Learning about culture is important. For one, understanding other cultures helps people develop empathy and I think the ability to have empathy is one of humanity’s strongest assets. So we need to nurture that ability as much as possible.
The winter holidays are a perfect time to work on learning about other cultures and religions. For one, most religions have a winter holiday that they celebrate. It’s easy to compare and contrast when so many are celebrating at the same time.
Another reason I like delving into winter holidays is that we’re already in a celebratory mood this time of year.
We’re putting our focus on 6 in particular:
- Winter Solstice
- Chinese New Year
Those 6 holidays encompass the most common winter holiday celebrations of the world and they all have significant differences…and similarities.
Hanukkah is an 8 day festival of lights celebrated by the Jewish people. The story of Hanukkah starts in 170 BCE when the Jews were forced out of Jerusalem (and into Syria) and their Second Temple was overtaken. In 165 BCE there was a successful Jewish revolt and the temple was rededicated. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the second temple.
After the rededication, the temple needed to be cleansed. The menorah in the temple needed to burn oil every night throughout the night, but there was only enough oil for one night. However, that oil burned for 8 days, giving the Jews enough time to prepare more oil for the menorah.
This miracle inspired the 8 days of celebrations.
For more suggestions with descriptions, check out our Hanukkah book list here.
- Get the Hanukkah activity pack
- Play the Dreidal Game
- Make Latkes or Jelly Doughnuts
- Share Gelt
- Make a LEGO Menorah
Living in America, Christmas activities are not hard to come by. However, I wanted to make sure my kids understand the cultural and religious significance of this holiday. They may know who Santa is and what a Christmas Tree looks like. But do they understand why some people choose to celebrate this holiday?
For Christians, Christmas is the story and celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The story begins between 6 BCE and 4 BCE. Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Joseph (her husband) lived in Nazareth. Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken to ensure everyone was paying the correct taxes. Families were made to travel to their hometown (where they were from, not where they lived) for the census. Mary was very pregnant at the time but still had to travel to Bethlehem.
They had no place to stay in Bethlehem (and hotels were not common) but were offered a space to sleep with the animals. So Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable and laid to rest in a manger (animal feeding trough).
- Get Christmas printables
- Make little Christmas Trees
- Bake Christmas Cookies
- Make a Gingerbread House
- Make Salt Dough Ornaments
- Visit Santa
Yule/Winter Solstice/Saturnalia Celebrations
The Winter Solstice takes place every year on the longest night of the year (i.e. the day with the least sunlight) which is December 21st in the Northern hemisphere and June 21st in the Southern hemisphere. This is due to the tilt of the Earth. On winter solstice, the Earth’s tilt is farthest away from the sun. After the winter solstice, the tilt begins to shift the opposite way until the summer solstice where the tilt is closest to the sun.
Early people relied heavily on the sun – not only for warmth but also for food! They didn’t have refrigerators to keep food good and heaters to keep warm through the winter. So they were very excited for the days to become longer and move into spring.
The celebration and traditions of Yule mostly come from the Germanic Pagan people. There are many origins for the celebration of Yule but they often include a feast lasting a week to 12 days and the celebration of the return of the sun.
Many people set up yule altars, decorate yule trees, celebrate with candlelight, and take time to get into nature.
This is a great time to discuss the Axial Tilt of the Earth.
Winter Solstice Books:
Winter Solstice Activities:
- Spend time without electricity (use candles instead!). Many people chose to spend the entire solstice without electricity.
- Decorate a Tree for the Animals
- Have a Bonfire/Burn a Yule Log
- Make a Solstice Spiral
- Make Solstice Lanterns
Diwali is technically more of a fall holiday than a winter holiday, but it fits because it’s one of the biggest holidays in Hinduism and it seems similar to other winter holidays. Some other religions in the area also celebrate Diwali for their own reasons including the Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists.
Diwali is a 5 day festival of lights celebrating the triumph of good over evil. The celebration honors the return of Lord Rama after 14 years of exile. People celebrating Diwali often light candles to guide Lord Rama back home (or the welcome good and vanquish evil).
Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of African-Americans meant to help connect people with their African ancestors and cultural history. There are 7 principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Kwanzaa is often celebrated with colorful art and clothes, ceremonies, and music.
Chinese New Year Celebrations
Chinese New Year is the celebration of a new year and considered a spring festival in China. It is celebrated at the beginning of the Chinese New Year, which usually takes place in January or February on the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese people use this holiday as a day to celebrate deities and ancestors.
Similar to an American New Years celebration, the Chinese New Year represents a time of new beginnings, a time to usher out the old and bring in the new, and a time to bring in good luck.
Chinese New Year Books:
Chinese New Year Activities:
- Do a Chinese New Year Unit Study
- Get a Chinese New Year Printable Pack
- Sweep out the house (cast out bad fortune, make room for good luck)
- Make Chinese Lanterns
- Cook Chinese Spring Rolls
- or just Eat Oranges
- Make a Good Luck ornament
Pick Up the Winter Holidays Poster Pack
If you’d like a quick reference to each of these holidays, this poster pack is perfect. One page for each holiday with pictures to color and some information about the holiday.