Happy Holidays: Tips for Choosing Celebrations in School
Article by Janet Schmidt
Familiar holidays, both religious and secular, are often part of the early childhood curriculum. Celebrations are fun and can help link school and home. Many teachers, children and their families look forward to holiday art projects, musical performances, classroom decorations, and holiday literature each year. However, as we have become aware of the growing religious and cultural diversity in our communities, some teachers are reconsidering their treatment of holidays at school. The following suggestions and references may help you reflect on your own approach and implement some new ideas in your learning environment.
Survey Your School Community
What are the cultural and religious backgrounds of the families in your school or individual classroom?Many schools emphasize familiar holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick's Day. If this is true of your school, you can expand your approach to holiday celebrations by inviting families to take turns sharing their traditions with the class throughout the year. Ask everyone to participate, so that exploration of diversity is not limited to the less familiar minority groups in your community. Even if most everyone in your class celebrates Christmas or Easter, each family has different traditions. There may be more diversity in your homogeneous classroom than you realized.
It's also important to consider family backgrounds and practices in order to avoid the exclusion of children who can't participate in particular holidays or who don't celebrate holidays or birthdays at all. If you're not sure about a family's preferences, don't hesitate to ask.
Are you in a public or private school or in another setting?In a public school setting, First Amendment guidelines prohibit school or teacher directed observation of religious holidays, although teaching about different religions and their celebrations is acceptable. If you're in a private religious school or home school group that shares a common faith, you can observe and celebrate particular holidays together, and you can also explore new celebrations with your young students.
Unlearn Some Familiar Practices and Embrace New Ones
Find age-appropriate ways to "do" Halloween at school.Many teachers of young children find Halloween to be one of the most exhausting days of the year. Some children are frightened by masks, and others are confused by seeing familiar people who look different in costume or with painted faces. Keep in mind that many families celebrate Halloween in the community (a Saturday parade, trick-or-treating on Halloween night, and making and buying costumes and candy). These celebrations may provide more than enough excitement for young children. Other families may not celebrate Halloween at all. Consider downplaying it at school. A creative art project can offer a nice complement to home and community activities.
Consider historical accuracy when celebrating Columbus Day or Thanksgiving.There are many great sources of classroom activities as well as children's literature that give an accurate version of the events related to the "discovery of America" and the early contacts between Pilgrims and Native Americans. Be sure to use only accurate and historical information in your lessons on this topic. Younger children may enjoy positive stories of Native American life at that time instead. Try some new recipes and invite families to celebrate Thanksgiving at school with a sharing feast.
Go beyond December Diversity.Many schools, with good intentions for honoring diversity, have expanded their December holiday celebrations to include Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. The addition of menorahs and Kwanzaa symbols to school Christmas displays, however, may fall short of teaching the school community about these winter celebrations. More importantly, an emphasis on December holidays can crowd out opportunities for exploration of other less familiar holidays throughout the year.
One approach to celebrating the holiday season is to unify celebrations from different religions and cultures and offer an opportunity to teach about those religions or cultures without favoring one over the others. The theme of light, which is common to many celebrations around the Winter Solstice, is well suited for the early childhood classroom, and allows for the inclusion of some favorite activities related to Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Diwali and Solstice. The use of a unifying theme can work at other times of the year, and you may find common threads between new celebrations that families share with the class.
Choose celebrations that everyone can appreciate.Some teachers and administrators prefer to minimize or even ban the celebration of religious holidays at school, especially in public school settings. Celebrating secular holidays and events such as Arbor Day, Earth Day, Groundhog Day, or even the change of seasons, however, can enrich your classroom learning experiences. Celebrate your community on significant days for your school or town, and mark Election Day by organizing a vote about something important to your students. While birthdays of famous figures, such as presidents and Martin Luther King, Jr., are on the calendar, you can also apply this idea to celebrate other heroes and heroines that you study in class, or that you read about in literature.
Keep On Celebrating!
Through celebration of both familiar and unfamiliar holidays, young children can learn about music, dance, food and traditions of diverse cultures and religions. By honoring the family traditions of your students, you can strengthen the links between home and school. And by examining your current practices, and making some adjustments where needed, it's possible to demonstrate sensitivity and respect for all members of the school community, while offering authentic learning experiences and the joyful spirit of celebrations. Have fun!
- Bisson, J. (1997). Celebrate! An Anti-Bias Guide to Enjoying Holidays in Early Childhood Programs. St.Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
- Derman-Sparks, L. & the ABC Task Force (1989). Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
- Haynes, C. & Thomas, O. (2001). Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center. (also available as a PDF at http://www.freedomforum.org)
- Jones, G. and Moomaw, S. (2002). Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
- Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M., Eds. (1998). Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas.
- O'Neil, J. and Loschert, K. (November, 2002). "Navigating Religion in the Classroom" in NEA Today. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
About the Author
Janet Schmidt is an early childhood educator and speech-language pathologist who has worked in Connecticut and Massachusetts public schools for over 20 years. A graduate of Allegheny College and Ohio University, she also works with pre-service and K-12 educators in professional conference and college classroom settings and develops curriculum resources for human rights and anti-bias education. Janet was the 2002-03 Research Fellow at Teaching Tolerance, the education project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
Published: June 2003