The December Dilemma and English Learners

Hyungsoo, a second-grade student from Korea, sat across from me at the table in my ESL class with a pained look on his face. “Santa didn’t come to my house!” he complained. “I didn’t get any presents.” I knew the source of his disappointment. Many elementary age public school students in the United States spend a good part of December discussing Santa, elves, and presents. They listen to stories about Santa, make presents for their parents, exchange grab bag gifts with their classmates, and produce Christmas artwork to decorate the halls of the school. In Pre-K–2,  a Christmas-related activity might occur every day during December.

Hyungsoo’s family is Christian, but for them Christmas is strictly a religious holiday. His parents did not realize that most of his classmates would be receiving gifts from Santa, and they were not aware of how left out he would feel. Unfortunately,  many elementary schools give little thought to the children who are looking in from the outside during December.

What is the December Dilemma?

Every December, many elementary schools in the United States become battlegrounds. A war is waged over what should be taught, what symbols can be displayed in the school hallways, and what music is sung at the December concert. Emotions run high. Christian parents do not want the mention of Christmas to be banned in schools, and parents from other religious backgrounds don’t want their children to be inundated with Christmas festivities. In some school districts in the United States, Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations have been banned in schools because of this disagreement.

According to Dr. Charles Haynes in his article “In Public Schools, When Should Holy Days Become Holidays?“, the U.S. Constitution calls for the separation of Church and State. Government agencies and employees, including public school teachers, are not allowed to promote one religion over another. Public schools must approach religious holidays from an academic viewpoint, not a spiritual one. This  means that we can teach about diverse religions in school, but may not celebrate religious holidays. That seems clear enough, but the interpretation of the First Amendment is complicated by the fact the courts have deemed, and many religious leaders agree, that some of the Christmas holiday symbols have become part of the secular celebration of Christmas.

Secular celebrations in December

As I looked at my group of second-grade ELs, I realized that all of them were on the fringes of school life during December. Although it can be argued that no religious Christmas symbols are displayed, our bulletin boards abound with decorated fir trees, reindeer, and especially Santa. In our front lobby there is a menorah and a “holiday tree” decorated with student-made ornaments. There is also a kinara, a candleholder with seven candles that is a symbol of Kwanzaa. This is an effort to give equal time to other celebrations. Many students, however, observe holidays that are never represented in the front lobby.  And many of the older ELs that I have taught have expressed to me how marginalized they feel during the Christmas celebrations. In my opinion, it is not the use of the secular symbols of Christmas that is a problem. It’s the overwhelming number of Christmas-related activities that isolate students who are not Christian.

Many ELs celebrate holidays that are not acknowledged by schools

Let’s go back and look at the rest of my ESL class. Priya is Indian, and her family celebrates Diwali in October or November. Marina is Russian, and her family is Jewish. They celebrate Hanukkah in December. Karim is Muslim, and his family observes Ramadan in September and celebrates Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. Rei is Japanese, and his family is Shinto. Rei celebrates Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year  on January 1st. Hui is Taiwanese, and his family is Buddhist. They celebrate Buddha’s birthday in May.  Except for the recognition of Hanukkah, none of these holidays is part of our school curriculum.

At the center of the December wars is the traditional school concert that is at the heart of the celebration of Christmas. The dilemma comes when deciding what music to sing. The question is whether a school concert can include Christian religious music without promoting a particular belief. The courts have decreed that some religious music may be included if the purpose is to teach about a particular religion and the program is balanced. In reality, however, if the program includes a variety of music from various religions and cultures as well as secular Christmas music (involving Santa and reindeer), Christian parents complain. If religious Christmas music is the bulk of the program, parents representing other religious groups complain. One of my Jewish colleagues told me that she spent all her years in school singing Christmas songs and how marginalized that made her feel. She dreaded December and the feeling she got of being an “outsider.” I wonder if my students Hyungsoo, Priya, Karim, Marina, Rei, and Hui feel the same?

Culturally responsive teaching

We all have to work to make our schools more inclusive. Our job is to protect the religious rights of all our students. According to Geneva Gay in “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching,” one of our goals should be to teach a culturally relevant curriculum. I think the onus should be taken off of December. Let’s solve the December dilemma by learning about Diwali and Ramadan in September, and Christmas and Hanakkuh in December. Let’s explore the secular holidays such as Chusokthe Chinese Moon Festival, and Holi. Select holidays that are represented in your school and research them on the Internet.  We should not overemphasize one particular holiday, and the students in my second-grade ESL class should not feel they are on the outside looking in.


Imber, M. (2003, December). The Santa dilemma. American School Board Journal, 190(12), 16.

Haynes, C. (2007). Finding common ground. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.

Anti-Defamation League. (2004). The December dilemma. Retrieved from

*A version of this blog appeared in Essential Teacher in December 2007, Volume 4, Issue 4. Adapted with permission.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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