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Sharing the Spirit of the Holidays With Your Students

By Beth Newingham on December 8, 2009
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

My recent posts have been very academic.  In the spirit of the season, however, this post focuses on a different type of learning.  In addition to teaching our students the necessary intellectual skills they will need to be successful in the real world, it is also important to teach them about the significance of helping others.  This type of teaching is essential as we strive to prepare our students to become productive, considerate citizens in our society.  For some students, the holidays are all about receiving presents, eating good food, and taking part in festive activities that provide fun in their own lives.  These students are not always focused on the “giving” aspect of the season that should outweigh the receiving.

READ ON to find out more about the ways students in my classroom and in our school give back to those less fortunate.  You will also find ideas for creative gifts students can make for their parents or loved ones.







In years past, my students have created holiday hope chests for children who will be spending the holidays in a local children's hospital. It is easy for children to take for granted the gifts that they receive during the holidays, so this project encourages children to embrace the holiday season as one of giving rather than receiving.



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I first found out about holiday hope chests on the Kids Care Web site.  The chests are simply decorated shoeboxes designed by my students.  Each chest (shoebox) is filled with small toys, games, and art supplies chosen especially for a girl or boy of a specific age.  My students also make holiday cards to enclose in each chest. The decorative shoebox gives the receiving child a "treasure chest" in which to keep the items together.


Students can print out a variety of great holiday images to decorate their hope chests using Scholastic’s holiday clip art!



We donate our hope chests to a local children's hospital, but the hope chests can also be made for children in homeless shelters, orphanages, foster homes, soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, low-income pediatric clinics, or low-income day care centers.



To begin the project, I introduce the idea to my students and then send a note home explaining the project to the parents. I ask parents to donate shoeboxes, and each student is asked to bring three to five small (new) toys to put in his or her hope chest. I suggest shopping at local dollar stores and emphasize the fact that the items must be small enough to fit inside a shoebox.  I also ask students not to bring candy, toys with many small parts, or toys that promote violence, such as toy guns or action figure with guns or battle gear. Suggested items include crayons, pencils, markers, notebooks, notepads, glue, Play Doh, flash cards, stickers, small toys, small books, magazines, LEGOs, hair bands, card games, small stuffed animals, magnets, etc.




This project has been very successful and rewarding in years past. My students love being able to spread joy to their peers who are less fortunate, and it helps them to embrace the real meaning of the holiday season.

For more photos and information about creating holiday hope chests, you can visit my classroom Web site. You can also download my hope chest parent letter and hope chest tag (as seen on hope chest boxes in the pictures above).






I teach in a school where most of my students live with parents who provide a fairly comfortable living environment for their kids. My students often see the holidays as a time to receive the newest and greatest toys of the season, and they are not always aware of the many children living so close to them who receive no gifts for the holidays or whose parents who are struggling just to buy groceries and purchase clothes for the cold weather. Melodie Myrick, the kindergarten teacher at my school, has been adopting a family with her class for over six years. In lieu of teacher gifts (which nearly every child at our school buys for the teacher), she asks students to donate from a list of items to the family her class adopts each year.


When adopting a family, the class is given some information about the family.  For example, you might know that you are shopping for a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy who live with their single mother.  While there may be some toys on the list, the list of necessary items to purchase mainly includes essential food and items of clothing.  Each family can be assigned items from the list, or you can create a sign-up sheet so that parents can choose whether or not they will participate in the service project.  This project emphasizes the importance of giving to others, as it puts the meaning of the holiday season into perspective for those students who still think of Christmas only as a time to receive.


There are many local organizations you can contact to help you find a family in need, but the Salvation Army is the most universally known organization that matches impoverished families with individual or group sponsors to provide for their tangible needs during the holidays. Find more information about contacting the Salvation Army office nearest your school.



Senior Center Visit   


P1070634 The holidays are a time to think about those who are less fortunate.  Another group of people to remember are those senior citizens who are confined to a nursing home or a senior citizen center.  Many of these residents get very few visitors during the holidays and would love a holiday visit from a class of elementary students.



When visiting the center, you can plan to have your students do a fun craft with the seniors. A great way to spread cheer in the senior center or nursing home is to have students work with the seniors to make ornaments that can be hung on a special tree in the nursing home.  Your students can also read holiday books with the seniors or even sing holiday songs with the help of your school’s music teacher. 


Click on these Scholastic links for cool ornament projects and other craft ideas to make with the seniors or in your own classroom!


Homemade Gifts for Parents and Loved Ones

I am always looking for new ideas when it comes to the gift that my students make for their parents or other loved ones during the holiday season. The gift that I have chosen to have my students make for the past few years is "Cookies in a Jar."

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I use quart-sized jars with lids and the ingredients necessary to make a specific type of cookie.  During one afternoon, I pour the ingredients into large bowls and call students over to a table in my classroom in groups of four or five at a time to add the ingredients to their jars.  I ask parents to send in sets of measuring cups and measuring spoons for students to use for the special project.  While I walk small groups of students through the sequential steps necessary to make their "cookies in a jar" gift, the rest of my class reads quietly at their desks or completes a purposeful assignment that I have explained prior to the cookie-jar project.



Once all students have added the ingredients to their jar, they attach a circular piece of festive material to the top of the jar with a rubber band and tie a ribbon around the rubber band.  Finally, students attach a gift tag to the ribbon to indicate the recipient of the gift.  The recipe for how to make the cookies is printed on a label and stuck to the back of the jar so that the cookies can be easily made by adding butter and eggs when the recipient chooses to make the cookies. 



Since the holidays are such a busy time of year, parents tend to appreciate the ease of having a pre-made cookie mix that can be used to entertain holiday guests.  It is also a fun way for students and parents to spend time together at home baking (and enjoying) the cookies.


I like this gift idea because it can be altered for students who celebrate any holiday.  I purchase different types of inexpensive cloth from a fabric store including material with holiday designs, winter themes, and basic designs like polka dots, stripes, and plaids.  You can also tie the holiday project to lessons in math to reinforce concepts having to do with fractions and measurement.


Now that I know I will be doing this project each year, I look for good sales on ingredients and on quart-sized jars all year long. I have found great deals on the jars and on the ingredients prior to doing the project in my classroom when I have planned ahead!

You can find specific directions for making a variety of "cookies in a jar" at allrecipes.com. Download my "Holiday Cookies in a Jar" recipe, my holiday cookie instruction labels for jars (seen in picture above), and my "Cookies in a Jar" gift tags (on jars in picture above).


Scholastic's Online Holiday Resources

Scholastic has put together an awesome variety of activities to help your students learn about and celebrate the many winter holidays. The “Activities and Resources for Teachers” section includes links to great online activities, useful printables, and other projects including holiday crafts and easy recipes. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Celebrating Winter Holidays



Share Your Ideas Here!

I would love for you to share any holiday service projects or holiday gift ideas that you have done with your students in the past. Add your comments below!


Comments (17)


You are definitely in a unique situation. While I did take a maternity leave when I had my son, I was able to start the year, leave for three months in March, and then return for just a week at the end of the year. This was great because I was able to teach most of the year and establish a great relationship with my students before leaving to have my baby. However, many of my colleagues have been in situations similar to yours where they must return to a classroom where another teacher has begun the year with their students.

I think I would take advantage of the fact that you are returning at the beginning of a new year. While it is not a new school year, it is the beginning of 2010. This is a great time for students to take a step back and reflect on the time they have spent together so far this school year. In some ways, it can be treated as a new beginning. (See my post "Ringing in the New Year with Your Students.") If I was in your situation, I would spend time during my first few days back doing activities that are similar to what you would do at the beginning of a school year. While the students already know each other, it is important that they get to know you as well. Spend time sharing things about yourself with the students. (I often create a slideshow of pictures of my family and my favorite places to help the students understand who I am and the things I value.) Other fun activities that will help you get to know your students on a personal level will also be important.

Finally, it is so important to meet with the teacher who has been teaching your class, if possible. He or she should be able to pass along some valuable information on each student that will likely make the transition smoother for you and the students. It is also important to know the rules and routines that have been established in the classroom. While it may be hard for you to adjust to the routines that have been set by another teacher, it will be easiest for you and your students to follow those routines when you first return rather than trying to change everything immediately upon your arrival. Hopefully you can gradually change anything that you would like to do differently once the students have gotten to know you and are comfortable with you as their teacher.

I wish you luck with your return to the classroom. I know that it will certainly not be easy to come back, but teaching really is a wonderfully rewarding job.

I hope that I have been of some help!


Ms. Jay,

I'm glad you like the Holiday Hope Chest idea. It is certainly a wonderful way to help our students appreciate what they have and provide for other children who are less fortunate. Happy holidays!


Great ideas! I love the Holiday Hope Chests. What a great way for children to share in the gift of giving.

Hi Beth,

This is not related to this post, but I was not sure where else to write it. I am going to be returning to the classroom in January after being off for a 9 month maternity leave. I know that you have been in this situation and I was wondering if you might give me some advice in terms of how to approach those first few days back. Because they have had another teacher for the first part of the year, I have never been in this situation before. What would you say are the key things to do when I return. Do you have any great first day/week ideas? Any suggestions you have would be great! I LOVE all that you do and would love to hear your perspective. Sorry to post this here. Thank You in advance! :)


It's great to hear that you are doing the Holiday Hope Chests in your classroom! It is fun for the students and provides so such joy for the recipients.

I linked to your cool ornament crafts in my post. What great ideas you shared! The clear glass ball ornaments are beautiful!

Happy holidays! -Beth

Thanks, Beth. I am going to be doing the holiday hope chests with my class this week. Besides that, I adopted a family on my own and was able to get them a tremendous amount of help, yet perhaps next year, we will donate as a class. - Victoria


I added links in the post to download both the Holiday Cookies in a jar recipe and the labels with the directions that go on the jar.

Enjoy this fun activity with your students!



I now realize that I forgot to respond to the second part of your question! The Polar Express ticket you see on my website is actually something I bought at a Hallmark store that was going out of business years ago when the movie was in theaters. You are just seeing a scanned copy of the ticket.

Have fun wih your Polar Express 3-D movie!


Beth, I love the cookies in a jar gift idea for parents, especially how it involves such an important life skill like baking! Would you mind sharing the jar label file or simply the label size for quart size jars? Any more help would be appreciated!

-Jen from Juneau

Thanks for your quick response Lisa! I am certainly excited to hopefully start the tradition at our school next year! What an awesome experience for everyone involved!

Happy Holidays!


Hi Beth, Our Title One teacher is primarily in charge of putting the event together. The rest of us help out where needed. On the night of the event the teachers and student council help out at the stations. Good luck next year. It really is an incredible night.

: ) Lisa


Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful holiday ideas!

Your school's special event "A Night of Giving," sounds absolutely amazing! I love that you are bringing students and their families together for such a great cause.

Your idea has inspired me to attempt to organize such an event at our school next year. We have a student council who is often looking for service projects to plan with the help of the teachers and our PTO. Who is primarily in charge of the special event at your school? Is it planned by the teachers or the parents?

Thanks again for sharing!



Thank you for your thoughtful message. I have also learned much of what I do from many great teachers, and it is exciting to know that my website and resources have impacted your teaching! I am always happy to share and hope to use this blog to get even more ideas from the many great teachers out there!


Hello Beth, I am a 4th grade teacher from the inner city of Chicago, and I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for all your wonderful ideas. I have been fortunate to have been learning from you through your website (teacher resources) for the last few years. You have truly had a profound impact on my teaching. My classroom procedures are very similar to yours, I seem to be getting better each year. Thanks for everything :)

Love your ideas! At my school we used to do a family craft night but now we have changed it to "A Night of Giving". We collect toys for the Spark of Love Toy Drive sponsored by our local fire department. We also collect towels and blankets to donate to the local animal shelter. There is a station set up for students to make cards to send to the troops. Another station is called make a craft and leave a craft. The craft that the student leaves is taken to a nursing home. This year we added fill a backpack. Students can bring a new backpack filled with school supplies or other small items. The backpacks will be given to kids in foster care or an orphanage. It really is a remarkable night. I can't wait to participate. It's very rewarding helping kids understand that is better is give than receive.

I was checking out your website and noticed your tickets to board the Polar Express. Is it possible to get a copy of the ticket? I purchased the video in 3D and would like to hand out tickets for the students to board the train. Wishing you many blessings this holiday season and New Year.


Thanks for sharing your holiday cards for the troops idea! What a great way for your students to show their respect and appreciation for those men and women who are sacrificing their lives for our country overseas!

Happy Holidays!

Great ideas! I'm sure I have about 20 shoeboxes in my closet right now that I'm going to use for the hope chests. One tradition we have is to make holiday cards for the troops. Our state board of education sponsors the program, we just have our students make festive cards with cheerful greetings, and a coordinator from our school makes sure they reach the soldiers overseas.

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