"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 AfricanAmerican family and community values. However, if your center or school is nonsectarian with a diverse population, then many choices await you.
The early childhood center I directed was a non sectarian 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 the 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 over-stimulation around a holiday can be counterproductive, escalating feelings of excitement that are already bubbling over.
Meet With 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.
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 children to see her as a fellow human being with enthusiasms and individual beliefs. In presenting the menorah, she did not specifically "teach" about Chanukah, but lit the candles as a ritual and invited the sharing of any knowledge that the children already possessed.
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. For instance, 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. Whichever activities teachers choose, remind them that open-ended materials such as colored construction paper, scissors, glue, markers and crayons, and bits of material are more than enough to inspire results. Steer away from the precut, mass-produced 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?
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 is overwhelming for some children, and many go into overdrive! Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the costumes and parades, those masked events that tempt us to include the youngest in our society.