Anti-Bias Holiday Teaching Guide

Anti-Bias Holidays.

The topic can be fraught with opinions and strong emotions. Among early childhood educators you can find an often passionate debate:

  • Do I need to teach all of these holidays?
  • Should I just not teach about any holidays?
  • Why do I need to teach about all of these different holidays?
  • It’s my home/classroom/school and I choose to only celebrate MY holidays.
  • The parents knew that coming into my program!
  • But what exactly does anti-bias mean?

Teaching for Change says that, “Anti-bias curriculum is an approach to early childhood education that sets forth values-based principles and methodology in support of respecting and embracing differences and acting against bias and unfairness. Anti-bias teaching requires critical thinking and problem solving by both children and adults.”

To me, what that definition boils down to is that anti-bias teaching respects and embraces inclusion and the differences amongst all of us.

In preparing to write this post, I reflected on my own teaching and my holiday celebrations throughout the years. I started teaching young children in the mid 1980’s. Through the years I worked hard to make my classrooms as inclusive as possible… or so I thought. My bookshelves were stocked with as many diverse books as I could find. My walls had pictures of different people and families. I made sure to have paper, crayons, and paint available in many different “people colors” so my students could create people who looked like they did. However, in reading about this topic, I began to understand that the process of making my classroom an inclusive, respectful, and bias-free space is an ongoing process, and my teaching continues to evolve.

My goal in creating this anti-bias holiday guide is to offer you a jumping-off point for when you plan your next holiday celebration. I hope you find it helpful.

Do you know which holidays are important to your students?

I spent the last almost 15 years teaching a very small group in my home daycare. I had children who were Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, and non-denominational. I had children whose parents were not born in the United States. I had children who celebrated all of the American holidays as well as their own, and those who didn’t. As I got to know this small group of students, I began to really learn about their cultures, their celebrations, and their customs in a closer, more intimate way than I had before.

My daycare families shared their holiday celebrations with me. They were always eager to answer my questions and to help me plan activities for my students.

  • I learned about Holi, the Hindu celebration that celebrates the arrival of spring, during which people shower each other with bright colored powder.
  • I attended a Jewish naming ceremony for a newborn baby girl in my care.
  • I learned about the dietary requirements of Passover. A Jewish mother of two brought me a menorah so we could celebrate her son’s first Hanukkah. She also brought matzah and other Passover foods which I shared with the students in my care. Matzah pizza and matzah nachos turned out to be quite the hit!

Do you know what holidays your students celebrate? Do you celebrate all of the holidays that are important to your students?

  • Talk to your students’ parents and get an idea of what holidays their family celebrates.
  • Invite families to share their traditions with your class. Whether a parent can come in and talk with your group, send in some holiday decorations, or share some food, it’s important that you acknowledge the holidays that your students celebrate.
  • Share your own traditions with your class. In my family we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and St. Nicholas Day, in addition to others. St. Patrick’s Day was a big celebration in my family. Everything, and I mean everything, was green, from the butter to the milk inside an unopened carton of milk (and believe me, my brother and I checked!). Every child that has been in one of my classrooms has experienced the thrill of discovering the leprechauns had visited.

Don’t linger on the surface with your celebrations.

If you make the decision to celebrate all of your students’ holidays, don’t stay on the surface. It’s not enough to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, hang a few Kwanzaa or Hanukkah decorations up and call it good.

If you are going to really celebrate your student’s holidays, you need to take the plunge and make them as much a part of your curriculum as you do the other major holidays you celebrate.

The large private school I worked at had a big holiday show every year. When I first started teaching first grade in the early 1990’s, we would teach our students 3 Christmas songs and perhaps a poem about a snowman. They would wear elf or Santa hats while they performed. I can still hear them belting out, “Must be Santa, Santa Claus!” We’d call it a “Holiday Show” or a “Winter Show”, but it was, in reality, a celebration of Christmas.

Through the years we added more songs that weren’t about Christmas. There were dance numbers that celebrated an assortment of holidays. Our middle school teachers wrote and directed funny skits for their students. We became more inclusive of everyone’s holidays. We no longer just skimmed the surface, we incorporated as many celebrations as we could. We finally had an actual “Holiday Show” that represented the makeup of our school.

Look at the way you celebrate holidays in your classroom. How can you make a more equal representation of all your students’ holidays as well as your own?

You need to meet your students where they are.

Preschool and toddler age children see the world so differently than we do. Things that make sense to us as adults are mysterious and scary to children. Halloween is one of those scary things. Witches and jack-o-lanterns, ghosts and skeletons can be very frightening to young children. There are some fun things you can do to make Halloween less scary and more inclusive.

  • Focus on pumpkins and other fall items.
  • Instead of having students bring in their costumes from home, create costumes with your students in your classroom.
  • Have a parade with your students dressed in their homemade costumes. Parents will be thrilled to see all of their little one’s efforts.

I’ve always found Thanksgiving to be a difficult holiday for young children to understand. Years ago, our school had Thanksgiving feasts with the children dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans. We shared Thanksgiving food that many children were unwilling to try. Once I started my home daycare, I decided to put the emphasis on giving thanks. I told them that Thanksgiving is all about love, families, and friends.

  • Focus on giving thanks. Talk to your students about saying thank you and being grateful for the people who they love. What are they thankful for?
  • Make a friendship snack. Have each child bring in their favorite fruit to contribute to a classroom friendship salad, or have each child bring in their favorite snack to create a classroom friendship snack mix.

When you are planning holiday celebrations, think about meeting your children at their level. Our expectations of a holiday are definitely not always our students’ expectations. Follow your childrens’ lead and allow them to show you what they are interested in and what they are comfortable with.

Be sensitive to your students and the makeup of their families.

Our families come in infinite different combinations. Whatever the makeup of our family, they are worthy of respect and inclusion. Families are made up of people genetically related to each other and those who have come together out of love.

Families are at the heart of most of our holiday celebrations and it is important that our students see the inclusion of families that look like theirs in your holiday celebrations.

Gifts are a large part of many holidays. Preschool teachers have children make gifts to give to their parents and loved ones for Christmas, Hanukkah, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and others.

These gift-giving holidays can stir up debates among preschool teachers. Some questions that come up while planning for these holidays:

  • If a child has no mother figure what do I have them do during Mother’s Day?
  • If a child has 2 dads do I have to let them make 2 Father’s Day presents?
  • What if a child doesn’t celebrate Christmas and we’re making Christmas trees as presents?

In my program, a child who has no mother figure makes the gift to give to anyone they would like. A child with 2 dads definitely makes 2 presents.

We don’t make gender or holiday specific gifts in my program. So, for Christmas or Hanukkah we may make a calendar or for Mother’s Day we may make a wind chime or a key chain. We have made a lot of different frames with the child’s picture in them. Some years the children have designed the gift and other years I do. In my program, gifts that children make are for whoever they choose.

Planning to create inclusive and bias-free holiday celebrations is not easy. For me, it’s taken a lot of self-reflection and communication. Creating a program where all students feel included and important is a goal shared by many educators. Your efforts, however, are well rewarded when the end result is an inclusive, anti-bias curriculum which allows every student to be an equal part of your holiday celebrations.


What are your techniques for being more inclusive during the holidays? Let us know in the comments!

Vickie Burns

Vickie Burns has worked with children for more than 30 years. Over the years she has taught children of all ages in a childcare center as well as in her home daycare. She was also an elementary teacher and principal of a large private school. Vickie lives with her wife and stepson in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys reading and spending time with her family.

2 comments

  • Lisa Fumia says:

    Thank you for your guidelines on Anti-Bias holiday celebrations. I find myself waffling back and forth and not quite sure where I land.

    One question I have, you mentioned Thanksgiving and that you celebrate giving thanks. How do you handle this time with those that celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, or find even acknowledging Thanksgiving an affront to the history of Native Peoples?

  • Vickie says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I have never had a family that celebrated Indigenous People’s Day, but to answer your question, if I did, I would approach it like any other holiday.

    I’d start by looking for some books that show real pictures of Native People as well as other types of books. I would spend some time reading about the Native People who live in my area and see what kind of resources I could find. I would see what type of activities and foods I could find to share.

    When introducing the holiday to my students, I may give a brief explanation on the history of the Native people in the US in a way that my students would understand, depending on the ages of my students and the makeup of the families in my class. If I did, I’d probably focus on how they have not been treated fairly, which is something even my youngest students seem to relate to.

    Regarding Thanksgiving, I don’t really explain or mention Thanksgiving to my students, so it hasn’t ever been a problem in my class. Like I said in the article, my focus is on friends, family, and being thankful. If I did have a family with concerns, I would start by talking with that family and see what they are comfortable with and go from there.

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