Culturally Responsive Instruction for Holidays and Celebrations



The American public school system is currently at a point where change and a redesign of the system is needed to accommodate and equitably educate the vast and diverse student population that is growing rapidly.  Successful implementation of a multicultural curriculum and having an inclusive and responsive classroom is a goal that the education community is striving to work towards everyday. It is a huge feat and there are so many aspects that go into successfully having an equitable public school system. This web page will be focusing on just one of the many facets, and honing in on how to accommodate all students in an equitable way as it relates to holidays and celebrations. This is an issue that a lot of teachers and schools struggle with, due to the lack of information provided and the large gray area that leaves so much up to interpretation. Often as a result, students cultural needs get ignored or handled improperly. This web page will be used as resource for teachers to continue to develop culturally sensitive teaching practices that recognize, accept, respect and properly showcase students’ cultural differences as it relates to holidays and celebrations in the classroom.

On the surface, the issues that come along with holidays and celebrations in the classroom may seem small compared to some of the larger current educational needs. But like the tip of an iceberg, students’ cultural narratives greatly influence how they view the world around them and their place in it. How a teacher handles the differences during holidays and celebrations could have a large impact on the child’s personal development and views. If handled improperly students can quickly feel marginalized and devalued, causing them to view school in a negative light and withdraw from the classroom. In order to combat this issue and move closer towards a completely culturally inclusive and equitable school system, resources, like this one, will need to be utilized in classrooms and the practices given will be properly implemented.












The United States represents people from a wide rage of vastly different languages, cultures, ethnicities and religions. The United States is seen as a melting pot, where diversity is not only valued, it thrives. The United States has welcomed more immigrants than any other country in the world, about 700,000 per year, more than 50 million in all.  It is no surprise that with our changing demographics, the American public school system has gotten increasingly diverse. Recently, more than ever, there has been a major shift in enrollment trends and the population of students.  According to the US Department of Education, for the first time ever,  the 2014 -15 school year White students are the minority. In 2024, a projected 51% of school children will consist of these three ethnicities: 29% Hispanic, 16%  Black and and  6% Asian American. When we look at a diversity index of an average American public school, a measure, on a scale of 0-100, what are the chances that two randomly chosen students come from a different racial group, 31 states scored a 50 or above. The index ranges from 74 for public students in Hawaii, to 15 in Maine and Vermont. It is a guarantee that no two classrooms are going to look a like.


















This growing diversity within the classroom is challenging the public schools to rethink how to better accommodate, teach and celebrate students of varying ethnicities, religions and cultures.  The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, and one of the most religious of the developed nations in the world. According to the Center for Public Education, there are more than 2,000 religions celebrated within the United States, with more than 60% of Americans associating themselves with a specific religion. Within each of these religions there are a wide array of beliefs, sects, and practices. The relationship between religion and public school has always been a complex and highly debated issue. Public schools must deal with the constant challenge of how far can teachers and students go in expressing their beliefs, and how much is too much? It is a balancing act between separation and religious freedom with no clear line of what is right and wrong. There have been many debates and laws put in place to secure students and teachers rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has protected students and teachers rights to pray, wear religious garments, and express their beliefs while in school. Yet, the court has banned these practices in cases where they could be seen as disruptive, discriminatory, or intimidating to those around them who may not share those same beliefs. The disputes and laws made about religion in public school will never satisfy all parties, but as a teacher, it is of utmost importance to make sure all students in your classroom are represented and included.  


"America is a nation of nations, made up of people from every land, of every race and practicing every faith. Our diversity is not a source of weakness; it is a source of strength, it is a source of our success."

-- Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell


Landmark Court Cases


McCollum vs. Board of Education

Court bans religious instruction in public schools.


Engel Vs. Vital

Any kind of prayer, even nondenominational prayer in public schools is an unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion.


Abington v. Schempp

Unconstitutional to force students to participate in Bible reading and prayers.


Lemon v. Kurtzman

3-part test to determine in an action of the government violates the separation of church and state

1.     government action must have secular purpose

2.     primary purpose must not be to inhibit or advance


3.     no excessive entanglement between government

       and religion.


Stone v. Graham

Posting the Ten Commandments in schools is unconstitutional.


Lee v. Weisman

Unconstitutional for a school district to provide any clergy to perform nondenominational prayer at elementary or secondary school graduation.


Now that this educational issue has been addressed and brought to the attention of educators, it is important to look at the proper way to go about equitably handling situations like the “december dilemma,” birthday celebrations, and missed class days due to outdated school calendars and unrecognized cultural holidays. There are multiple viewpoints on how to address these issues. First and foremost, as an effective educator, staying informed, knowing the law and knowing your students will be the most important factor in guiding how you handle holidays and celebrations.



1. Creating a Welcoming and Inclusive Environment Right Off the Bat!

Although this approach may seem obvious, but it’s so important to continually be reminded that you should strive for cultural inclusivity in all aspects of classroom life. By working towards a classroom that celebrates plurality and consistently and constantly has aspects from all different cultures present in the physical environment and curriculum itself, it will lend itself to be accepting and understanding of changes that occur during holidays or celebrations based on classmates cultures and students will be more open to learning about these different celebrations and ways of doing things when multiculturalism is already the “norm.”


2. Celebrate vs. Educate

This strategy should become ingrained in your memory! It’s so important to be mindful of the difference between celebrating a cultural holiday with students and educating students about a cultural holiday. When discussing religious and cultural holidays in class it is so important to educate first and foremost, and be mindful that some students might not celebrate certain holidays and it’s important for students to not feel singled out or left out. By educating students about the holidays instead of celebrating the holidays all students can participate in the learning and the beliefs and values of that holiday will not be forced upon students who may follow differing belief systems. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses can participate in the learning of other holidays but many holiday celebrations, like halloween, they cannot participate in celebrating. Educating over celebrating will keep the classroom environment inclusive and responsive to all students needs. Always try to approach holidays in an academic way that enriches students understanding of the religious or cultural history of that holiday.


3. Alternatives! Alternatives! Alternatives!

This strategy is something teachers are used to using in all aspects of the classroom, always having alternative strategies and methods in their back pocket so that all students can comprehend the material. Similarly, to finding alternatives to reach all students in content areas, it’s important to find alternatives for classroom holidays and celebrations so that all students can participate. Classrooms value diversity and being respectful of all students cultural and religious backgrounds doesn’t mean creating an environment void of diverse tradition and education, it just means finding ways for all students to be welcomed in the discussion and not feel left out or singled out for their personal beliefs. Also, every year and every classroom will have a different demographic make up, so it’s important to work off of your classroom environment when designing alternatives, and deciding what works. Always have multiple backup plans and ideas, you can never be too prepared!


4. Cultivate Strong Relationships and Open Lines of Communication with Family and Guardians.

Your students primary caretakers are going to be your best source of information into the child’s belief system and values, and they can be your biggest ally when trying to maneuver holidays and classroom celebrations. But there must be a nurtured relationship between home and school for this to occur. It’s so important for all students to have teachers that put time and effort into creating relationships with the home, and by having an open line of communication and creating comfortable reciprocal relationship between school and home, than it will make deciding how to create alternatives or how to celebrate and discuss holidays much easier. By being able to go directly to the family, to discuss what their wishes are and how they would like to see things handled it will take away the gray area.  Holidays and traditions are usually family oriented anyways, so the more parental involvement that can take place in the classroom the better!


5. Engage in Meaningful Activity!

Everything the students in your classroom should be done with purpose, so when holidays, celebrations or traditions pop-up, don’t shy away from them or just scratch the surface. Students should participate in activities that teach them in depth and correct information that is relevant to their learning. In order to do this, make sure you have done your research, and gather information from multiple sources. It’s important to look at holidays and celebrations during class time as learning opportunities and as a way to teach students information about those traditions from multiple viewpoints, allowing the students to construct their own learning and make meaning out of the information given. This way by setting the purpose of the lesson, and creating activities that pull accurate information from multiple sources, the students are given a learning opportunity instead of just blindly participating in a holiday or celebration that may or may not fit their personal beliefs and values.


6. Be Mindful and Flexible.

Although schools place holidays like Halloween, St. Patricks Day, Valentines Day etc. on the school calendar there is a much larger facet of holidays and traditions that are not recognized by the school. That is why it is so important for teachers to make conscious efforts to know their students backgrounds, and stay informed and up to date on when students have cultural or religious obligations or celebrations throughout the school year. By knowing when your students have holidays and traditions, than you are creating a responsive environment and will be better able to meet your students needs. It can help when planning a curriculum map, knowing when to plan unit tests, field trips, or other school related activities. It’s important to stay flexible throughout the year, and be understanding if lessons, or student work needs to be shuffled around in order to accommodate a student's cultural or religious obligations.


Tip: An online “Calendar of Observances” is provided below in the resource section!


7. Engage the Community!

In the end, culturally inclusive holidays and celebrations will look different to every community. As a teacher it’s important to look to and include the surrounding community and its members when planning for holidays and celebrations. The community is a great resource to have, and using this resource for outside engagement will only strengthen that relationship and serve to benefit the students. Creating a tie to the outside community will also help when new situations or difficulties arise. This way the school community can look to the outside community for guidance, and this way the two work together to come up culturally inclusive solutions when it comes to holidays and other observances.  

















This last section is a compilation of some wonderful resources for teachers to head to when in need of guidance, ideas, information, or support as they work towards creating culturally inclusive experiences during holidays, celebrations, and traditions in the classroom.


National Association for Multicultural Education:  

This website was created by a non-profit that focuses on providing tools for schools so that students are given a multicultural education. It’s a great organization to get involved in, and it provides the basics and background knowledge for teachers looking to create culturally inclusive classrooms.

Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights:

This website will give any and all information related to the current law relating to religion and the American school system. Great resource to help stay informed!


Lesson Plans and Classroom Resources:

Teaching Tolerance offers great pre-made lesson plans and activities that go along with certain holidays and that could be used to “educate and not just celebrate” during the holidays.


December Lesson Plans :  

This website, created by the NEA, has great resources for teachers that deal specifically with the “December Dilemma.”


Readers Theater: Around The World Through Holidays: Cross Curricular Readers Theatre.  

Readers theater is a great way to teach about different cultural and religious holidays in a way that is fun and keeps all students involved! This website offers multiple different plays and dramatizations that students can participate in.

Calendar of Observances:

Example: The month of February














Diversity Holidays:

Another great website with resources for best inclusive practices when it comes to holidays and celebrations.




"Tips for Addressing Holidays in School." - Monona Grove School District. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.  shfhsi

"Calendar of Observances." Calendar of Observances. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.



"Culturally Responsive Instruction for Holiday and Religious Celebrations." Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

"The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom." Edutopia. N.p., 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

"National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education." National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. .

"Religion in U.S. Public Schools." Religion in U.S. Public Schools. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2016.

"Merry...? Happy...?" Rss. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016. .