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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Toward an Inclusive Holiday Sing-Along

Holiday sing-alongs are something many music teachers are tasked with. They can be a lot of fun, and they're a great way to bring the entire school community together. But they also inherently center certain religions and cultures while ignoring others, and that is problematic. I cannot say that I'm completely happy with my sing-along just yet, but after doing a lot of thinking over the last few years I have made some changes that have certainly brought it a long way in making it more reflective of our school community and our world, and I want to share where I am in this journey to hopefully help other teachers think critically about their current practice and encourage others to join me in my journey.

First, if you haven't already read my previous series of posts on Reflecting, Responding, and Respecting all students in the music room, I encourage you to catch up on those. I have written extensively about my thoughts on inclusion and decolonization in music education, along with specific action steps and resources, on everything from race to students with special needs, and those thoughts play a big role in my journey to change my school's sing-along. In a nutshell, focusing on Christmas (and maybe throwing in a Hanukkah song) centers Christians (even if all the songs are "secular") and excludes all of our students of other religions and backgrounds, and talking about December as "the holiday season" ignores the fact that the majority of the world's major holidays do not fall in December!

Last year I made the conscious decision to include as many different winter holidays in my sing-along as I could, but limiting it to winter holidays still excluded a large part of the world's holidays. I realized that there was really no reason for me to limit the holidays to only winter ones, since we don't do any sort of holiday celebration in the spring/ summer, and I expanded my song choices further. I still have several changes in mind for next year, but this is as far as I was able to get with the time constraints and resources that I had to prepare. Here are the songs we'll be singing this year:

1. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah
2. Jingle Bells
3. Feliz Navidad
4. Diwali is Here
5. Gong Xi, Gong Xi
6. Eid Mubarak
7. 12 Days of Christmas

The main criteria I'm looking for when I'm choosing songs are 1) songs that are easy enough for Kindergarten to learn in just a couple of rehearsals, and 2) songs that we can do something fun with rather than "just" singing. So for each song, I have instruments, motions, a game, or something that goes along with the singing to make it more fun for everyone- that's a lot of songs to sit and sing, especially right before break when students are antsy!

Here's what I'm hoping to work on improving in the future:
  • Find songs that are more traditional/ representative for Diwali, Eid/ Ramadan
  • Choose a different Spanish language song
  • Do some research on Jingle Bells- I've just recently come across some information that it may not be an appropriate song choice for elementary school because it originated in minstrel shows, but I haven't had time to dig into it (I plan to replace it with Sleigh Ride or something if it turns out to be a song rooted in oppression)

I'm also aware that doing a holiday sing-along at all is questionable in itself, but I am doing my best to make this a learning opportunity for all of my students by discussing the many different holidays celebrated around the world, and I have been pleased with the responses I have gotten from families in my school community who celebrate Lunar New Year and Ramadan who have been so happy to see their tradition represented and acknowledged in some way.

Do you do a sing-along at your school? I'd love to hear your thoughts on holidays in public school classrooms, how to make holiday sing-alongs more reflective of our world, and whether holiday sing-alongs are even a good idea to begin with! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I hope this sparks some conversation in the music education community as we continue to look for ways to value and respect all of our students and their backgrounds.


  1. Replies
    1. Great question. It just happens to be one of many holidays not represented because of limitations on time, honestly. My initial efforts to include more holidays in my representation have been focused on Lunar New Year, Eid, and Diwali because in a survey I did with the whole school those were holidays that families celebrated that were not already represented in any of my programming. That doesn't mean I wouldn't include Kwanzaa- I'm not limiting it to only holidays that our school community celebrates- but that has been my priority. If you have any great Kwanzaa songs you'd recommend I'd love for you to share them here for all of us to have as a resource!

    2. Here is the free sheet music for A Kwanzaa song. She sells the instrumental track also:

    3. Awesome, thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Do you have any thoughts about singing songs about the time of year you are singing these songs? Diwal, Eid, and even Hanukah do not always fall near Christmas. We struggle with this at our school. It seems like we are still centering Christmas.

    1. That's absolutely true and a good question to consider. I heard another music teacher mention that they do a "holiday sing-along" around Halloween, which is another great option. I have stayed away from throwing in holiday references year-round because I have a few students who don't participate in holiday-related activities and I don't want to be constantly having them leave the room or go somewhere else. I do think learning about holidays is important, but I try to limit it to one time of year. It works well to have an assembly right before major breaks so I do this holiday one before the December break and I do the international festival before summer break, so it sorof makes sense that way, but yes, it's definitely still Christmas-centric in that way.

  3. Thanks for your post - I appreciate the time and effort you put in to your posts.

  4. I appreciate you sharing these ideas-they are very helpful...
    Just wondering what your thought are on Jingle Bells with it's connections in minstrelsy?

    1. Yes, this article references the same research referenced in the article I linked in this post- and after looking into it (shortly after this post) I removed it from my repertoire and have not done the song since. I mentioned it in my follow-up post a year later, where I explained what songs I am using instead, if you want to see that: