Christmas in the Classroom: How to be equitable *and* festive

Advent calendars, Elfs on the Shelfs, parties, concerts, trees, plays – the propensity for providing our children with fun and festive activities at this time of year is both exciting and exhausting. But when we translate these activities to the classroom we add a layer of complication that could inadvertently see undue burdens being put on parents, and children being left out of the very activities that are meant to be a reward and a treat for them.

I’m not going to address the issue of religious or cultural equality here, as I will navigate under the (perhaps naïve) assumption that our teachers are sensitive enough to be culturally inclusive, and that parents are flexible enough to not look for reason to be insulted by any perceived cultural slight.

(That being said, teachers – seriously, exploring “Christmas Around the World” is not at all being inclusive, and parents, relax, just a little.)

But in the face of all the celebrations happening during the holiday season, it’s easy for issues of equity to be overlooked. And when children are forced out of activities due to socio-economic circumstances way beyond their control, it’s a concern. A few examples:

The Problem: The expectation to thank a teacher for all of their hard work with a gift at the holidays, is pretty black and white. Children (or parents) walk in with armloads of presents, lavishly wrapped, and deposit each one on the desk of the recipient. This almost always includes a child’s homeroom teacher, but could extend to auxiliary teachers, classroom helpers and office and support staff. Discussions regarding teachers gifts starts almost as the school year does, and can cause a great amount of stress, pressure and (perceived) competition.

The Solution:
  • Change the tone of the conversation: Instead of discussing what to buy your child’s teacher(s), talk about what you could provide that a teacher would appreciate, and that would show your appreciation for them.
  • Think home-made: cookies, cake mixes, art, mittens – tap into your creative streak.
  • Enlist your child’s talents: I can’t think of any teacher that needs another homemade Christmas tree ornament (or mug, or pencil holder), nor one that could possible appreciate the effort of their small charges more. Gifts made with love and attention exude those sentiments.
  • Spend your time, not your money. If a teacher is interested or involved in a local charity, offer your time volunteering there on that teacher’s behalf. Offers of your time in the classroom are also invaluable, or have your child make a coupon book for classroom helper roles your child could fulfill.

The problem: Expecting parents to pony up money so that their child can participate in a gift exchange goes against nearly every equity goal I have ever seen in a school. It forces parents to spend money or see their child excluded from the activity. And then it allows children (and parents) to compare gifts in a negative way. If you spent $15 on a gift but the gift your child received seemed much cheaper, you’d be pissed. And kids can be cruel. A permission form to participate is even worse, as you are forcing a parent to formally admit that they cannot afford this activity. The whole thing is gross.

The solution: By all means, have a holiday gift exchange. But make it one that costs exactly little or no money. Some ideas:
  • Handmade card exchange
  • Favourite recipe exchange (bonus points: teacher or eager parent makes copies of all recipes and compiles for an end-of-year book/gift for students)
  • Short story exchange
  • Cookie exchange (i.e. one dozen each to exchange)

The problem: I don’t know of any school or classroom that does not participate in some sort of food bank/toy drive/winter clothing drive at this time of year. The activity in itself is an admirable one and worth organizing. The problem is when you put some sort of goal on the drive, and attach a competition aspect between classrooms. Giving in an anonymous, “we’re all in this together” way is fantastic. Promising a pizza party to the classroom that raises the most money or brings in the most food is problematic. Consider this: a family that feels obligated to bring in a food donation or risk their child being the cause of “losing” may be the exact family that will have to access that food via the food bank the next week. A family forced to donate a toy may see it under the tree at Christmas if they rely on social assistance to help get by. Do we really have to put families in that position?

The solution:
  •  A school-wide toy/food/clothing drive organized for the sole purpose of helping others, with completely voluntary, anonymous donation that is located in a centralized place where nobody will know who does or does not donate. Full stop.

This is a beautiful, wonderful time of year if things are going well for your family. If things are a little tougher, this is can be a stressful, painful time of year. School should not be the place to add more pain or stress on a family. And don’t kid yourself – even if your child goes to a “good” school, there are families struggling in some way. Let’s encourage our schools and families to place the emphasis on opening hearts and minds – not wallets.



  1. Hi Karen, as a parent and teacher I agree that these are all excellent points and suggestions. I do run Secret Santa in my class, and the goal is to do nice things for that person all month long. We brainstorm a list of (free) ideas and I send suggestions to parents. They exchange gifts of $5 value on the last day of school. I am very clear about the price limit, recommending the dollar store, and I personally look after gifts for any child/family for whom this is a financial burden, so students are virtually never left out of the festivities. While the non-monetary gestures are so much more important, it's also great for kids to go through the process of selecting something for a peer, as well as responding appropriately when opening a gift in front of others, even if it's not something you like! I don't send home a permission form, but I do let parents know before December what my plans are, and ask them to communicate any concerns to me. I've never had one (and believe me, our parents are vocal and quick to communicate concerns!)

  2. P.S. The recipe exchange is a great idea. We did that in my class for our Traditions and Celebrations unit (each child brought in a favourite family recipe) and my eager student teacher compiled them into a cookbook which each child received. The families loved it!

  3. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments - I love what you're doing with your students, and your school is lucky to have you.


Talk to me.