Teaching About the Holidays in Public Schools
You can avoid controversial topics and still honor a diversity of holiday stories, characters, and rituals as symbols of positive values.
Years ago, following a holiday concert I had just conducted at a small Vermont elementary school, a parent approached me with a complaint. “Christmas is the reason for the season,” he said. “So why can’t you sing about Jesus?” Public school teachers know that the answer is tied up in the U.S. Constitution, but the question did prompt me to ask myself a question that I still ponder today. Why do so many teachers find it hard to teach academically and meaningfully about all the holidays in a public school setting?
Keene, New Hampshire, where I teach music today, is a relatively secular community. Statistically speaking, it falls below the national average for religiosity, with just over 20 percent of the population officially affiliating with a specific church, temple, or mosque. That’s why it’s interesting, even surprising, that nearly 100 percent of students say they celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Passover, and Halloween. Every year I ask myself, what do these children understand about their relationship to their holidays?
As we know, many children base their impressions of the holidays on what the commercial culture teaches them. As we work to instill a strong sense of community and tolerance in our children, teaching the shared values of the holidays fits right in with our social and academic curricula. At my school, this lines up with our “four pillars”: knowledge, community, effort, and kindness. Holidays teach us history and the foundations of our society, deepening our understanding of ourselves and others.
There is, however, the potential for problems when you discuss religious themes in a public school, like a parent complaining that you are preaching. Having taught about holidays for the better part of 15 years in four schools, I have rarely been questioned but know there’s always the potential concerned parent. I avoid sacred topics but honor the stories, characters, and rituals of holidays as symbols of positive values. Parents seem to understand that teaching about the commonalities in holiday stories reinforces cultural understanding.
How Do We Teach About Holidays Thoughtfully?
When beginning a lesson about the winter holidays right around Thanksgiving, I ask the question, “What is one thing many of the winter holiday traditions have in common?” Among many correct answers, the one I am looking for is “light.” The stories, traditions, and lore of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and even Chinese New Year contain things like stars, fireworks, lamps, candles, and fire. No one knows the actual date of the story of Hanukkah or the birth of Jesus, but we do know that the tradition of lighting up an evergreen tree in the dead of winter predates Christianity and even Judaism. It is no mistake that winter was chosen to celebrate important events -- in a season of darkness, a savior, optimism, and knowledge are all symbolized by light amid the darkness.
Many holidays include the motif of light, which you can use to begin to discuss what they have in common:
- Christmas: A favorite story for this holiday tells how the Star of Bethlehem led the Three Kings with their gifts to the infant Jesus.
- Hanukkah: The story of Hanukkah revolves around a menorah in the temple in Jerusalem burning for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one.
- Kwanzaa: One of the many stories associated with this holiday concerns Anansi and his six sons and how the moon came to be in the sky.
- Chinese New Year: Stories for this ancient holiday are about fire and firecrackers being used to ward off Nian the dragon, and to this day lamps and fireworks feature heavily in the celebrations.
Don’t Limit Yourself to the Winter Holidays
Teachers sometimes focus on the winter holidays just to provide cover for discussing Christmas. One can teach about the holidays from October all the way through May, beginning with the harvest and the holidays of Halloween and Diwali and ending with the rituals of Passover, Easter, and May Day. In October, I draw a large circular calendar and mark October 31. Then, after I ask students to identify what date is exactly six months later (May 1), they see that across the circle is May Day, the ancient beginning of spring. Halloween, following the bounty of the harvest season, is the beginning of the dark time of the year, a scary period for early agrarian societies.
In May, I teach the children English Morris dances, which date back to springtime planting celebrations of more than a thousand years ago. We also dance around the Maypole. “It is no coincidence,” I tell students, “that holidays like Easter and Passover, representing life and freedom, happen around the same time as more ancient springtime holidays.”
The holidays can be used to explore how people of diverse backgrounds practice similar values. It is important to note that like the values we instill in our children at school, the holidays of many world religions share common themes, such as thankfulness, caring for others, peace, and forgiveness. How we teach about holidays is a reflection of how our community values expanding our knowledge about ourselves and our neighbors. Most importantly, teaching children about the holidays guides them into lifelong learning and into thoughtfully and reflectively celebrating their own holidays within our diverse society.