Holidays: Often Happy, Sometimes Sad

December 15, 2010

This usually happy season may also bring up negative feelings for some students--perhaps because of family tensions or divisions, health problems or financial stress. It's important to take this into consideration as we talk about the holidays in the classroom. This classroom activity is aimed at raising students' sensitivity and providing some encouragement for those who may be facing hardship during this holiday season.

As the holidays approach, many people are looking forward to spending time with family and friends and sharing in the joys of the season. It is easy to take for granted that everyone is in this happy frame of mind and that all our students are excited to be getting time off from school. This is, after all, the image that the media and advertisers bombard us with from all directions—this time of year is supposed to be joyous.

Unfortunately though, the holiday season may well bring up negative feelings for students and colleagues from who have troubles at home. Some may have lost a family member. Many families are struggling to keep their heads above water in this economy—they are worried about finances and keeping a roof over their heads. For many people, the holidays can be accompanied by grief, stress or loneliness.
It's important to take all this into consideration as we talk about the holidays in the classroom. Below is classroom activity aimed at raising students' sensitivity and providing some encouragement for those who may be facing hardship during this holiday season.


(5 minutes)
Ask your students: What is a word that comes to mind for them as they look ahead to the next ten days?
Explain that the holiday season is often associated with positive images, especially in the media. Yet for many people and for many reasons, the holidays are not necessarily joyous. In a go round, ask students to share with the rest of the group a word, image or feeling—positive or not positive—that comes up for them as they look ahead to the next ten days. Alternatively ask for volunteers to share their words, images, or feelings, with the rest of the group.

Read aloud and Pair Share

(30 minutes)
Read the following story to your class or ask a volunteer to do so:

Holiday stories from street corner and coffee shop

By Tom Gilsenan from his Facebook post
Melissa taught me about how strong is the desire among young people for a family "that works" on holidays. We happened to be in the same coffee shop one Christmas night. She was in a corner, along, crying softly.
"She's been there awhile," the cook said. "Would you go over and try to talk to her?"
I pulled a chair up beside her. She told me to go away. I didn't say anything, but pushed my chair back a little. After a few more minutes, she looked up and said: "I thought I told you to go away."
"You did," I said, "but it's hard to leave when you're sitting here crying."
"You wouldn't understand," she said. "You probably have a family and everything was fine today. My family is all screwed up. This year I thought things would be different. I tried so hard to make everything work. Then my dad and stepmom started criticizing my friends. We ended up yelling at each other...and then I left. I came here because I didn't know where else to go."
I waited a minute and then responded. "Isn't it great that this place is here — and open. I like it because it's almost a second family. I wanted to spend a little time with this family, too, on Christmas, so I came here tonight.
"Someone once told me a story about families. There's our family of chance — the one we were born into. Then there's our family of choice — the one we create as we go along in life. Sometimes the families of choice and chance are the same. But for lots of people and lots of reasons, that doesn't always work out.
"You tried to make yours work. That's wonderful. And it's an inspiration for those of us who are older and may have given up trying. Thank you."
She looked up. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?"
"No," I replied. "One of my heroes is a woman named Jane Addams. She talked about young people wanting to make the world a better place — from their own families all the way to way to world peace. Here you are tonight reminding me that wish is still alive. Thanks. Say, can I get you another cup?..."

Ask students to break into pairs to discuss the story they just heard:

  • What do they think about the story? 
  • Can they relate to any of it? If so, why?
Reconvene the whole group. Ask some volunteers to share what they discussed in their pairs. Make sure to elicit comments and associations that are different so that you get a variety of reflections on the story. Use some or all of the questions below to continue building on the group dialogue:
  • Can anyone relate to Melissa? How?
  • What are some of the challenges Melissa faced over the holidays?
  • Do you think these are any different from the challenges she may face at other times of the year? 
  • Why do things sometimes seem to be more intense around the holidays?
  • Is it possible that people's expectations affect how things turn out over the holidays?
  • What do you think about the idea of a family of chance and a family of choice? 
  • What did Melissa do when things got to be too much?
  • Do you think the stranger Melissa met in the coffeeshop was able to help her feel a bit better?
  • Do you know of people in your own life who might be struggling over the holidays? Are there ways you think you might be able to help them out?


(10 minutes)
Ask students: If we feel a little overwhelmed or upset over the holidays, what might we do to feel better? What could we do to help someone else who is feeling overwhelmed during the holidays? 


(5 minutes)
The Dutch have a saying: "Shared sorrow is half the sorrow and shared joy is double the joy." What do you think this saying means? How do you think it relates to what we talked about today? Ask a few volunteers to share.
How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: