Celebrating holidays helps children see the rich cultural heritage of their past and the continuity of life (Vygotsky, 1986). Holiday celebrations with young children can be pure fun and relaxation; at the same time, they can impart historical knowledge in an accurate and authentic manner. Holidays can serve as occasions for projects that will acquaint pupils with social studies concepts and information. They are occasions for teaching students about important ideas and customs that coexist with one another in our country and in the world (NCSS, 1998).
On the other hand, when poorly planned or thought out, holiday celebrations are disasters, serving only to indoctrinate children and perpetuate myths and stereotypes. When the social studies curriculum revolves around the celebration of holidays or when the focus is on a “tourist curriculum” (Derman-Sparks, 2003), children visit a culture by participating in a few activities and then go home to their regular classroom life, which leads to cultural stereotypes and trivialization—all those people do is dance, wear special clothes, and eat.
Holiday celebrations planned around the children’s activities and experiences can be meaningful and enjoyable when they do the following:
- The routines of the regular school day are preserved. Any dramatic change in routine is upsetting to young children. Missing a nap or changing lunchtime might be disastrous for preschoolers. Eliminating work time for primary children is unnecessary; instead of reading from a basal text or doing the usual work, primary children might research library books about the holidays or solve puzzles with holiday words. Work time might include special materials associated with the holiday—orange and black paper and paint for Halloween or scrap papers in pink, red, and white, plus glitter, for Valentine’s Day.
- Parents or other members of the community are involved to ensure sensitivity to the culture of the children. Involving parents or members of the community in planning the holiday celebration ensures, at least in part, that the culture and ethnic diversity of the children, their families, and the community will be respected. Some celebrations, such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or others, may be offensive to parents from differing ethnic groups or religious backgrounds. Parents can also add meaning to the celebrations by telling stories of their celebrations in another country or the history and meaning of specific holidays.
- The children are fully involved in planning the celebration. Children grow as they assume responsibility for their own lives. Planning holiday celebrations is an ideal opportunity for them to assume this responsibility. Young children have simple wants and are pleased when they can plan their own activities. They usually plan for very simple, manageable celebrations. “Let’s play Simon Says and make cupcakes,” and “We’ll sing ‘Flag of America’ and listen to the story of Daniel Boone again,” were suggested as party activities in one first-grade class.
- The activities are kept simple and low-key. Celebration of major holidays such as Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day may result in tears of frustration and fatigue if children are overexcited and stimulated. A simple snack, perhaps something the children have planned and prepared themselves, can be added to the usual milk or juice break. Games familiar to the children can be played, with some variation added. Rather than playing Simon Says at Halloween, the children can play Witch Says. Doggie, Doggie, Who Has Your Bone? might become Steven, Steven, Who Has Your Valentine?
- A few key concepts are selected for development. Focusing on only one or two of the main ideas of the holiday, you can plan relevant activities. A discussion of some of the key concepts inherent in major holidays follows.
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