Celebrating Holidays in School

 ICelebrating Holidays in School

It's ok to be different

Celebrating Holidays in School:

Recently I was present for a discussion online between teachers venting their frustration about what to do concerning a student in their class who couldn’t participate in holiday celebrations.  They were asking for suggestions of what to do instead, a portion of the comments and responses made my heart hurt.   Many sounded resentful and felt that the child could just do an alternative assignment while the other kids did the holiday one.  Why should the holiday experience be ruined for the whole class because of this one kid?  It was  the negative tone of the conversation that bothered me most, almost like this kid can just “get over it,” and that it is their choice to be different so why should we as teachers change what we’re doing?

Did you Know?

When I was a kid I was different.  I mean, I AM different and ALWAYS will be different (in fact, it’s often one of the first words people use to describe me).  But when I was in elementary school, I was genuinely “different,” I was KID DIFFERENT.
Not only was I adopted by my grandparents
AND they were from up north (complete with yankee accents)
BUT they were a different religion.  Like, DIFFERENT, DIFFERENT,  as in ‘no one knew what it was and didn’t understand it at all’ kind of different.
Jennifer White- 4th grade
It was tough.
I remember people thinking I was weird.  I remember my 3rd grade teacher coming up to my desk, in front of everyone, and asking if I could do this worksheet that had Santa on it.  When, in humiliation, I shook my head no, she went to her desk and cut off the Santa and handed it back to me.  I hid the tears in my eyes and did the worksheet.
Being an introvert, all I wanted, more than anything was to blend in.  I wanted to be the SAME.  I wanted to speak like a southerner (I practiced “ain’t” and “yonder” repeatedly in the mirror).  Always I wanted to celebrate holidays.  I wanted to have a birthday party.  Of course I wanted to say the pledge.   I wanted to go to spend-the-night parties,  I wanted to do those things not because of some higher power or because I actually wanted to or even because I thought they were right or wrong.  Honestly, I didn’t care about the details.  I just wanted to fit in.  Ad wanted everyone to not notice me as being different.  I wanted them to like me.
And to be honest, kids like kids who are like them.  
It was never really an issue of the actual religion. I mean, what does a young child ACTUALLY know about religion?  Nothing, other than what their parents believe.  And that’s fine.  That’s the way it should be and has to be.  But when I went to school, it was an issue that grew into something more-
 I became the weirdo.   Not only could I not do any of the holiday stuff, but I had to remind my teachers over and over-  IN FRONT OF EVERYONE.  It was an inconvenience for them- I get that.
But it was traumatic for me.
I knew if I came home with a page that had a Santa on it, I was the one who was a traitor to my parents and what we believed in.
When my teachers prayed with the class before lunch (think: “God is great, God is good”) all I can remember is trying to hide the fact that I wasn’t saying it with the old ‘yawning, hand over mouth trick’ or some other equally genius plan.If I did say the prayer, I was essentially being part of “the world.”  If I didn’t say it, people stared at me like I was a leper.  (Let me stress, I am not talking about a ‘moment of silence,’ I could have breezed through that with daydreaming or an actual prayer of which my grandparents would have approved.)
I guess the point I am trying to make is this:

Do we ever want to put a young child in a position where he or she has to choose between what their parents believe and school?

For me, school was the only social experience I had… I LIVED for my friends at school.  School was the only time I could see them.  I wanted them to like me and accept me.  I remember in fourth grade we had a Christmas play that we practiced for the entire month of December.   No, wait, I didn’t get to practice it or watch it.  I sat in the classroom by myself while they practiced in the gym 2 hours a day.  Honestly, I think the teachers felt sorry for me, although they never had the courage to say so.

 Kettle, Meet Pot

I know many of you are thinking, “Jennifer, you create, sell, and promote holiday themed crafts all the time!”    Yes, as an adult, I love celebrating holidays, even in my classroom!  BUT the difference is, if I have a child in my classroom that has an alternative view, I think I am able to understand what it may actually be like for them when I decide whether to make jack-o-lanterns or just do a science study on pumpkins (like the photos below).   I admit, I’ve been the teacher that gives an alternative assignment or lets them skip the party, but after really thinking about it, I changed what I do in my classroom.  Never do I want anyone to feel left out or to feel different in a negative way for anything, much less for something that is out of their control, whether it be race, religion, or whatever.  I tell my students that we are all the same and when it comes down to it, we are.  The differences are what make us and life interesting.  So if you choose to do holiday themed crafts, good for you!  I do, too!  But if you have a student that can’t do those crafts, please take a moment to think about what it is like for them.  Consider how you’d feel if it were your child and they couldn’t do the craft that everyone else is doing.  It isn’t an easy road to travel, the one of being the oddball.  Should we make that journey harder?  I am NOT saying what you should or shouldn’t do in your classroom.  Celebrating holidays and cultural differences vary across our country. I am just trying to remind everyone, myself included, to be considerate and however you choose to handle it, make it as painless as possible for those kiddos in your room that are different.
Screen-Shot-2014-10-18-at-11.53.35-AM

or

Screen-Shot-2014-10-18-at-11.56.13-AM
I know it really can be tough to accommodate for all the differences in a classroom! One year, I may teach all about spiders or bats around Halloween because the kids are really into it.  Another year, we may make jack o’lanterns.  It depends on the class.  It depends on my mood.  Sometimes it depends on what we have time for or what I saw on Pinterest the night before.  So is it such a stretch  for it to also occasionally depend on what a kid in my class is and isn’t allowed to participate in?  One of the the great things about being a teacher is that we have the ability to teach  a unique group of kids each year…and to teach them in unique and constantly evolving ways, while hitting all the standards.  Yes, it may take a little extra time and effort, but isn’t that what teaching is all about?
What are your thoughts?  How do you handle differences of religion and viewpoints? Does your school encourage celebrating holidays or is it frowned upon?

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22 Comments

  1. I have a Jehovah’s Witness in my class this year. I have chosen not to do holiday themed stuff this year because I don’t want him to go through the experiences you had. There are districts that are eliminating holidays altogether and I am OK with that. I would miss doing some of my favorite things, but can come up with some new ones.

  2. Thanks for sharing this point of view. I’ve struggled with what to do with this child and would just send him next door to use the computer while we had a birthday cupcake, etc. I never thought about how he felt leaving the room. After that year I started a Holidays Around the World unit. Even if that child couldn’t do the project, at least the others could learn there are other holidays people celebrate.I would love to send you a copy to try! bit.ly/1MQejw3bit.ly/1MQejw3

  3. Jennifer…thank you for your transparency! This had to have been a tough post to write…but it was so real…and raw…and NECESSARY! 🙂 Too often I think we shy away from these types of topics…but it is just this type of discussion that draws my eye, impacts my heart, and changes my practice. I thank you so much for sharing this part of your story with us, and I KNOW that after reading this, many teachers will think more about their own learners and how they can love and lead the whole child and not just the parts that they understand or agree with.
    Thank you so very much for teaching us all some valuable lessons with these thoughts!
    Much love,
    Tamara

  4. Teaching in a Catholic school is a very different environment because celebrating holidays is the norm and huge part of our school culture. I have never been in a situation where I had to give careful thought to the religious views of others or how it could affect the student in a family that doesn’t celebrate the holidays. Even so, your blog post was so heartfelt and it made me pause and consider how isolating it can be for any child who is different, regardless of the reason why. Thank you for sharing such an honest and heartfelt blog post!

  5. A few years ago I had a delightful girl in my class who was a Jehovah Witness. This was 5th grade. For birthdays–only if a child brought something in did we celebrate–and I gave nothing for birthdays–she said she’d like to sit at the computer and play games during the song and snack eating. That worked for me if it did for her–and the celebrations were oh so short. I never have a Halloween party because I dislike the holiday–so we have a Harvest Party–cider and donuts. But the Christmas party was different. All the kids and I were excited, but I didn’t want my student to be left out. I communicated often with her mom, and I asked if she could come to assist me in the party–but not play games or exchange gifts. I told her my gift to students is more a celebration of reading–they get two books and pencils–and if it was okay I could give them to her unwrapped. Her mom agreed she could come and was a bit worried she’d feel uncomfortable, but my student had a blast. I emailed the mom twice during the day to let her know all was well. It was a win-win.

  6. I have two students (brothers) in my class this year who do not celebrate main stream holidays. I have done my best to keep my Art (the only thing I really do holiday themes with) as neutral as possible, even though their parents did not ask me to. We did fall trees and scarecrows and lanterns instead of monsters, jack-o-lanterns and witches. It was no harder and none of the other students noticed one bit. I’m planning snowmen, polar bears and penguins for December and January. No Santa. No problem.

  7. Jennifer,
    This is truly a must-read post for all teachers. It was so heart felt and honest. Life is hard enough. We don’t need to make it even more difficult for children. Thank you for sharing your story!

  8. What a thoughtful and heartfelt post. I feel like in order to really “get” how to make a class be inclusive, teachers have had to experience the opposite at some point themselves. My heart goes out to your childhood self. I wish that *all* new teachers (and the stuck-in-their-ways ones) could read this post. Bravo for sharing your story. Bryn

  9. Thank you so much for your heart felt message. This really touched me because I was also “different” at school. As a teacher my own experiences has taught me to be sensitive and understanding in matters like this.

  10. Jennifer, I am sure your experiences have made you a better, more understanding, more empathetic and more creative teacher. Reading your story has certainly given me food for thought. Bless you for sharing.

  11. I guess there’s a black sheep in every situation, I am not meaning to be a downer, but I just want to share my experiences with this situation. All children are different, some don’t celebrate holidays, some wear glasses, some are shorter than others, and some don’t have a parent…we can’t possibly make exceptions for all of them, so why not celebrate their differences? I was the later in those list of differences, I did not have a father growing up, I do not mean to say my mom chose to get a divorce or that my father wasn’t in the picture, no my father died before I was 2. I don’t remember him at all, my teachers growing up were all aware of the situation. Does this mean that I was asked to step out of the room for father’s day activities? Does this mean that no one should have been able to make cards for their dads? Does this mean we shouldn’t have learned about families in school because “it might have brought up feelings”? No, this meant for me that my teachers took time to talk with me and made me know that it was ok I didn’t have a dad, and that it made me special and unique. I had many other people in my life that loved me. The child with glasses is special because they have adorable glasses and eagle sharp eyes now! The shorter child is special because they might be better suited for certain games in gym class and some don’t celebrate holidays because their family is special and have decided to find joy in all of life not just holidays.

    We are all different, I am not sure though that sugar coating it for the children is the proper way to handle it, how boring life would be if we were all the same!

    1. I don’t think anyone is saying that we shouldn’t celebrate holidays. I think the point I am trying to make is that teachers should be considerate in however they choose to handle the situation. Being sensitive to a child’s differences is not ‘sugar coating’ anything. I simply was hoping to inspire teachers to be thoughtful in situations like these and not make it more difficult for the child.

  12. Wonderful post about the holidays! I feel like each year it is different but the key is to be considerate, like you’ve stated. At my current school we are heavily into the Primary Years Program so that eliminates the need to have themes all of the time. I love it! We have just begun a stories and fairytales unit so we time the story of the gingerbread man close to this time of year, to feel festive. It works out fine and we enjoy all the many versions of this classic tale. I also ask my students what holiday they celebrate during this time of year and try to acknowledge their special celebrations.

  13. Jennifer, this was a fabulous post. Our huge world is so much smaller now with all of our modern technology. We are regularly interacting with so many people and cultures now that awareness is key. As teachers, we need to be sensitive to our students’ feelings. Until we know about and understand what it feels like to be the “different” child, we can’t modify how we approach things. Empathy is what sets our profession apart from so many others!

  14. Jennifer, it takes so much courage not to be the silent bystander and not allow the status quo to just carry on. As an educator myself and now writer of books for little global citizens, I advocate for culturally responsive education through literature. It was so heart warming to hear your story and how you’ve used your own experience to become an even better educator. I thank you.
    My son wears a dastaar (small Sikh turban) which is widely misunderstood by many but he also wears bi-lateral aids so his cultural identity is made up of many factors. My husband and I were born and raised in England, so the holidays are a huge part of our cultural upbringing, complimenting our faith identity to stand up for all. Sometimes, people believe it’s only the visible differences that set us apart but, they actually make up our collective whole. Invisible differences are just as important and it’s thanks to educators like you and all the other lovely people commenting here that gives us hope for a more beautiful and peaceful tomorrow.

  15. Growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses (and still currently), I appreciate you helping other educators see the need for sensitivity for children and their varying beliefs, etc. I am shy by nature but never once felt embarrassed or like I wanted to fit in with others during the holiday, etc. times. I was happy to go play on the computer or draw instead and have some quiet time. I have 2 children in school currently and so far the teachers have been fantastic about doing creating alternative activities, not doing the holiday in their class at all or allowing my child(ren) to be “special helpers” for other teachers or faculty during the activity in question. It’s not whether the teacher does the holiday or not but it’s the communication and cooperation they demonstrate that I truly respect and appreciate. I try to relate this to my children’s teachers as much as possible so they know how appreciative I am. Thanks again for the post. 🙂

    1. I am also a witness my child’s school does not care to work around our beliefs. We can’t afford to stay home and home school him. They took him trick or treating to different teacher’s classes after I explained we do not celebrate. I am so angry that they do not care.

  16. I just came across this on my search for validation for my feelings on celebrations in the classroom. Not sure if this is the right place or not, but I would love alternative holiday celebrations in the classrooms! Every year I feel like one more tradition that we would typically do at home as a family is being done first in school. Egg hunts for Easter, Letters to Santa and Elf on the Shelf for Christmas, pumpkin carving for Halloween – why? Why can’t we leave these traditions to families to enjoy together? It never used to be this way when I was growing up. We would do a few holiday handouts, play a game that wasn’t specific to the holiday, learn about traditions from around the world. But decorating a tree and writing a Santa letter and carving a pumpkin were things that were saved for celebration at home with your family. Being a working parent and not having the time to come to the classroom once a week is hard enough. But knowing that I’m now also missing out on these big parts of holidays with my children just make my heart hurt. When did celebrating at school become such a huge over the top experience?

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