I recently received an email from one of my schools regarding their annual Halloween Parade. Like many schools, it has been a tradition for many years. But, like many schools, there are always students who do not participate because they do not celebrate Halloween. Some wonder if schools should continue to celebrate holidays since it does not include every student, while others love the tradition and joy it brings.
This topic has come up many times over my career and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, some holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, seem to have become part of the secular tradition. Many of the students celebrate these occasions at home. Just as we teach the changing seasons and current events to bring attention to the world around our students, shouldn’t we acknowledge what they’re celebrating at home? Wouldn’t it behoove us to give some context to these traditions as well as tap into the joy and interest these holidays create?
On the other hand, there are so many holidays celebrated by our diverse student body, it would be difficult to do them all justice in our classrooms. These celebrations don’t usually get the attention of the greater American society. So, it makes sense that they don’t get the same level of attention in our schools. And then there is the issue of some students feeling left out when the class or school has a celebration in which they cannot participate. What is a teacher in our diverse society to do?
Perhaps the answer is to forego actual celebrations of holidays and use them as teachable moments instead. Peter Siegel of Edutopia explains how he does this. He begins by showing his students the importance of holidays celebrated in various cultures. He explains how light is a common theme in many winter holidays. This helps students understand the origins of many of these holidays. Using a wheel, he shows that October and May are transverse. He points out that spring holidays of Easter and Passover celebrate new life and ties this concept into agrarian societies. This helps students understand how these societies perceived spring and fall.
Syd Golston, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies, stresses how important it is for students today to understand the similarities and differences between religions. In her article published on PBS.org, she gives links to resources for teachers to use as guides for teaching related to holidays and religion. She explains how our students’ ignorance of world religions can contribute to misunderstandings. Additionally, she states that educators can teach the origins of these traditions without celebrating them.
We humans are often afraid of what we don’t know or don’t understand. We can be inhospitable to those we find to be different from ourselves. Those of us who celebrate these widely-represented, highly-commercialized holidays in our society can be insensitive to those who do not. School is a place where these fears can be dispelled through education. It is a place where mutual respect and understanding can be fostered.
As educators, we can harness the interest and excitement of holidays to create learning opportunities for our students. We can find connections through the history of traditions. In other words, this approach to holidays in schools would mean that we don’t get to have Halloween parades or Christmas parties. But what we can have are rich learning opportunities that validate our students’ experiences. Opportunities to create understanding about different traditions. And lastly, we can provide context for the richness and connectedness of the cultural differences represented in our schools and in our world.