What is the Role of Holiday Projects in the Art Room?

Snowmen, Christmas trees, and Santa are pervasive this time of year. Students see them everywhere as the seasonal excitement builds and builds. The question for art teachers is: Do these images belong in our curriculum, and, if so, how?
 
santaturkey
 

Specific Considerations

 
The first thing to consider with holiday-related art in schools is legality, which is ultimately a constitutional issue dealing with the separation of church and state. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must not promote specific religions, like requiring students to say a morning prayer. However, schools can include instruction related to religion or holidays if it meets curriculum goals.

The ACLU sums it up like this: “Generally, public schools may teach about religious holidays, and may celebrate the secular aspects of the holiday and objectively teach about their religious aspects. They may not observe the holidays as religious events. Schools should generally excuse students who do not wish to participate in holiday events.”

The legal aspect of holiday-related art is just one area to consider. Teachers also have to consider the beliefs and backgrounds of the students they teach and how everything relates to the curriculum.
 
 

Here are 4 guidelines to get
you through December.

 
 

Think it Through

 
The first thing you should do before planning a holiday-themed project is to ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Does this relate to my curriculum?
  • Will this lesson make all students feel included?
  • Does it follow my school’s or district’s policy?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, re-think your activity.
 
 

Balance Instruction

 
balance
 
One way to teach holiday art inclusively is to include multiple holidays. For example, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Chinese New Year all happen during the winter season. Teaching about art from many celebrations builds deeper understanding and increases cultural awareness. Another way to think about this is by looking at your program as a whole. Do you include art related to various cultures and holidays throughout the year? Then a Christmas tree collage might fit in with your overall curricular approach.
 
 

Give Permission to Opt Out

 
It’s important to consider those students who might not feel comfortable taking part in holiday-related activities, even if they are secular in nature. Modify the assignment or plan alternative activities for any students who decide not to participate. Knowing your students really helps here because sometimes children feel uncomfortable speaking up.
 
 

Provide Choice

 
zombie turkey
 
Another approach to making holiday art projects inclusive is by allowing for student choice in the content. Giving students themes like “winter” or “December” lets them explore ideas that are personally meaningful on an individual basis. Students can make art that is religious, secular, or simply seasonal. The important thing is that they are able to choose. Another variation of this idea is to set up centers for students to pick from.
 
So, should holiday art be included in your curriculum? It’s really a choice that teachers must make individually after considering their approach to art education, their curriculum, and the students they teach. For those who include holiday-related art, balancing instruction, giving permission for students to opt out, and providing choice are all good ways to meet everyone’s needs
 
 

How do you handle holiday-related projects in your art room?

Do you have any great lessons or themes to share?

 
 
 

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

Related

  • Mel

    Great article on providing ‘choice’ to students. (Personally – Who in the world has time in their curriculum to teach crafty Christmas?!).
    Occasionally some of my teachers will come to me and say “we really need something for Christmas to put up in our hallway, can you do something?”. And I do, because I’m a nice person, but I do it my way. Last year Kindergarten did glitter snowflakes on dark blue paper.. BUT, first we talked about snow, how the ice crystals formed, looked at microscopic images of individual flakes, discussed why the seasons changed, introduced the concept of symmetry, how to use glue bottles to create a solid line, making some large and others small to give depth, etc. The kindergarten teachers had a hall full of sparkly snowflakes, and my students had a deeper understanding of science.

    • Vicky Siegel

      If you have a great librarian, you can also incorporate “Snowflake Bentley”- the first to photograph snowflakes. She reads a book about him and shows a video. I show more photos and go in depth about the symmetry and lines. I change our snowflake project every year. Clay snowflakes, warm and cool water colored snowflakes, metal tooling, etc. Just a thought. :)

  • Mr. Post

    Whenever I watch HGTV’s House Hunters International the people shopping for the house usually say that they want to “immerse themselves in the culture of their new country”. I often wonder why making snowmen or Christmas trees with kids is an issue for art teachers. They’re both pretty secular things.

    Even though I offer any kid in my class the ability to opt out of making any project on any day, my muslim students love making Christmas trees and snowmen. Maybe they are “immersing themselves in the culture”.

    I tell my kids that all cultures around the world celebrate holidays around the winter solstice because the astronomers in all cultures determined that that is when the days start to get longer again. When the days get longer it means that winter is sort of at its halfway point. The ancient people didn’t have electricity, TV or the internet to entertain them during the winter so winter was a long time of inactivity spent indoors. The middle of winter thus became a great time to throw a celebration. Celebrations take time to prepare for thus making a fun distraction during a really boring time of the year. The feast itself is entertaining and something to look forward to. The ancient cultures were more connected to the seasons than most people who live in cities today. Holidays were part of the rhythm of the seasons of the year.

    I teach my kids a lesson about how the spread of Islam led to new pottery styles throughout Europe starting around the 9th century. It’s almost impossible to teach art without discussing culture – and religion was a big part of how cultures have evolved and changed over time.

  • Jennyg

    I love the idea of incorporating gift giving at this time of year. My 5/6th graders make secret journal necklaces that includes a lesson in book making, accordion pleating, measurement… I even have them wrap it in cellophane and extra yarn scraps. my students come away with a connection to art as a gift, they are proud that they have something to put under the tree orgive for Hanukkah or just save for a birthday.

    • Lori

      Can you share your lesson plan? I LOVE bookmaking lessons!

  • Sandra Serum

    I am not sure I understand why snowmen (or people) are considered part of the Christmas Holiday tradition. In our area of Wisconsin making snowmen is a part of winter fun. My students make handmade paper snowmen and do a snowman painting. I do not think that I am promoting Christmas through these projects instead I feel I am using local culture.

  • Amoreena Rathke

    Last year, I started making clay ornaments with most of my classes. I give them to Classroom teachers to wrap and send home as holiday gifts. We did stars last year, which is our school mascot, and also allows for a holiday-genaric gift that can be hung up all year. This year, we made owls, which can also be hung up the entire year. I’m also doing handprint ornaments with my kindergarten students. I’ve come a LONG way from my stance on no holiday crafts or art EVER and there is a reason behind it. I work in a very high poverty school and I wanted my students to have something they can keep in their family for a long time that will hopefully remind them in a positive way of their connection to Art and to me. My students also rarely have money to buy gifts for family members and I want to teach them that Art can be a great present or gift for someone and on a practical side, I want them to see the value in Art.

  • Tiffany

    I was also wondering how/why snowmen/snowflakes would fall into the Christmas category?