As the holiday season approaches, it’s the perfect time to introduce your middle and high school English students to some classic holiday short stories. Not only do these stories capture the essence of the festive season, but they also teach valuable lessons about love, kindness, and compassion. However, when selecting stories for your students, it’s important to keep in mind that all students deserve to see themselves in your holiday lesson plans. It’s essential to choose stories that represent different cultures, distinctive holidays, and diverse authors. Let’s explore some diverse Christmas short story pairings that are suitable for secondary ELA students.
The most common Christmas stories include A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen , and “An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard.
While I won’t argue that these holiday classics are probably classics for good reason, there’s so much value in adding different perspectives to every unit, especially seasonal ones!
A Christmas Carol TEXT SET Pairing
A Christmas Carol is often taught around the holiday season. Teachers, middle school students, and high school students alike enjoy this classic tale for it’s spooky elements, allusion bank (we know where the expression Ba Humbug comes from now!), and moral themes. It also just so happens to provide a nicely-timed ELA movie day right before winter break. 🙂 If you are searching for some free lesson plans and Christmas Carol activities that will not only engage students and deepen their understanding, consider adding these diverse poets as pairings:
- Pair Stave I and its theme of aloofness, coldness, ungratefulness, and unresolved issues with “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
- Pair Stave V and its happy, quintessential Christmas theme with “Christmas at Melrose” by Leslie Pinckney Hill. It’s in the public domain and here’s a lovely section:
About a sparkling Christmas tree.
Eleanor, leader of the fold,
Hermione with heart of gold,
Elaine with comprehending eyes,
And two more yet of coddling size,
Natalie pondering all that’s said,
And Mary with the cherub head—
All these shall give you sweet content
And care-destroying merriment,
While one with true madonna grace
Moves round the glowing fire-place
Where father loves to muse aside
And grandma sits in silent pride.
And you may chafe the wasting oak,
Or freely pass the kindly joke
To mix with nuts and home-made cake
And apples set on coals to bake.
These dear delights we fain would share
With friend and kinsman everywhere,
And from our door see them depart
Each with a little lighter heart.
A Christmas Carol activity for this poem would be to have students compare the tone of Stave V to the tone of “Christmas at Melrose” then perhaps rewrite the poem to include characters from A Christmas Carol or their own lives. This would make a perfect opportunity for students to write about their own unique holiday traditions if presented in an inclusive light.
Another fun Christmas Carol activity would be to have students choose a color to represent a character then write a poem to reveal their analysis. For example, how has Scrooge’s color symbolism changed from Stave I to Stave V? Students can use this digital paint chip poetry resource as a visual guide!
Nostalgic Christmas Short Story Pairings
Many holiday short stories such as “A Christmas Memory” and “An American Childhood” focus on Christmastime nostalgia. Here are some winter poetry pairings that tap into a sense of nostalgia:
- Flame-Heart by Claude McKay . Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica in 1889, wrote about social issues from his perspective as a black man in the United States as well as nostalgic poetry about his Jamaican homeland. Flame-Heart is in the public domain and uses color imagery to trigger nostalgia for the holiday season. Here are a few lines:
So much have I forgotten in ten years,
So much in ten brief years; I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not;
Forgotten is the special, startling season
Of some beloved tree’s flowering and fruiting,
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting:
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.
A great way to teach students how to read a poem for imagery is to have them color-code the lines that relate to each sense. With the templates provided in this Winter Poetry Pack, students can choose five colors for the top imagery symbols then use highlighters or crayons to label the matching imagery within the poem. Here is some nostalgic poetry to get you started:
- Chanukah Lights Tonight by Steven Schneider is a poem about a Hanukkah party written in a reminiscent tone. There’s lots of imagery in this poem including odd descriptions such as, “The smell of oil is in the air./ We drift off to childhood” This line will make sense with the setting! Check it out!
- Speakin’ O’ Christmas by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a nostalgic poem about how Christmas has changed from the speaker as time has passed. It’s relatable in a way that we tend to put on rose colored glasses when we reminisce on times of the past with family.
- My Lebanon by Edna K. Saloomey is a nostalgic poem about home. Though not overtly holiday themed, it’s wistful in a way many think about home during the holiday season. It reminded me of my favorite episode in the Dolly Parton’s America podcast where the host’s dad talks about his fondness for home in Lebanon.
Holiday Short Story Symbolism Pairings
Many classic holiday short stories such as “The Gift of the Magi,” and “Little Match Girl,” highlight symbolism of goodwill. Here are some poetry pairings to fit this theme:
- Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Dr. Maya Angelou. While this poem does have religious overtones, its overall message is one of overcoming the storms of life to find peace. It’s about offering goodwill and welcoming peace across different beliefs. Here’s a stanza:
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
- Star of Ethiopia by Lucian B. Watkins is about a symbolic star that will light the way to peace and freedom. After reading this poem, students could brainstorm familiar symbols found in holiday traditions and discuss what each may represent in secular and non secular environments.
Speaking of symbolism, a fun way for students to reveal symbolism, themes, tone, and more within a story or long poem is to have them create blackout poetry from the texts. I personally love doing blackout poetry digitally because students can make as many mistakes as possible while crafting their own perfect poems. You can see an example of how this works here:
Diverse Christmas Short Story Pairings
“Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan is a poignant Christmas short story that delves into the complexities of embracing one’s heritage in the face of societal expectations. Through a personal narrative set during a Christmas Eve dinner, Tan artfully navigates the clash between her Chinese family’s customs and the American traditions of her crush’s family. The story beautifully captures the universal theme of self-acceptance sense of home and place. Here are some poems that can pair nicely with these themes:
Winter Short story pairings
Many English teachers avoid Christmas literature altogether and instead use winter or snow themed passages during the winter season. Still, classic winter stories such as “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and winter poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost can be enhanced with diverse perspectives. Here’s a short list of diverse winter poems, and you can find even more in this Winter Poetry Pack.
- Blizzard by William Carlos Williams
- The Train Dogs by Emily Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake
- Poème d’Automne by Langston Hughes
- When the Year Grows Old by Edna St. Vincent Millay
After students read these winter poems, have them use the mentor texts as a springboard to create their own winter poetry! There are lots of creative winter poetry prompts in this resource: Winter Poetry Pack
More Diverse Christmas Short Stories
After finishing my research for this list, I sourced social media to bring you even more ideas for making your winter reading list more diverse. Here are suggestions from English teachers on Instagram:
- Mswilliamsreads recommended a Newsela article about a school district in Oregon that banned Santa. After reading, her students write an argumentative paragraph voicing their stance on Santa in schools and create a winter decoration to accompany their writing.
- Englishelixir recommended the YA book My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories which contains 12 holiday short stories by popular YA authors. (affiliate link)
A really fun activity to do with holiday texts is to turn them into a poetry puzzle for students to play with. Though it might sound like all fun and no substance, you can set requirements such as: Create a poem from the keywords of “Fish Cheeks” that represents the mood of the dinner or create a poem. You can get ready-made poetry puzzles and create your own using this Winter Poetry Pack!
I hope these Christmas short story ideas have helped you plan a festive and inclusive ELA unit. Literature gives us the tool to teach students about the values of empathy, kindness, humility, and compassion that are central to the holiday season. So, this Christmas season, give your students the gift of literature and the opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons. Happy holidays!
P.S. I welcome more of your favorite diverse suggestions and will add them to my list! DM me at BuildingBookLove with your recommendations!