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Do December
holidays pose a multicultural dilemma in your school?


Emphasize holiday education instead of celebration for a peaceful season.

As school populations in the United States grow increasingly diverse, the month of December becomes synonymous with another "d" word: Dilemma.

To celebrate Christmas or to not celebrate? Is it appropriate to mix menorahs with Christmas trees? Where and how does Kwanzaa fit in? What about the many other ethnic and religious groups represented in our schools? Are they being left out?

Relax. There's a way to approach the holidays that, if handled correctly, could bring us all a little closer to peace on earth: Focus not on celebration, but education. (Isn't that what schools are all about?)

Educating children about the rainbow of holidays celebrated by our population is not only a way to avoid fireworks (which are really more appropriate for July), it's a way of teaching children about the history and culture of the land they live in. Why is celebrating Christmas so entrenched in our schools? Because we've been doing it for so long -- the founders and students of the first public schools were overwhelmingly Christian. How did that come to be? A lesson in how the pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom could go a long way in promoting tolerance and harmony. What other groups came to this country seeking religious freedom? Are there still immigrants who come for religious reasons today?

Don't forget to get constitutional: What did the founders of our country do to ensure that religion could never be used as a legal weapon? Why is it important to separate church and state?

Any lessons on religious holidays should be focused on the factual, with facts supplied by the teacher, not the students. Asking students about their customs or religious practices could put a child in an uncomfortable situation. Just because a child is Jewish doesn't mean she knows the meaning of Hanukkah, for instance, just as the African-American child may never have heard of Kwanzaa.

Neither imposing one faith on others nor removing all traces of religion is the goal. "Neither position makes much sense in a multicultural society," says Charles Haynes, executive director of First Liberty Institute at George Mason University (Education Digest, December 1996). "And significantly, neither approach has successfully resolved the 'December dilemma.' What is at stake is far more than a school Nativity pageant or Christmas concert in December. At issue is an urgent question that runs through modern experience: How will we live with our deepest differences in an increasingly pluralistic society?"

One answer to this is How to handle religious holidays in public schools, a reference guide in the form of questions and answers from the First Amendment Center. They recommend workshops for educators regarding the appropriate place of religious holidays in the schools.

Haynes, a member of a coalition of educators who created guidelines for religious holidays in public schools, suggests asking these five questions before planning religious holidays in public schools: Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion? How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course, or the educational mission of the school? Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity? If in December: Do I plan activities to teach about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December? Am I prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students' understanding of history and cultures?

Some educators may argue that their schools are homogeneous, so there's no need to teach about the holidays of other cultures. Here's a thought to challenge that thinking: Schools don't teach French to the kids who already know it.

Other teachers may argue that the celebration is the education. Sandra Couch, a teacher in Lititz, Penn, wrote in a letter to NEA Today: "We celebrate Christmas and any other winter holidays, in all their diversity. With decorations, stories, food and music, we share our traditions of Santa, the Nativity, the dreidel, Kwanzaa, ski trips or hunting. Even the most cynical and most stoic students often participate in the festivities. We divulge insights about ourselves and encourage understanding and tolerance.

"Our traditions and rituals shape who we are as a people and a society. So the more we know, understand and respect each other's rituals, the greater our chances of living in harmony."


Related resources


  • Celebrations Around the World, by Carole Angell (Fulcrum Publishing, 1996) Written by a teacher for elementary and middle school teachers, with classroom activities.
  • Festivals of Lights, a hands-on activity book that covers nine cultures and seven holidays (available for $10 from the Children's Museum in Seattle, phone 206-441-1768).


Related sites

Whether purely educational, or partly celebrational, a world of learning awaits explorers of our many holidays and traditions. Here's some help to keep the season educational -- and fun!


From the Education World library

  • Don't miss Education World's December holidays archive page. There you will find dozens of ideas for teaching about the holidays as well as craft activities, resources, and more.

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © 2015 Education World

Last updated 12/27/2015