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December Holidays: 5 Writing Activities

by Betsy Gilliland |

Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Ōmisoka, New Year’s Eve…with abundant holidays and traditions involving food, gifts, and socialization, December offers teachers many opportunities to engage students in fun and reflective writing activities.

As I wrote last month in my November post, in addition to supporting students’ ability to write grammatically, we should be helping them build fluency in their writing. What better way to encourage them to write more and with greater confidence than facilitating their writing about people, places, and activities that are meaningful? In this month’s post, I offer a few writing activities for learners of varying proficiency levels. Depending on your students, these activities can be implemented in a single lesson or extended across several weeks as process writing projects. They can be kept private (in a journal shared only with the teacher), shared with family, or posted publicly on a class website.

1. Gratitude Lists and Thank You Letters

December is the last month of the calendar year and therefore a good time to look back over the past year and reflect on the people who helped us in big and small ways. Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by the little things in life, but it’s valuable to step back and think about how we got where we are. Students can make a list of things, events, and people for which they are grateful. Lower proficiency learners might create multimodal collages of images that represent their meaningful moments (one free tool for making collages with photos and text is Adobe Spark). They could also follow the patterns of list poems to develop gratitude lists that evoke readers’ senses in relation to the described events.

More advanced learners could expand their lists into thank you letters to the people (real or imaginary) who have helped them over the year. In addition to allowing students to elaborate on how someone’s actions helped them in their own lives, writing letters gives students an opportunity to write for a real audience outside the classroom. Thank you letters could also be used within the class as an alternative to “secret Santa” exchanges, with each student being randomly assigned the name of a classmate; they need to then think back over the term and identify a few ways in which their classmate helped them out, no matter how small.

2. Year-in-Review Letter

In many countries, there is a tradition of sending holiday greeting cards (physical or electronic) to friends and family, accompanied by a letter describing the events and activities the writer’s family did over the past year. Some holiday letters are humorous, others maintain a coherent narrative across the entire year (following family members as characters in the story), and still others are more like short descriptions of separate experiences. If you have a collection of these sent by your own family or received from friends and relatives in past years, share them with your students to analyze as models of a genre. Discuss how the letters vary and what is similar across most of them. Students can then write their own year-in-review letters, supported by photos they took during the activities they describe.

3. Favorite Foods

Food is a core part of many winter holidays (leaving cookies for Santa, making latkes for Hanukkah, eating toshikoshi-udon at Ōmisoka), and students probably have fond memories of the foods served on the holidays their families celebrate. Favorite foods could serve as the basis for any number of writing activities:

  • Retelling recipes to share with classmates from other cultures
  • Describing the sensory experience of preparing or eating a favorite food
  • Telling a narrative of a moment sharing food with friends and family on a holiday
  • Reporting on the history or legend of how a particular food came to be associated with a holiday in their country or culture

4. Create a New New Year’s Tradition

Marking the change from one calendar year to the next, New Year’s is a nonreligious holiday celebrated all around the world. Even countries that also observe a new year celebration on a different date tend to have some kind of tradition for the night of 31 December. Discuss some of the ways people in different countries mark the new year. For example:

  • Chile: People buy new yellow underwear to wear on 1 January to ensure that they will meet new friends (maybe even a love interest) in the coming year.
  • Estonia: People eat seven, nine, or even 12 meals on 31 December so they are well positioned for an abundant new year.
  • Philippines: Everything should be round (like coins) to bring wealth. People also make a lot of noise by banging pots and pans to ward off evil spirits.

There are even more ways on this list. Then, encourage students to brainstorm other ways they could celebrate the new year. Students could dream up a creative, silly, scary, or otherwise unusual ritual and then describe it in writing (or act it out) for their classmates. They should explain what benefit the practice could have in the same way real traditions are described.

5. Academic Practice

If your class needs to continue practicing academic forms of writing, holidays offer ample content for many different types of academic text. Students might compare and contrast two different holidays or how two cultures celebrate the same holiday. They could argue for widespread adoption of their own made-up tradition. If students are learning how to do research, they might interview people to ask about their different holiday practices. It can be surprising how varied people’s practices are, even within a single culture!

If you’ve tried out some of these activities, or have other holiday-related writing activities that have worked well for your students, please share in the comments section. Happy New Year!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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