Presentations and Activities: How to Teach ESL Vocabulary with 5 Popular Holidays

Once everyone has had their fill of Halloween candy, the words on lips all over the United States are “Happy Holidays.”

Merry Christmas!

Happy Hanukkah (or Chag Sameach)!

Happy New Year!

Wonderful wishes abound from November through January, often over delicious treats like pumpkin pie and eggnog.

What a great time of year it is!

Sure, you could find holidays to celebrate every month of the year.

But most Americans use the term “holiday season” to refer to the cluster of special days that close out the last few months of the year with a festive bang, including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve/Day.

These holidays come bearing gifts for ESL teachers: Fantastic ESL vocabulary lessons.

Why Teach English Holiday Vocabulary to ESL Students?

For ESL students who may or may not celebrate these holidays in their homes or home countries, it’s a great time to talk about culture and vocabulary! Not only are these holidays very important to the cultures of English-speaking countries, but each holiday has a unique wealth of fun words that are worth reviewing with your English students.

This rich vocabulary is useful no matter what time of year it is.

Plus, let’s not forget about the traditional games and activities that people do during these holidays! There’s everything from spinning dreidels and stocking stuffings to shopping and cooking.

This gives teachers, and everyone else, a sense of happy busyness that we don’t have during the rest of the year. Exploring these holidays is naturally a warm, pleasant and interactive way to get students excited about learning English vocabulary. And attaching vocabulary to bright, colorful, musical events will make it incredibly memorable for your students.

But, since it’s the holiday season, after all, we know that you’re busy too. That’s why we’ve put together full presentations with holiday vocabulary that you can deliver in class. You can read these passages to your students to give them listening practice or print out copies for each person and have them read it themselves—or you can do both!

Beneath each presentation, you’ll also find a suggested vocabulary activity you can use to review the holiday vocabulary in a fun, meaningful way.

Of course, all of these can be modified as you see fit. The activities themselves can be repurposed for other holidays without too much work on your part.

Now, let’s get to the holiday fun!

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Oh My! How to Teach Festive ESL Vocabulary for 5 Winter Holidays



Thanksgiving Vocabulary Presentation

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States of America (celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November) and Canada (celebrated on the second Monday of October) as well as other places around the world on which people pause to give thanks for the good things they have received. This holiday was traditionally a time to thank God for the bountiful harvest.

Traditionally, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with a big meal complete with roast turkey. For Thanksgiving, the turkey is often filled with stuffing, a mixture of bread, vegetables and spices, before being baked in the oven.

Once the turkey comes out, one person will carve it and slice it into pieces, and family and friends will sit together and eat the delicious meal.

On the table, there might be a cornucopia for decoration. This cone-shaped container, often a woven basket, is a symbol of plenty or abundance and is often associated with Thanksgiving.

Another thing associated with the holiday is the idea of being thankful or grateful for what you have. Thanksgiving is a time to pause and appreciate all that you have, all the good things you have been given.

The Pilgrims were some of the first Europeans to travel to the shores of North America, and they celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. Their traditional dress is black and white, and today many people decorate for Thanksgiving with pictures of pilgrims.

Thanksgiving is often considered to be the beginning of the holiday season in the United States.

Thanksgiving Vocabulary Activities

After reviewing your Thanksgiving vocabulary with your students, you can have some fun with a game of Thanksgiving Pictionary. Write each word on a small slip of paper and put them in a bag.

Divide your class into two teams and have each team choose one person to draw first. Those two come to the front board, one of them chooses a word from the bag, and they draw at the same time trying to get their team to guess which word they are illustrating.

The first team to guess the correct word scores a point and new set of players comes up and draws the next word. Play until you run out of vocabulary words or until one team has scored ten points.

You can find some additional Thanksgiving vocabulary as well as illustrations for each of them here.



Christmas Vocabulary Presentation

Christmas is celebrated around the world on December 25th in remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ as recounted in the Bible.

According to the Christian religion, when his parents could not find a room to stay in for the night, Jesus was born in a manger, a trough from which stabled animals eat, and a star shone brightly in the sky above. On that night, people followed this star to visit newborn Jesus and celebrate his birth.

Today, many celebrate Christmas with colorful decorations. They decorate their houses with a Christmas tree, which is typically a pine tree. On this tree, they hang lights and ornaments. Ornaments are small items, often glass balls, which hang on a Christmas tree to make it look more beautiful.

Other common decorations are stockings, large socks, which are hung above a fireplace or on a wall.

On Christmas Eve, a magical, bearded man dressed in red known as Santa Claus comes and puts toys in the stockings and under the Christmas tree as gifts for good girls and boys, at least according to tradition.

Santa drives a sleigh. But unlike regular sleighs which travel over snowy land on rails, Santa’s sleigh flies through the air pulled by eight flying reindeer.

Christmas Vocabulary Activities

Give your students a chance to put their new vocabulary to use with this free printable Christmas speaking game. To play, you’ll need a marker for each person as well as one copy of the game and one die for every four players.

Players take turns rolling the die and then moving that many spaces. If you use this printable game, students will then have to answer the question that appears in the square they land on. Some questions they might get are: Is Santa skinny or fat? What’s the weather like at Christmas? Do you know the names of any of Santa’s reindeer?

If students answer correctly, they stay on that spot. If they answer incorrectly or ungrammatically, they must return to the space they came from. The first person to the end of the board wins.

If this printable isn’t suitable for your students, it’s not hard to make your own. Simply print out a blank game board template, fill in each square with a question or action appropriate to your class, and then make copies for each group of three to four players.



Hanukkah Vocabulary Presentation

A festival is a celebration, and there is perhaps no festival better than Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.

It is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Jewish calendar. Kislev is November/December according to the Gregorian calendar that we all use now. The holiday commemorates the dedication of the second temple in Jerusalem and runs for eight days and nights.

Families celebrate the holiday by lighting candles on a menorah, a special candelabra which holds nine candles. On the first day of Hanukkah, one candle is lit. On the second, two candles and so on until all eight candles are lit on the eighth day. One candle stands apart from the others and is used to light the ceremonial candles.

The eight candles commemorate the miracle, the unexplainable blessing presumed to have come from God, of one night’s worth of oil lasting for eight nights.

As the candles are lit, the people say special prayers or words to God.

Throughout Hanukkah, Jewish children play games with a dreidel, a spinning top with four sides.

Latkes are a traditional food of Hanukkah. They are pancakes made from potatoes and fried in oil.

Hanukkah Vocabulary Activities

You can give your students a taste of Hanukkah by making latkes in class. Here’s a worksheet which shows the steps in the process, but your students will have to put them in order before they can follow them.

Try having students work in pairs. Blindfold one person and have the other describe each picture while their blindfolded partner puts them in order. Here are the steps in the process:

1. Get a potato.

2. Peel it.

3. Grate it.

4. Form it into patties.

5. Fry the patties.

6. Enjoy your latkes.

If you can make the tasty treats in class (resources and allergies permitting) serve them with applesauce or sour cream for a special taste of the season.


Kwanzaa Vocabulary Presentation

Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 and is a holiday honoring African-American heritage. The holiday runs from December 26th to January 1st each year and culminates with a celebration and gift giving.

Maulana Karenga created the holiday for African Americans, descendants of Africans living in the United States, to reconnect them with their African heritage. The holiday celebrates the seven principles of African heritage.

One of those principles is Unity, being of one mind. This is an ideal for which African-Americans should strive, according to the holiday traditions.

Another principle is creativity, expressing the best and most original aspects of yourself so that you leave the world and community a better place.

A third principle is faith, belief in the African people, parents, teachers and leaders.

People celebrate Kwanzaa in part by lighting candles on a kinara, a candelabra holding seven candles, which represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa Vocabulary Activities

To celebrate Kwanzaa in your classroom, you may have your students write an acrostic poem. It’s a simple process.

Choose a word on which you will base your poem and have students write it vertically down the left side of their papers.

You can use any word, but you might want to try unity, faith or even holiday. Then have each student write a word or sentence beginning with the letter on each line.

When the poem is done, they can read the lines in order as they appear on the page.

If you aren’t familiar with acrostic poetry, here are instructions on how to write and teach this type of poetry.

New Year’s


New Year’s Vocabulary Presentation

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next, and the biggest celebrations happen at midnight (12:00 a.m.) on December 31st each year.

At 11:59:50, a countdown starts counting the last ten seconds of the year away.

In Times Square in New York City, a large ball drops from a high pole and lights up when it reaches the bottom at 12:00 a.m. January 1st. The ball drop is completely different from the expression to “drop the ball,” which means to make a mistake.

Americans celebrate the New Year by drinking champagne, a bubbly wine, at midnight and making resolutions, promises to themselves of how they will better themselves in the coming year. Common resolutions include to lose weight and stop smoking.

Other New Year’s resolutions center around giving up or quitting things that are bad for you.

New Year’s Vocabulary Activities

Your students may have fun writing some New Year’s resolutions of their own. You can walk them through the process with the help of this article from Wikihow or just follow these steps.

1. Have students make a list of bad things present in their lives and good things missing from their lives.

2. Ask students to choose one bad thing they would like to get rid of or one good thing they would like to add.

3. Have each person break their big goal into two or three smaller steps.

4. Give each person some time to share their goals with one or more of their classmates.


And of course, no holiday vocabulary lesson would be complete without the term happy holidays. This is a general well-wishing that works for any holiday and any person you may encounter, so introduce the term to your students with any or all of the above lessons.

So with your head start on vocabulary lessons and all the time you saved, it’s time to get that turkey in the oven, stock up on wrapping paper, address those holiday cards and bundle up for the cold.

And most importantly, have yourself the happiest of holiday seasons!

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