Don’t be a Tourist! Celebrating Holidays in Preschool

‘Tis the season, or rather, ‘tis the week to celebrate the holidays in preschool classrooms across the state. Which holiday? All of them! Regardless of when they actually occur or relevancy to any of the children in the class, preschool curriculums often incorporate a celebration of as many holidays as possible in an attempt to be multi-cultural.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging any early childhood program that does this. I, too, once thought that I was being inclusive of other cultures and doing the right thing by including a “tour” of the holidays with potato pancakes and dreidels on Monday for Hanukkah, decorating a Christmas tree on Tuesday and even when I didn’t have an African-American child in my class, a celebration of Kwanzaa on Wednesday. When we had four days of school before our winter break I would add Chinese New Year to the week of holidays, though it wouldn’t happen in the calendar year until January or February. What I didn’t know about the holidays that were unfamiliar to me, I looked up on the internet.

I truly believed that I was being multi-cultural. Even as an administrator of a large program, I had the whole staff include these holidays in their lesson plans, whether the children in their classrooms were infants or school-aged children. While I did give them the freedom to come up with their own activities, we all did the same holiday on the same day the week before Christmas. I never stopped to think that the children who might be celebrating Hanukkah at home could have done so as early as November, and the children whose families celebrated Kwanzaa wouldn’t do so until after Christmas! We were being sensitive to the celebrations and traditions of all cultures, weren’t we?  The honest answer is, “NO!”

What messages were our celebrations sending to the children about people who do celebrate these holidays? Do all Jewish people make latkes? And who exactly celebrates Christmas? Do they all decorate a tree or believe in Santa Claus? (Parents over on our sister blog have some ideas about this).  Some people may celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas and celebrate Kwanzaa, just as some may celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. Making a day where we celebrate a generic understanding of a culture communicates to children that all Jewish people must do this, or there’s only one way to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa. It’s not accurate, and it’s not developmentally appropriate.

A better way to enrich your program with culture is to find out what holidays the families of the children in your program celebrate. Ask them when they celebrate it, how they celebrate it and if their families have any special traditions that they would like to share. Have families share a special dish or treat with the class along with the recipe, or bring in pictures of their holiday celebration(s) and make an album or a storybook with them. The child can dictate what is happening in the picture and the teacher can write it down, or the child can draw pictures of what their family does for the holidays they celebrate. These can be put in the reading area for all to see and use.

Celebrating holidays isn’t wrong, but how you celebrate them can be so much more meaningful to the children in your class when you find out about their family’s cultures and traditions.  When you make a blanket statement about a particular holiday by something that seems as harmless as having Santa Claus visit your center, you miss out on the uniqueness of each child and family in your program.

7 thoughts on “Don’t be a Tourist! Celebrating Holidays in Preschool

  1. Sallie Westheimer

    Kim – While I agree with your ideas to make the holidays relevant to the children, if there is no diversity in the pre-school classroom, exposure to other holidays will be non-existant. Our pre-schools are often segregated children’s first experience with someone of a differnt religion or race may not come for a long time.
    I was most surprised to learn, at a garthering of 4C staff, that while I (Jewish) knew all the Christmas carols, no one in my group knew the words to the most common Hanukkah song about dreidels – and it is a perfect short playful song appropriate for toddlers. So, where is the middle ground between being inclusive to a fault, and being exclusive to a fault.

  2. Kathleen Bryan

    When I had our “Traditions Around the World” week at my program (which was very similar to Kim’s description above), I unfortunately saw inappropriate generalizations made by staff, families and the children too. The generalizations I believe came from a lack of understanding on our (the staff’s) part, which was transferred to the children and then onto their families. Perhaps we need to reconsider what our goals are. Sallie, I completely agree with you about the deridel song. It is a fun, catchy playful song, and thanks to Raffi my children and I know it! I would not want to assume that because my children knew the words to a Jewish song, they now know the traditions of the Jewish religion. This would be best explained by a child in my class whose family actually plays the dreidel game and could tell us how this is important to their family. I am not sure in what context children should learn the song. How can teachers introduce multi-cultural music in a classroom setting without making generalizations?

  3. Sadie

    Sallie, I can see your point. What I understand Kim to be saying is , for example, by teaching toddlers the dreidel song because it’s Monday of “Holiday Week” isn’t really doing the culture of the Jewish faith any justice. When providers are doing the “tourist approach” as Kim referred to it, too often a culture’s tradition is introduced as different then what is “normal.”

    When providers learn about the individual children in their classroom, encouraging them to share what traditions they do at home, they are not only helping those children to develop positive self-identity, but the other children in the classroom are able to relate thus making the experience more meaningful. I think the middle ground would be to not wait for the month of December (Christmas month) to introduce children to other holidays and other cultures. Always have materials such as books and pictures of people of all different backgrounds and plan activities all throughout the year that encourage acceptance and appreciation of differences and similarities. (For the record, I know all the words to the song you are referring to).

  4. Julie

    I am so glad that this is a place for all of us to share opinions and have discussions with each other. Happy holidays to all families.

  5. Kim

    The dreidel song, or other such holiday songs, have much more meaning to children and are more appropriately implemented in the curriculum when it relates to a child in the classroom: “This is a song that Sallie’s family sings when they celebrate Hanukkah.” With that concrete reference, children can begin to have an understanding and respect for the different values and traditions of others even if it is as simple as “Kim goes to her grandma’s every Christmas Eve and bakes cookies while Kathleen goes to church with her mom and dad on Christmas Eve.”

    As children in a classroom that lacks diversity in holidays grow older, I hope that they meet many people who celebrate many other holidays. And by establishing respect for even the simplest difference in customs at an early age, they will be able to value and honor everyone’s unique traditions

  6. Jenni Jacobs

    I think this is such a difficult decision for teachers and administrators. We all seem to have such good intentions…but too often those good intentions go awry. I think that exposure to different cultures can be done through the every day play materials and discussions. As Kim stated, it’s best when it comes from the children and families themselves because the traditions and stories are embedded with meaning. However, I think that we can bridge the gap between no exposure and a tourist approach by ensuring that the materials we choose embody the primary cultures of our community (and not the world at large). For example, you might incorporate a science center with spinning tops and include a dreidel or you might include a book whose primary topic is not the holiday celebration, but in which the celebration occurs. These indirect methods provide children with exposure to ideas that may be different than their own without taking them on a tourist ride through the tradition.

    I think it’s important for all of us to remember that culture for very young children is about family, community, and school…..not about the world at large. Learning about the world at large comes later in elementary school when their thinking begins to become more abstract. I think we also have to question whether we can actually do justice to a tradition that we do not fully understand or follow ourselves. Great discussion!!!

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