.
17. Olaf’s Night Before Christmas by Disney Book Group and Disney Storybook Team
Pair it with: the traditional Night Before Christmas. More similarities than differences, but kids will appreciate Olaf’s style of telling – and he gets a warm hug for Christmas! Perfect.
Kwanzaa gets short shrift in the December holiday trilogy, but it’s a meaningful holiday for about 2 million Americans and about 30 million around the world. It starts on Dec. 26, lasts for a week, and celebrates African cultural heritage through the lens of the African Diaspora, and centers around the seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. It is often celebrated in addition to, rather than instead of, Christmas or Hannukah in black religious households.
Why it’s great: Fun illustrations, clear, child-friendly prose, and a straight-forward journey through the holiday, this is a great introduction book for Kwanzaa. It’s also THE ONLY Kwanzaa book I could find readily available at either my local B&N or library. C’mon, people.
The bulletin board: Once again Scholastic has done it better than I could, so I defer to this fabulous Kwanzaa handprint wreath idea, which will look great on your bulletin board, and can then be taken home over the holiday break to actually be included in Kwanzaa holiday observance.
As I mentioned My First Kwanzaa was the only readily available browsing book on the subject of Kwanzaa, but I found a few good lists of other great books to try for next year. You may find them more available in your neighborhood:
From Black Art Blog:
From the Children’s Book Review:
(That last list includes an entire book on Kwanzaa crafts, now out of print, but you can still find it on Amazon, might be worth snagging).
These holidays are not concurrent with the December trilogy of holidays, and often are studied separately, if at all, so B&N and the library had nothing on hand (out of season), but your school library might have them handy, so if you’re feeling ambitious and/or want to include your Muslim and Hindu students in the holiday study, here are some lists of books you might start with:
For those who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, or atheists, or who have those children in your class, or who simply can’t find room in the schedule, or just don’t want to deal with it, these books can instill a little holiday spirit minus the actual holidays.
Why it’s great: Prose so terse, it’s almost a poem. The pictures are gorgeous also.
The bulletin board: Full on art project – cityscapes in the snow. Have the children paint a full page of snow background – this can be achieved with watercolor washes in grays, with perhaps some white cray pas snow, either above or beneath the watercolors, or some sponged white tempera paint on top. Onto the snow backdrop, have students cut a city/town skyline out of black construction paper and glue it on top. Then they can decorate the skyline if they wish with pencil or cray pas, adding windows, store signs, etc. If you wish, you can have them also glue on some shredded cotton balls for the snow drifts.
The expanded bulletin board: If you’re really ambitious, you can make it a 3D mural. Have the students together paint the snowy background on a giant sheet of butcher paper (best done in groups of 4-5 in my experience). Then have them bring in empty cereal boxes, which you wrap in plain butcher paper and have them paint with tempera to make different buildings. Attach the buildings to the snow backdrop with tape or sticky tack, add cotton balls or batting, and you have a spectacular winter scene.
Why it’s great: It’s all warm and fuzzy with animals in the wintertime.
The bulletin board: Have each student make a construction paper mitten (you may or may not wish to pre-cut), then they add all the people who make them feel warm and fuzzy. They can actually make cutouts of the people, or they can just write on an index card the person’s name, and why they are included in the mitten.
Why it’s great: It’s a sweet retelling of The Little Engine that Could, set in the winter, with illustrations reminiscent of Disney’s Cars.
The bulletin board: Have students write and illustrate a reflection about a time when they had to practice and practice to get something right. Use white butcher paper to make a giant snow drift on your bulletin board (on top of which you will mount your students’ work), and make (or have the crafty teacher on your floor make) a little snowplow to be pushing up against it.
Why it’s great: It offers a fantasy explanation of a science concept – melting ice. Your snowman looks a little misshapen and wilted this morning? Don’t worry – he was probably just playing baseball. While the study of established scientific fact is always very important in school, I always enjoy mixing up science and fantasy, since the actual practice of new science involves a lot of “What if?” questioning and requires imagination.
The bulletin board: Definitely use this to supplement a real science unit on states of matter and/or the water cycle, etc. If you have the luxury of snow, have kids make a mini-snowman in a roasting pan outside, and bring him in. Photograph him in various states of melt. Discuss the real process of water breaking down, but then print the photos and let students choose their favorite and invent an imaginary story about how their snowman might have come to be in such a state. Post the photos, the science observation sheets, and the narratives all together. And maybe study snow crystals and cut out some snowflakes while you’re at it.
So that’s my list. Did I miss one of your favorites? What rocking holiday bulletin boards have you pulled off? I’d love to hear!