Teaching Faith-Based Holidays

A Refreshed MiddleWeb Resource Roundup

By Susan B. Curtis

The November 2014 decision of the Board of Education of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia to delete names of religious holidays from its calendar has generated a backlash. The days off remain, just not their religious designations. What happens in the classroom as the winter holidays approach can also be the focus of community and legal concerns. For an in-depth look at civic and constitutional issues, you can read most chapters of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes.

In 2011, Edutopia blogger and Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance Anne O’Brien posted “The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom.” She points out the major conclusions of Dr. Haynes and the National Education Association’s Tim Walker: Educate, don’t celebrate. They recommend that districts develop clear policies: just because courts have ruled Santa and Christmas trees are secular does not mean members of the community will always find them appropriate for the classroom. Also: Incorporate a range of holidays throughout the year into the curriculum, to broaden children’s understanding of cultures beyond their own.

Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center offers a 2013 webinar, Addressing the December Dilemma in Schools, which is helpful to teachers who want to encourage students to be tolerant of the variety of faiths present in their classrooms. Additional resources – particularly Unit Four and the Resource Listing – can be used with webinar or on their own, for example, “The School Holiday Calendar” lesson plan.

Curriculum Collections

O”Brien’s post links to several resources, including “Curriculum Resources Covering Holidays & Observances from Around the World” from the NEA which is now found here. Retired middle school teacher and freelance writer Phil Nast divides resources into two sections, K-5 and 6-12. (The breakdown is particularly helpful because holiday resources tend to focus on the elementary grades.) Don’t miss Nast’s recommendation from Pulse of the Planet, ‘When the Sun Stands Still: Celebrating December,’ which captures brief sounds of the season and includes some traditions — like fires on the Mississippi levees and St. Nicholas being chased in Switzerland — not found elsewhere.

Scholastic provides a page full of teachers’ ideas to involve 6-8 graders in holiday learning. From create-a-holiday to an open house hosted by English Language Learners, this collection intertwines curriculum with a range of holidays in December.

In 2005 Elena Quant and Jake Rosen, two students at Boston University’s school of education, created an elementary level multicultural holiday project complete with its own website and a grade 5 lesson plan. A few of the links are now defunct, but the college students’ work provides an easy-to-use package that even includes Dong Zhi, the Chinese solstice celebration. You might want to save their resources on Ramadan for a different time, since that observance moves through the year based on the Islamic calendar.

Edsitement’s The Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas  will work with the middle grades.  The real value of the piece lies in its overview of the three December holidays that dominate American culture, including an explanation of the ancient use of the dreidel, the Jewish spinning top, to escape religious persecution. The article includes links to “A Christmas Carol,” a selection from “Gift of the Magi,” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

A few cautions on the Edsitement links: the Internet Public Library (the first entry under Featured Sites) has several links to History.com, a helpful site with lots of videos but sometimes with content inappropriate for youngsters. One Hanukkah link ends up explaining Kwanzaa. Finally, “Naughty & Nice: A History of The Holiday Season,” at the site Back Story with the American History Guys, focuses on several sides of the political debate over Christmas and schools. Teachers may want to download the transcript and review.

A Multi-faceted Season

Beyond the dominant holiday celebrations covered at Edsitement, America’s cultures have enriched December with other commemorations that may be shared by some of your students. A starting place for students to learn about the variations in Christmas followed by peoples who have immigrated to America is a series of posts, ‘Christmas Traditions Around the World,’ by Sarah Toast.

Larry Ferlazzo shares holiday learning suggestions — with a special focus on English Language Learners — in a NYT Learning Network post: ideas include writing about holiday objects, working with hands-on origami, understanding the New Year across cultures, and more. Over at Ferlazzo’s popular Websites of the Day blog, The Best Places to Learn about Christmas, Hanukkah & Kwanzaa is epic in size and includes lots of interesting infographics.

To bring the Mexican American community-wide tradition of ‘las posadas’ into the classroom, read about Scholastic blogger Ruth Manna’s project with her fifth graders.

You may have Hindu students who celebrate the festival of Pancha Ganapati. In 1985, feeling a need for an alternative to Christmas that emphasized the values of Hindus, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya swami, an American who helped lead a world-wide Hindu renaissance, created the late-December family festival honoring Ganesha, the elephant-headed god as an adjunct to an ancient month-long celebration.

The Longest Night

Cultures around the world have celebrated the two annual solstices. The winter solstice falls in the period December 21-22 each year. Indian Country Today Media Network provides a visual of the earth’s travel around the sun and a brief history of human beings’ understanding of the solstice. After reviewing British traditions, the post explains the solstice-detecting structures built by indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Native Americans continue their age-old celebrations of the winter solstice. For example, near the beginning of December the Zuni of New Mexico hold the sacred ceremony of Shalako with its long hours of dancing by men in 8-9 foot costumes representing the Kachina, nature spirits. Following tests of physical endurance, the community continues the religious dancing for several days and ends with the Teshkwi, a ten day fast. Since 1990 the Shalako Dance has been closed to non-Indians. Students can learn more about Zuni culture at the Zuni Fact Sheet from the website Native Languages of the Americas, which collects information on hundreds of Amerindian languages and on Native Americans. The site is a non-profit project of Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis. The Boston University students mentioned earlier include a section on Native American winter holidays, highlighting several groups.

New Year’s Celebrations around the World

Before leaving for the winter holidays, students can learn about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  Scholastic offers a listing of celebrations of the new year from around the world. With cultures celebrating at various times throughout the year, children can see beyond January 1 to others’ views of the calendar, often but not always linked to religion.

The Joy and the Sorrow of “Watch Night”

In the United States, observing December 31 as Watch Night began as an idea imported by Methodist leader John Wesley and grew into a Protestant and particularly an African American tradition. The gathering at churches for prayer, singing, and community is often linked to the December 31,1862 wait for midnight when the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate States was to take effect.

But Watch Night has even deeper roots in the African American experience. Slaves waited through the last night of the year to learn the next day how their families would be affected by plantation owners’ book-balancing — deciding which, if any, slaves to sell to settle debts in the New Year. Slaves contracted by owners to work at other locations often left their plantations on January 1, as well. According to a San Francisco Chronicle writer, New Year’s Day was known as Heartbreak Day among the slaves.

Fictional TV Fun

Students may be curious about recent December holidays created by TV writers and other purveyors of mass culture. In brief, Chrismukkah originated in a 2003 episode of the Fox series, The O.C., to bring together a Protestant/Jewish family. Festivus, ‘the holiday for the rest of us,’ was a December 23 alternative to Christmas which a Seinfeld writer brought from his own family to the TV screen in 1997. An unadorned aluminum pole replaced the Christmas tree. (For Seinfeld clips visit this Christian Science Monitor story.) Another holiday mash-up is Chrismahanukwanzakah, featured in a 2005 Virgin Mobile ad. Students can reach beyond the solar system to compare Earth-bound holidays to the Wookiees’ Life Day, celebrated first in a 1978 Star Wars holiday special. Have a Merry Life!

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis co-edits MiddleWeb content and writes our Resource Roundups. In the past century she taught middle grades students, provided human services referrals and publications, wrangled the reference desk in libraries, and wrote.

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