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Cultural Sensitivity for ALTs Giving Christmas Lessons

Tips for teaching students about the Western holiday season while respecting local customs and ideas.

By 7 min read

In today’s uncertain world, one of the few things many can agree on is that Christmas is the most nostalgic and family-oriented time of the year. So for the ALT in Japan, preparing a fun and entertaining Christmas lesson should be the proverbial piece of cake. However, Japan — like many other countries — has its own way of doing Christmas festivities.

As a teacher, you need to be aware of local cultural ideas in all of your lesson planning, but this is especially relevant when planning a Christmas lesson. Classes about festivals and celebrations that have faith-based origins can be problematic in a country where teaching religious doctrine is officially banned in public schools. This is perhaps why Easter has never really caught on here in the same way Christmas and Halloween have in recent times.

So, with this in mind, here are five common pitfalls to Christmas lesson planning and how to avoid them.

1. Santa is still real for many of your students

Japanese boy decorating Christmas tree

This is an important point that you really need to remember. Most of us foreigners probably learned the truth about Santa Claus when we were in grade three or four of elementary school (spoiler alert: he’s not real!). However, in Japan, this happens later — and in some cases much later.

In my current job, I teach English mostly to elementary school fifth and sixth grade students (10-12 years old) and a lot of them still believe in Santa. Just today, as I was doing a Christmas lesson of my own, one student, a fifth grader, asked me: “Sensei (teacher), is the santa who delivers presents in Scotland the same Santa who delivers my presents here?”

Sometimes kids here say the most adorable things. Of course, this means that we need to tread carefully when discussing that jolly man in the red suit.

A friend of mine got into hot water with his school a few years ago for not realizing this. He was showing the students some pictures of his family’s Christmas in the U.S. He explained: “And here you see the presents under the tree. We usually buy presents a week or two before Christmas and put them under the tree until Christmas Day.”

… teaching religious doctrine is officially banned in public schools.

One student innocently raised their hand and asked: “But sensei, what about the presents from Santa?”

Before my friend could answer, one of the louder, more overbearing students in the class butted in: “Don’t be stupid — Santa’s not real!”

As my friend recalled, the remaining 20 minutes of the lesson were spent trying to separate the kids determined to hold onto their childhood dreams for just a bit longer from the ones determined to bring the cold, hard truth to bear.

Suffice to say, he revised his plan for the following years.

2. Keep Jesus out of it

A friend of mine once joked that “Christmas in Japan is great. It’s just like Christmas in the U.K. but without God making you feel guilty for enjoying yourself.”

As I’ve probably mentioned before: I’m not religious. I have no issue with those who are, however, provided you don’t use your beliefs to try and justify hurting others. That being said, whatever you think defines the true meaning of Christmas, the English classroom is not a platform for you to give a sermon.

The teaching of religious doctrine, be it from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism or whatever, is prohibited by law in the Japanese classroom. You can, of course, tell your students that Christmas originated as a religious festival, much in the same way as Halloween and all its costume finery came from the Pagan festival of Sam Hein, but that’s as far as you can go.

I heard from one teacher a number of years ago who actually didn’t do any Christmas lessons because the head of English at this particular school said: “Christmas is a religious event and we aren’t allowed to teach religion.”

It seems the Grinch may be a real person after all and he lives in Osaka!

This scenario is unlikely though. In more than 10 years of working in Japan, I’ve only ever heard of one case where this happened. Just keep the lesson light and fun, keep the bible-thumping to a minimum and you should be fine.

3. Use cultural differences as a gateway

Christmas Japan Chicken Dinner

Often, when inexperienced ALTs talk about their home countries in a lesson, they struggle to maintain student’s interest. More often than not, this is because they fail to give students a proper frame of reference.

So, before you spend a whole lesson talking about how you and your family always watch Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Eve or put forward the argument as to why Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all time (which it most definitely is!), do a bit of research to see what makes a Japanese Christmas so unique and different from the ones you used to know.

Cultural foibles such as the Japanese love of fried chicken at Christmas or the fact that it is Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day when most couples and families get together to celebrate the season are good places to start. For example, you could have a discussion with your students as to what sets the festive season in your home country aside from what they think of it in Japan.

4. Don’t dwell on presents

Receiving Christmas presents is an almost universal concept for kids growing up in Europe and North America, but not so in Japan. Remember that in Japan, Christmas is first and foremost a commercial enterprise, not a religious one.

Remember that in Japan, Christmas is first and foremost a commercial enterprise, not a religious one.

To that end, some parents choose to buy into this and get their kids a big present and others don’t. It’s important that we respect that. So instead of focusing on the giving and receiving of elaborate gifts, I try to center my Christmas lessons around the shared values we have with our Japanese colleagues at this time of year: the sense of family, togetherness, shared experience, food and relaxation.

And speaking of food…

 5. Have a discussion about Christmas dinner

I’m not exactly sure why it is, but in every school I’ve worked in, the students seem to have an almost universal fixation on foreign foods and how different they are from everyday Japanese fare — with a special fascination on Christmas dinner.

The traditional Christmas turkey or goose and all its trimmings makes for an engaging discussion point. It’s also worth comparing and contrasting this with the traditional meal of toshikoshi soba noodles that most Japanese enjoy on New Year’s Day. And don’t get me started on the whole eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve fixation!

Things like parsnips, stuffing and even gravy may seem like everyday occurrences to us, but have you ever tried buying any of these in Japan? My kids always seem particularly amazed by parsnips. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a vegetable that looks like a radish, but tastes like a sweet potato!

Ultimately though, any Christmas lesson you choose to give — however you choose to go about it — is a reflection of you, your teaching style and your personality. What I’ve laid out here is just a rough guide. The best lessons are those that let your own voice as a teacher and representative of your home country shine through. So don’t be afraid to try new things and above all else — make sure the kids have fun!

Do you have any more tips for the perfect Christmas lesson? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

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