Teaching About the Holidays

I’ve really grown to love teaching about the holidays during this season.  In my former schools, we would have holiday concerts for which we would need to prepare. I feel like mandatory concerts amount to a sugar-coated version of teaching to the test.  Rudolf, dreidels, nothing pretending to be religious, but everyone has to “perform” stuff they like a lot or simply hate.  Did I like that?  Notsomuch.  Did it have educational value?  Meh.   That said, there is SO much value in learning cultural traditions, even if they are rooted in religion. In public school, this can be a spicy idea but, viewed from a purely educational point of view, there’s NOTHING wrong with studying the stories behind each holiday of the season, especially in this increasingly culturally illiterate world.  I personally have a complicated relationship to the holidays and religion in general, informed by a fairly secular upbringing and an interfaith minister wife who attends Catholic mass on occasion.  Through my four grandparents I am 3 parts Jewish (of the secularish variety) and 1 part Italian (of the secularish variety).   Traditions abound but finding meaning in all of it has taken until, well, a few hours ago. OK, it’s ever evolving but in a good place right now.

Almost everyone at my school celebrates Christmas.  Further, almost every kid at my school is hard pressed to explain WHY they celebrate Christmas beyond, “the spirit of giving”.  Hanukkah, Kwanza, and perhaps the winter solstice are mostly “those other holidays”, except for those 12% or so who (sort of) light candles for this and that.  So how do I help to bring meaning to our children?  I’m no expert but this is the thing I’ve developed for my 2nd-5th graders:

First, I always ask the question, “What do all of the winter holidays have in common?”.  Some get the answers right away– giving, being with family, eating…but the answer I want to hear is “light”.  We light candles and light up christmas trees and houses.  We celebrate the darkest time of the year with light.   I then ask, “What is the darkest day of the year?”.  Well 12/21, the winter solstice and gosh, then we  actually start talking about science and WHY the earth gets the least amount of sunlight.  Then I ask, “Do you think it’s a coincidence that Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza all happen this time of the year?”.   This inevitably leads to a discussion about when Jesus was born (we don’t truly know the date), when the story of Hanukkah happened (not quite sure about that story either), and for how long Kwanza has been around.  Clearly there is some intention in placing the holidays this time of the year.  I also like to develop the awareness of pre-birth of Christ traditions, like the Yule which has informed the very way we celebrate all of the holidays this time of the year.

So, many of you may be thinking that I’m ruining the magic of these holidays by getting into the nitty gritty of it all.  My experience is that the discussion that ensues touches on the story of the Messiah, and the story of an oppressed people fleeing and ultimately returning to a sacred place, and stories of cultural pride and social justice.  We light our darkest nights of the year with the bright stories of a man who had lessons of peace for us all, a people who fought an oppressive king, a struggle and celebration of an African people, and a celebration of nature, represented by a lighted and decorated EVERgreen tree that traditionally and historically goes back to prior  to the birth of Jesus.   So many stories revolve around the idea of gift giving and sacrifice. In essence, these holidays are intertwined and about all the same stuff.   Kids get it!  They love the stories, told orally, without books and pictures.  What a thrill to do this.

Some activities (pretty standard) around this talk include:
-Israeli folk dances (from the place of the birth of Jesus and the land of Judea where Hanukkah took place)
-The dreidel game with marbles
-telling the story and listening to the opera of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, a story about a boy making a sacrifice
and of course
-Christmas, Hanukkah, winter songs
I try not to spend more than a week addressing the holidays.  We all know that they will get holiday-ed out whether we give it to them or not!

Happy Holidays!

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