Many Japanese people consider the terms Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas the same. If you inquire into what they think is meant by “holidays,” they may tell you that the additional holiday is New Years. I was actually quite surprised that most of my Japanese friends and family had never heard of Hanukkah or that any other holidays were observed this time of year.
As an English teacher for the last eight years, I was always asked to come up with holiday lessons each year. Some schools called them Christmas lessons, and other schools called them holiday lessons, but they really meant the same thing. Three years ago, I decided that enough was enough.
I felt that it was strange that I was being asked to come up with lessons for a religious holiday for a religion I didn’t follow. Yes, I grew up in a mixed denomination Christian household, but I converted to Buddhism years ago and my sister’s family is Jewish. To ask a foreign person to do a Christmas lesson just because they are foreign and therefore must celebrate it is highly presumptive.
I felt that it was strange that I was being asked to come up with lessons for a religious holiday for a religion I didn’t follow.
So I fought against the man and decided to do a multicultural holiday lesson. It actually wasn’t much of a fight. The Japanese teachers were quite intrigued by the idea. Instead of the same old Santa schtick, they were eager to hear about the other holidays and admitted that they only knew of Christmas. It was going to be a learning experience for both the students and the teachers.
I had 50 minutes to explain the various winter solstice holidays in very simple English to a classroom of forty 13 year olds. I wasn’t allowed to use Japanese, so using visuals was going to be a necessity. Since my time was limited, I focused on Hanukkah and Christmas while mentioning other holidays like Kwanzaa and the Chinese New Year.
I was able to find some great picture books for sale in Japan. Aside from ordering books online, many stores with foreign book sections, like Junkudo and Sanseido, have holiday book selections during the holiday months. I was able to find Gail Gibbon’s Christmas Is… and Tomie dePaola’s My First Christmas.
While my students could read and understand the book by dePaola, it really didn’t explain the holiday. It was a great follow-up to the lesson though, if you have multiple lessons to do. The Gibbon’s book is definitely not at a beginner reading level, but the pictures and content are very helpful in explaining the holiday. I didn’t read the book word for word, but rather paraphrased the text. The students learned a lot about the significance of various Christmas symbols.
Finding Hanukkah books was a little harder, but only as difficult as ordering books online. I found Claire Lister’s My First Hanukkah for a very low price. It’s a board book with many helpful explanatory photos. It’s also worded very simply, but your explanations can be modified to suit your audience.
To top it off, I bought Danielle Novack’s My Two Holidays, a book that talks about interfaith families, like my sister’s, that celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. Despite the average Japanese person observing Shinto and Buddhist holidays and practices, the concept of a family mixing Western religions seemed to fascinate my students.
I printed off a lot of additional information for teachers and students alike. National Geographic Kids has a lot of great information, and a quick online search will yield many websites devoted to the various winter holidays around the world. I found free word searches and all sorts of material.
Now, after reading a book or explaining something, I always try to have my students do something fun related to it. I love arts and crafts, and there is a wealth of holiday craft ideas online if you have trouble devising your own. I decided that since my students had learned about dreidels, it would be fun to make dreidels and actually experience playing with them.
I experimented with many different methods and discovered that a dreidel based on an origami water bomb actually was the easiest with virtually no extra supplies necessary. You just need paper, so all of my students could make a dreidel and take it home with them. As an added bonus, I got markers from the school for students to decorate their dreidels. Upon realizing that an upside down dreidel looks like a Christmas tree, we started decorating our dreidels to look like Christmas trees. We made our own multicultural craft.
So in this holiday season, if your school has you teaching Christmas lessons, don’t think that you are limited in what you can do. If you feel uncomfortable and want to do a multicultural winter holiday lesson instead, talk with your head teachers, managers, or other staff. Chances are they weren’t even aware of the existence of other holidays.
Perhaps they weren’t aware that you would be uncomfortable talking about a Christian holiday. Rather than saying, “I’m not a Christian, so I don’t want to do a lesson about this,” it is easier to take a more scholarly approach and say, “This is what some people believe.” This way, everyone can have a fun learning experience in an especially fun time of year.