"What is your school policy concerning holidays?" "Which holidays do you celebrate?" These were questions frequently asked by parents who came to see our early childhood center. I'd invariably find myself replying, "Well, I guess we like to make music and cook!"
In our diverse United States, there are many kinds of holidays: religious, cultural, national, and sentimental. School calendars usually honor some of the most prominent of these, such as the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; Christmas and Easter holidays, in the Christian tradition; and national holidays such as Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Martin Luther King Day. If your center or school has a religious orientation, perhaps housed in a church or synagogue, there will be a clear approach to the significant holidays to be observed, talked about, and celebrated. If your population is ethnically specific, there may be additional all-school celebrations, such as Kwanzaa, a holiday rich with African traditions that focus on strengthening African-American family and community values. However, if your center or school is nonsectarian and your population diverse, then many choices await you.
The early childhood center I directed was a nonsectarian school, and our "policy" about holidays was actually more of a non-policy. We were always eager for parents to come and share their traditions, and I tried to leave space for specific teacher interests and curricular leanings. In retrospect, I could have done more as director to clarify the different categories of holidays, as well as to address how and when we paid attention to them. Clarity only comes after discussion, and discussion among parents, faculty, and the director often leads to a more enlightened and rich curriculum.
Steps to Take
As you prepare to meet with the adults who comprise your school's community, keep the children as the focus of your discussions. It's always helpful to remember that overstimulation around a holiday can be counterproductive, escalating feelings of excitement that are already bubbling over.
Meet With the Parents
If your school is a cooperative, or is overseen by a board of directors, it is important to put forth your ideas and get their responses first. You may also want to meet with the parents' association president and committee chairs.
First, review the holidays on your school's calendar to determine if they make sense for all concerned-faculty as well as families. Assess your population with the parent groups. Stress the importance of inviting families and teachers from different backgrounds to share their cultural traditions and holidays in individual classrooms-and perhaps with the school as a whole. For instance, if Muslim families are represented, they may agree to introduce traditions connected to Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting; a Hindu family might introduce Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights; Chinese families could bring information and celebrations connected to Chinese New Year; an Irish family may enjoy baking soda bread and singing traditional songs relating to St. Patrick's Day.
Call a "Holiday Policy" Staff Meeting
Begin your staff meeting by helping teachers express their own feelings about holidays. I remember that one teacher felt strongly about sharing her own traditions with her class of 3- and 4-year-olds. Even though our school was nonsectarian, she wanted to introduce the menorah in her classroom. Her rationale (which I understood) was that it was important for the children to see her as a fellow human being with enthusiasms and individual beliefs. In presenting the menorah, she did not specifically "teach" about Hanukkah, but lit the candles as a ritual and invited the sharing of any knowledge that the children already possessed.
After paving the way with your school board, you may want to remind teachers that inviting parents to share family and cultural traditions in their children's classrooms will reinforce a sense of community, as well as introduce children to important differences. Reading children's books about holidays, cooking or bringing foods of different cultures from home, and singing celebratory songs are just some ways that families can contribute.
Talk with your teachers about a holiday curriculum. The best rule of thumb is to keep the curriculum creative without contributing to the commercialism that often pervades life outside of school. Cooking is probably the most logical-and soothing-of the Thanksgiving traditions. Children love to prepare their own "feast" for family members. Valentine's Day is the perfect time for writing (or dictating) and decorating letters, then mailing them from the local post office. Whatever activities teachers choose, remind them that open-ended materials such as colored construction paper, scissors, glue, markers and crayons, shakers of glitter, and bits of material are more than enough to inspire results. Steer away from the precut, identical products, which may seem easier, but are much less fun!
Invite your staff to set up a meeting to explore an unfamiliar holiday-not as a "teaching tool," but as a means of learning something new for your mutual enrichment. What about the Jewish festival of Purim, during which participants dress up in costumes to commemorate a woman of great valor who saved a nation from peril? Or start a staff book club by reading Kwanzaa and Me: A Teacher's Story, Vivian Paley's own discovery of the meanings of Kwanzaa.
There will always be strong feelings around holiday decisions, but keeping the young child's interests as a frame of reference is invariably helpful. For example, Halloween inspires both families and schools to react in a variety of ways. The excitement (and scariness) of this day is overwhelming for some children, and many go into overdrive! Perhaps we need to reevaluate the costumes and parades, those masked events that tempt us to include the youngest in our society. As we are reminded in Beverly Cleary's masterful Ramona the Pest, 5-year-old Ramona "felt lost inside her costume. The young child wondered if her mother would know which witch was which!"