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Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

December 5, 2018

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

Will you be studying English in California during the winter? Experience the holidays, Southern California style! Whether you are on the state’s white sandy beaches or in the Sierra Nevada mountains, you can have a “white” Christmas in California.

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience 

See Disneyland at Christmastime

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

Disneyland is known for decorating its park beautifully for all of the major holidays: pink and red for Valentine’s Day, red, white, and blue for the 4th of July, and fun Halloween decorations during October. But the park really goes all out in December, when Disneyland is transformed into a beautiful winter wonderland. Don’t miss it!

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

Disneyland is not the only place that decorates itself beautifully for the holidays: San Francisco’s Union Square is also famous for its gorgeous decor. In San Diego, check out Balboa Park, the ornaments and decorations will put you in the festive mood!

Watch a harbor boat parade

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

Boats decorated with Christmas lights? What a way to celebrate the holidays! The ocean is of course a large part of California culture, so it makes sense that boat owners decorate their boats during December. Check to see if your city is hosting a boat parade and spend the evening watching the floating decorations!

Meet a surfing Santa

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

When there isn’t snow, Santa must find another way to visit the children: in California, it’s by surfboard! Your friends and family at home will have a laugh when they see you with a sunglass-wearing Santa. A true California-style Christmas!

Go Christmas caroling

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

Have you learned all of the traditional Christmas songs? It’s a great way to improve your English! After learning them, find some friends and go Christmas caroling. It is a fun way to spend an evening! If you don’t know how to organize Christmas caroling, check out our article on this activity.

Make a “Sand Snowman”

Christmas in California: 5 Holiday Traditions to Experience

If you can’t go to Big Bear or Lake Tahoe during December, do not worry: you can make a snowman without snow! Make sure to put sunglasses on your finished piece of art, and tag us at #CISLChristmas.



American Traditions Grammar Suggested student activities

5 Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

October 28, 2017

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”  -L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables

Are you studying English in the United States during the fall? You are in for a treat!* Enjoy some of these American fall traditions!

*in for a treat: an expression meaning you will experience something very enjoyable soon.

5 Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

#1: Visiting a pumpkin patch (and carving pumpkins)

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

A pumpkin patch is an open space, like a field, where pumpkins grow. People visit a pumpkin patch to choose their pumpkin. Which pumpkin will you choose? The tall and skinny pumpkin, the perfectly round pumpkin, the strange looking pumpkin with weird bumps . . . each has its own character!

Pumpkin patches often sell apple cider, pies, and other fall foods: be sure to enjoy them during your trip. (To learn about traditional fall foods, read our article Fall is Here: Time for Pumpkin-Flavored Everything!)

After bringing home their pumpkins, friends or family carve their pumpkins. Carving a pumpkin is when people use a knife to cut designs into the pumpkin (usually a face). Our Guide to Pumpkin Carving has all the information you need for this fun activity. 

#2: Trying pumpkin flavored everything

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

Pumpkin has always been an important part of American fall food (after all, pumpkin pie is a staple of Thanksgiving dinner!). However, Americans now have a strange obsession with putting pumpkin flavor in everything during the fall. The craze began with Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte and seems to have made its way into all foods: there is now pumpkin flavored beer (yes, beer!), pumpkin candies (such as M&Ms), and even pumpkin cereal. There is a science behind the Americans love for pumpkin: read all about it in this CNN article.

#3: Exploring a corn maze

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

A corn maze is a large labyrinth made from corn plants. It is common for local farms to create a corn maze, which the public can enter (and get lost in)! Sunflower mazes and hay bale mazes are also popular. They’re a fun fall activity!

#4: Going to a haunted house

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

Get into the spirit of Halloween and scare yourself by going to a haunted house! This terrifying experience is one of the most traditional for Americans (and also the most scary)! If you’re studying English in San Diego, check out the Haunted Trail in Balboa Park. This outside haunted “house” is actually a trail built in a portion of Balboa Park. It’s one of the most impressive (and frightening) experiences!

Before checking out a haunted house, read our article Synonyms for ‘Scary’ to be able to describe your experience!

#5: Dressing up for Halloween

Fall Activities to Enjoy as an ESL Student in the U.S.

Americans LOVE to dress in costume for Halloween: make sure you join in on this fun holiday! Costumes can be fun, scary, cute, gory*, or even related to something that was in the news. Visit one of the costume stores that open during this time of year and find some inspiration (or, if you’re crafty, make your own costume)!

*gory: involving violence or a lot of blood.


American Traditions Featured Holidays San Diego San Francisco Suggested student activities Vocabulary

Celebrating Mardi Gras in the U.S. + Mardi Gras vocabulary

February 27, 2017

Mardi Gras is here! Are you celebrating? Both San Diego and San Francisco host incredible events for Mardi Gras, but before enjoying the parties, make sure that you know these Mardi Gras-related vocabulary words (and the traditions they are associated with).

Celebrating Mardi Gras in the U.S.

Mardi Gras Vocabulary 

Fat Tuesday

“Fat Tuesday” is the direct translation of the words “mardi gras” in French. It’s the Tuesday before Lent begins (see below) and the day when religious people celebrate before 40 days of more restrained living. For non-religious people, it’s a great excuse for a mid-week party and parade!


Lent is the Catholic tradition of giving up something you love for 40 days. It begins on Wednesday after Mardi Gras.

To give (something) up

This phrasal verb means “to stop enjoying/doing something.” Here are some examples of things people give up:

  • smoking
  • swearing
  • drinking soda/sugary drinks

For lent, people give up something they love or something that isn’t good for them.


A parade is an event where people, marching bands, and decorated cars or floats slowly make their way down public streets.


Floats are large, moving stages that are decorated beautifully (and outrageously)! These floats are used in parades.


In Mardi Gras, the Venetian-style masks are a common decoration (or piece of attire)!

“Let the good times roll”

This expression is the motto of Mardi Gras. It comes from the French expression “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

King cake

A king cake is the traditional cake eaten for Mardi Gras. A small trinket is placed inside the cake, and whoever finds the trinket in their slice of cake is either considered lucky . . . or is the person who has special responsibilities during the day. The traditions vary from family to family!


This word, commonly used in New Orleans, means “group of people on the float.”


The “throws” are the things that the krewe throws from the float, such as candy or beads.


Beads are small, (usually round) pieces of plastic that are joined together to make a necklace.


Costumes are clothing that are outrageous, colorful, or in the form of a famous person. In the U.S., we wear costumes for Halloween . . . and sometimes for Mardi Gras!

To dress up

This phrasal verb means “to wear a costume.”

Mardi Gras in San Diego

Would you like to join in on the festivities? Check out these two events held in San Diego for Mardi Gras. For these events, you must be 21 or over.

Mardi Gras in San Francisco

San Francisco’s main Mardi Gras celebration is all about the jazz! Check out this incredible parade if you are studying at CISL SF!

American Traditions Featured Listening Practice Vocabulary

Christmas Pop Songs + Holiday Vocabulary

December 15, 2016

The holiday season is here, and with it comes the traditions of this time of year: drinking eggnog, giving gifts, hanging stocking by the fireplace, ice skating, and of course decorating the tree! Another holiday tradition? Famous pop stars often produce a Christmas or holiday-themed album. Sometimes the songs are old favorites remade to fit the singer’s style; other times, the songs are brand new. Either way, these songs are great ways to learn holiday-related vocabulary! How many of the songs below do you know? And how many of the holiday-related vocabulary words are you familiar with?

Christmas Pop Songs

Mariah Carey “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

This classic pop song is guaranteed to be played at every holiday party. Listen to the song as you also read the lyrics.

Do you know the words below?


Definition: The area of the house where the fire is built.


Definition: An old word for socks! Now, “stockings” are the large “socks” that people hang on the fireplace. Traditionally, they are filled with gifts and opened on Christmas morning.

Bells ring

Definition: When decorative bells make a sound, they are “ringing.” This is a common collocation!

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath The Tree”

This simple song repeats many of its lyrics, so it’s easy to learn (and fun)! These romantic expressions are common in holiday songs, since holidays are often associated with romance.

To hold something/someone tight

Definition: To hug someone closely.


Definition: People who sing holiday songs to neighbors.

Snow falling

Definition: This is a common collocation. When it snows, the snow is “falling.”

Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”

Is Ariana Grande singing a love song to Santa? It seems so if you read the lyrics! In fact, this “Christmas” song has very few lyrics that are related to the holiday!


Definition: A plant that is placed in houses around the holidays.

Tradition says that you must kiss someone if you are standing under the mistletoe together!

NSYNC, “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays”

This song covers Christmas and the other holidays with the lyrics “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.”


Definition: The Christmas season (December).

Have you read our article about the difference between saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays?” N’SYNC uses both salutations in this song!

Christina Aguilera, “This Christmas”

Christina’s beautiful voice makes this traditional Christmas song even more enjoyable . . . and the lyrics to this song provide some excellent English collocations related to the holidays.

Hang the mistletoe

Definition: To put the mistletoe in a high place (so that people can walk under it and kiss).

Trim the tree

Definition: To decorate the Christmas tree.


Definition: The area next to the fire.

Britney Spears, “My Only Wish (This Year)”

Of course the “Princess of Pop” has a Christmas album! You can read the lyrics here.

Christmas Eve

Definition: The night before Christmas.


Definition: A cart that is pulled by horses along the snow.


Definition: The beautiful (usually red) ribbon around a package.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, “Winter Wonderland”

The song isn’t exactly one you’d think of when you think of pop music, but this combination of pop star Lady Gaga and crooner Tony Bennett is beautiful! Read the lyrics here.

Winter wonderland

Definition: A common expression for landscapes covered in snow.


Definition: A “person” built out of snow.

To build (or make) a snowman

Definition: Another collocation! When you create a snowman, you are building (or making) one.

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Last Christmas”

The lyrics to this classic song are short and easy. The lyrics also provide an easy way to practice the Simple Past tense, since the singer is talking about what happen “last Christmas.”

Wrapped it up

Definition: A phrasal verb meaning to wrap a gift. This phrasal verb is separable.

Would you like to learn some more holiday-related songs? Check out our post on Popular Christmas Carols.

Happy Holidays to our students and staff!

American Traditions Celebrities Featured Holidays Vocabulary

Nicknames for Santa + the Origin of the Word “Nickname”

December 6, 2016

The holiday season means delicious foods, celebrations, decorations, and the appearance of a strange man in a red suit who flies through the air with eight reindeer. Christmas is indeed a strange holiday!

To celebrate, we are taking a look at this iconic figure, Santa Claus, and his many nicknames. The name “Santa Claus” is common in the US, but other names and nicknames (see below) are also used. Check them out! But first, why do we use the word “nickname?” Linguist John McWhorter explains the fascinating origins of this word in this Ted Ed video.

Etymology of the word “nickname”

Watch McWhorter’s video to understand how this word came to be.

Now that you know the origins of the word “nickname,” let’s take a look at some of the many nicknames for Santa Claus!

Nicknames for Santa Claus

Jolly Old St. Nick

This nickname is the title of a famous Christmas song, but it’s also a name many people use for Santa Claus. Check out the song below!

Saint Nicholas

We know that there really was a man named Nicholas who was wealthy and generous, but exactly where history becomes myth is a mystery. Learn all about the story of Nicholas, who lived in modern-day Turkey, in this article about the origin of Saint Nicholas. The generous man was later named a saint by the Catholic church, hence the name “Saint” Nicholas.

Saint Nick

Nicholas has a nickname: Nick! (How many times can you use “nick” in a sentence??) “Nicholas” is shortened to “Nick” for the name “Saint Nick,” which is very common. The man in red is referred to as “Saint Nick” in this famous Christmas song: check it out below!

Kris Kringle

The origins of this nickname are not clear, but many believe that this is actually from the German words Christkindlein, Christkind’l, meaning “Christ child,” which was used in reference to baby Jesus, not Santa Claus! However, the name came to be used for the man commonly called Santa Claus.

Father Christmas

The Catholic tradition fell out of style around the time of the Protestant Reformation, but the tradition of gift-giving and the character of Saint Nick lived on. To move away from the word “Saint,” which is associated with Catholicism, people (particularly in the UK) began using names like “Father Christmas.”

Old Man Christmas

Another name that emerged around the same time as “Father Christmas,” this is probably another attempt to remove Catholicism from the holiday tradition. This name is also more common in the UK and not used often in the US.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of our students and staff! We hope Santa brings you what you want this year!