How to teach kids about the diverse winter holidays

Oct. 17, 2020

The holidays are a time for family to come together to celebrate tradition and to learn the reason for the season. While Christmas and Hanukkah tend to be to be the dominant winter holidays in American culture, December is a month with several other holidays, too. Teaching your children about how different cultures and religions celebrate these holidays can do wonders for their ability to respect other cultures and expand their worldview.

"Children need to understand that in our heart of hearts, we are all the same, we are one," says Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting. "We're simply born with different looks into families with different beliefs and different traditions; yet we all have the same capacity to love."

So how do you go about exposing your children to other beliefs and holidays? "The best way for kids to understand and learn anything is for them to participate using a hands-on approach," says Silver.

Parenting expert and father Robert Nickell agrees that an engaging, interactive method is best when teaching children new concepts. He suggests meeting with someone who knows and celebrates the holiday, learning the true meaning behind each holiday and doing a holiday craft with your children to help explore the important day even further.

Here are seven December holidays and ways to introduce them to your kids in a manner that will be both fun and enlightening for you both.

1. Christmas

December 25th is about more than just Santa Claus.Teaching children the meaning behind Christmas takes them back to the holiday's origin. "Read the Biblical version of the Christmas story," Nickell suggests.

For something hands-on that the children can make, he recommends re-creating the scene of the birth of Jesus. "Create a manger and talk about Jesus' selfless act of becoming human." Introduce your children to Christmas songs that tell the story about the birth of Jesus, such as "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" — or take your children Christmas caroling with their friends.

2. Hanukkah

Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is the eight-day Jewish celebration of the Maccabees and their fight for freedom. The dates for Hanukkah change every year, but it usually takes place between the end of November and the end of December. Take your children to a local temple where they can learn about the miracle celebrated throughout this holiday. Explain why the eight candles are not about receiving a gift each day, but how they actually represent the miracles the Maccabees experienced.

A craft Nickell recommends is creating and coloring a Menorah with the children. "As you create it, talk through what each colored candle represents," says Nickell.

3. St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas Day is a December 6th holiday, largely celebrated in Europe, that's in honor of St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. "St. Nick has different legends in several European countries, so read them all and go with the one you resonate with the most," suggests Nickell.

One tradition on St. Nicholas Day is to have your children put shoes outside of their doors. If they have been good during the year "St. Nicholas" comes to the house and leaves a little gift or treats inside their shoes. For a fun craft, have the children make and decorate their own "shoes" out of kids' shoeboxes.

4. Las Posadas

Las Posadas is a nine-day festival, mostly celebrated in Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States, which starts December 16th and lasts until Christmas Eve on the 24th. Have your children research the origin and meaning behind the holiday and encourage them to speak with someone who celebrates Los Posadas.

The poinsettia has great significance in this holiday and can be used as representation. One craft Nickell recommends is creating a poinsettia with hand prints on construction paper, gluing the paper together to make a nine-leaf flower. "Handprints represent the nine leaves on their poinsettia," says Nickell, which are said to represent Joseph and Mary's nine-day journey to Bethlehem or Mary's nine months carrying the baby Jesus.

5. Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a holiday that honors African heritage and ends with a large feast. Nickell recommends having your children research Kwanzaa's importance to the African-American culture by finding books and stories, as well as speaking with people who celebrate the holiday. After researching and learning more about the holiday, create a Kwanzaa celebration. "Make Kwanzaa candles and celebrate with a feast, having each child bring a traditional food item," suggests Nickell.

6. Yule (Winter Solstice)

As a Wiccan, poet and writer Annie Finch, also director of the Poets and Priestesses Community, celebrates yule, also known as the winter solstice. "Yule is a festive and fun holiday," says Finch, "and many of its customs — decorating a tree, singing songs, wreaths, candles and lights — are already familiar to kids."

To teach children about how the days get longer on solstice, Finch recommends showing them a model of the solar system. And of course, incorporating crafts! "Kids can make paper suns, rays decorated with glitter, with threads to hang them from the tree."

"My family's' favorite part of Yule is when we gather instruments — drums, whistles, cymbals — turn off all the lights and wait in silence for midnight. Then we light all the candles in the house and make festive noise to welcome the light."

7. "Chris-kwanz-ukah"

Jen Hancock, mom and creator of Humanist Learning Systems, celebrates various holidays with her family, including one they call "Chriskwanzukah," which is a celebration of several holidays. "We use the winter holidays, since there are so many of them, as a perfect opportunity to teach our son about religious diversity," Hancock says. "My son loves it."

"Decorations for the house include a light-up crèche, complete with a camel and star, a giant menorah, a giant blow-up globe, holiday lights and more."

Remember, December isn't the only month filled with new, exciting cultures, customs and holidays to explore! Silver advises allowing "your kids [to] pick an extra holiday to learn about, and celebrate, this year along with your family's traditional rituals."

It will be a great learning experience for your kids — and for you. And who can say no to more holiday celebrations?

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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