Rethinking the Holidays

As holidays are celebrated in schools across the nation, rich historical and cultural meanings should not be lost. The in-depth study of selected holidays can be an avenue to enhance multicultural aspects of the curriculum. Below are resources which suggest a wide range of possibilities for rethinking the holidays in today’s classrooms.

Resources to Identify Individual Holidays and Their History

A teacher resource book that is filled with holiday ideas for individual calendar days is Every Day’s a Holiday (Resnick, Pavol, & Pappas, 1991). This compendium of information and instructional ideas provides a monthly calendar which lists at least one holiday for every day as well as a mini-unit for six to eight selected days per month from September to June. Each of the seventy-six mini-units includes interesting historical facts about the selected day, “think and do” activities for students, and questions for class discussion. The background holiday information is very helpful. Activities include a wide variety of learning experiences from research to art to role-play.

Although helpful information is provided, the “daily” use of the Every Day’s a Holiday can encourage isolated learning rather than development of conceptual understandings. Rather than attempt to “cover” every holiday, selected ones can be used to complement the ongoing curricular program. For example, a study of ancestors can be planned to coincide with a celebration of Grandparent’s Day. A unit on rights and responsibilities might culminate on December 15th, the anniversary of Bill of Rights. The commemoration of historic holidays like the Bill of Rights can become a catalyst for integrating citizenship themes such as patriotism and appreciation of cultural heritage into the instructional program. This theme approach would be an appropriate use of the resources provided in Every Day’s a Holiday.

Another resource book, Holidays – Lessons and Activities for Library Media Centers (Walker & Montgomery, 1990), includes holiday activities which develop library media skills. Originally published in School Library Media Activities Monthly magazine between 1984 and early 1989, the focus is on research and the use of varied reference materials. The list of related books and audio-visual resources is extremely useful for anyone planning to study a specific holiday. Also included is a wealth of suggested activities which reflect the vast expertise of the seventeen contributors. Although the book is primarily for library media specialists, a teacher can use the activities to enhance units of classroom study. Objectives are clearly delineated for each lesson and reproducible activity pages are included. Certain cultural holidays, such as Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year have not been fully developed and need to be supplemented.
Facts on File publishes a series of holiday books called An American Holiday, An American History. Each book in the series provides a solid background and historical perspective. For example, in Halloween (Bannatyne, 1990), the intriguing history of Halloween is traced from its precursors in the colonial celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day through the immigration years and Victorian era to contemporary traditions. Recipes, songs, poems, and primary source documents are included. In Thanksgiving (Appelbaum, 1984), America’s oldest holiday is chronicled from its pious youth to today’s partisan, patriotic holiday. Other books in the series include Glorious Fourth (Appelbaum, 1989) and Election Day (Kelly, 1991). Anyone interested in American traditions and culture will enjoy these books, although most classroom teachers do not have the time to read several hundred pages of in-depth material on each holiday.

Culture and Holidays

For many youngsters, the study of holidays is their introduction to different cultures. As such, there is the danger of a superficial survey approach which focuses on heroes, holidays, and discrete cultural elements. Instead, an in-depth study of holidays that is integrated into the ongoing curriculum can foster a deeper understanding of the history, folklore, traditions, and customs of a culture.

One of the best ways to create an in-depth study is to involve children in a culture’s holidays or festivals, especially ones specifically focused on children. For example, in Japan the Shichi-Go-San Festival (highlighting seven-, five-, and three-year-olds) is November 15th, Hana Matsuri (Dol#146;s Day) is March 3rd, Children’s Day (formerly Boy’s Day) is May 5, and the Flower Festival (Buddha’s birthday) is April 8th. A celebration of these holidays can be done during a unit on Japan rather than on the actual holiday.

Multicultural Explorations: Joyous Journeys with Books (Heltshe & Kirchner, 1991) is a teacher resource book filled with activity-based ideas for integrated units of study. Emphasizing whole language and literacy development, eight to fifteen detailed lesson plans are provided for six different cultural areas of the world. These include: Hawaii, U.S.A.; Australia; Japan; Italy; Kenya, East Africa; and Brazil, South America. Each unit is rich with practical ideas including travel trunks filled with realia, imaginary trips complete with passports, and celebration ideas including recipes, art projects, and games. An extensive Information and Resource Guide and Bibliography are provided as well as a list of special holidays for each cultural area.

Fiesta Time

Holiday celebrations in Mexico and Central America are called fiestas. Using activities provided in the teacher resource book Fiesta! Mexico and Central America (Linse & Judd, 1993), a fiesta atmosphere including arts and crafts, food, and music can be created in an individual classroom or throughout an entire school. This is the first book in the Bridges Between Nations series and contains a yearly plan of fourteen different fiesta celebrations. Section One includes background information on the historical significance of each fiesta. Diverse enrichment activities bring history alive. Several discussion questions are suggested with each lesson to help children see the similarities between their own culture and the Mexican and Central American culture. Section Two contains a Resource Bank with complete instructions for many of the activities introduced in Section One.

Fiesta! Mexico and Central America is for the teacher who wants children to be actively involved in activities such as creating papier-mâché masks, molding clay pots, weaving baskets, and cutting paper decorations. In addition to providing specific directions for the arts and craft ideas, one of the best features of the book is that it includes a companion cassette tape with all seventeen songs from the music section. Side one of the tape offers the musical arrangements and side two provides Spanish vocals, plus the music.

A copy of the musical score and two copies of the lyrics, one in English and the other in Spanish, are provided in the book. Finally, to complete the arrangements for the fiesta, recipes are included for a variety of foods to complement each celebration. Best of all, it is the children who are encouraged to collect the necessary items, prepare the crafts and foods, and complete the clean-up. This is a unique book with many ideas to infuse holiday celebrations into an integrated curriculum.


A unique African American celebration, Kwanzaa, was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Kwanzaa is based on the concept of a harvest festival and means “first fruits.” It is a time when families and communities come together to celebrate the “fruits” of their year’s labors, to give thanks, to evaluate their achievements and contributions to the family and community, and to set goals for the year ahead. Occurring from December 26th through January 1st, Kwanzaa is not a religious, heroic, or political holiday. Rather it is a cultural celebration based on the Nguzo Saba, a seven value principle system which serves as a guide for daily living.

Several excellent Kwanzaa resource materials are available. Kwanzaa: Everything You Always Wanted to Know but Didn’t Know Where to Ask (McClester, 1990) is a handy reference that lives up to its title. Included is an explanation of the Nguzo Saba, a description and history of Kwanzaa symbols, menu suggestions for the feast, and gift ideas with a shopper’s guide. Let’s Celebrate Kwanzaa: An Activity Book for Young Readers (Hall, 1992) is a brief resource book that highlights each of the seven principles and includes several activities and an illustration for each principle. There is not much background information, so it is mainly a supplementary resource. Kwanzaa: An Everyday Resource and Instructional Guide (Anderson, 1993) contains a literature-based theme unit with teaching strategies, activities, and enrichment ideas. A fine selection of children’s trade books and audio-visual materials is included. A second unit, designed to motivate students to apply the core ideas of Kwanzaa in their own lives, is for teachers of older youths.

African American Holidays (Anyike, 1991) contains chapters on a variety of different ethno-cultural celebrations ranging from an historic description of several holidays observed by slaves to the more traditional observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Black History Month, and Kwanzaa. Also included is information on the recent effort to create a National Malcolm X Day, the international observance of African Liberation Day, and African Americans' emancipation celebration popularly known as Juneteenth. Historical information is provided along with a section detailing ways to celebrate each special observance.

Symbols of Cultural Holidays

Like other holidays, Kwanzaa has its symbols. The seven basic symbols include mazao (fruit and vegetables), mkeka (placemat), Kinara (a candle holder for seven candles — one black, three red and three green), vibunzi (ears of corn reflective of the number of children in the home), zawadi (gifts), kikombe cha umoja (communal unity cup), and mishumaa saba (the seven candles). Two publishers have packaged several of these symbols together into a kit which can be purchased to provide a Kwanzaa display. The most impressive, and also the most expensive, of these is the Deluxe Kwanzaa Kit #100 from Gumbs & Thomas Publishers for $49.95. The kit includes a placemat, wooden unity cup, seven candles, decorative candle holder worthy of display in your living room, and a copy of the McClester book mentioned earlier.

Lakeshore Learning Materia#146;s Kwanzaa Celebration Box, which also has a Kwanzaa kit, features the children’s literature book Kwanzaa (Chocolate, 1990), an activity guide, a Kwanzaa banner, and props which include a candle holder, an African hat, seven small candles, three pieces of fruit, an ear of corn, and two rubber stamps (corn and a unity cup). Priced at $24.95, this kit is the best value but the candle holder is unattractive.

Lakeshore Learning Materials carries four additional celebration boxes: Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, Hanukkah, and Powwow. The Multicultural Festival Celebration Boxes (including Kwanzaa) may be purchased as a set of five for $119 or separately for $24.95. Each kit includes a children’s literature book, a banner, and several props for celebrating the festival. Teachers who previewed the kits were excited about the quality literature books. They were, however, disappointed in some of the props, such as the Indian drum and the Hanukkah candle holder which is identical to the Kwanzaa kinara.

The set of five Multicultural Festival Books, one from each kit, is available separately for $19.50. If your budget is limited or you want students to be actively involved in setting up a display, select the set of five Multicultural Festival Books and collect or make the props separately.

The study of holidays can add excitement to the school day but should become an integral part of the ongoing curricular program and not just something that is tacked on for fun. Rather than focus on discrete cultural elements, an in-depth study of holidays can help to develop an appreciation for our country’s heritage and the many cultures that contribute to its richness.

Anderson, D. A. (1993). Kwanzaa: An everyday resource and instructional guide. New York: Gumbs & Thomas. ISBN 0936073-15-2. Softcover, $14.95.
Anyike, J. C. (1991). African American holidays. Chicago: Popular Truth. ISBN 0-9631547-0-2. Softcover, $7.95.
Appelbaum, D. K. (1984). Thanksgiving. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-87196-974-2. Hardcover, $24.95.
Appelbaum, D. K. (1989). Glorious fourth. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-81601-767-0. Hardcover, $19.95.
Bannatyne, L. P. (1990). Halloween. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-1846-4. Hardcover, $21.95.
Chocolate, D. N. (1990). Kwanzaa.
Chicago: Children’s Press. ISBN 0-516-03991-1. Hardcover $15, softcover $3.95.
Deluxe Kwanzaa Kit #100. New York: Gumbs & Thomas. $49.95.
Hall, C. A. (1992). Let’s celebrate Kwanzaa: An activity book for young readers. New York: Gumbs & Thomas. ISBN 0-936073-07-1. Softcover, $5.95.
Heltshe, M. A., & Kirchner, A. B. (1991). Multicultural explorations. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press. ISBN 0-87287-848-1. Softcover, $19.95.
Kelly, K. (1991). Election Day. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-1871-5. Hardcover, $24.95.
Kwanzaa Celebration Box. (1993). Carson, CA: Lakeshore Learning Materials. A7021. $24.95.
Linse, B., & Judd, D. (1993). Fiesta! Mexico and Central America. Carthage, IL: Fearon Teaching Aids. ISBN 0-8224-4232-9. Softcover, $25.95 (includes cassette tape).
McClester, C. (1990). Kwanzaa: everything you always wanted to know but didn’t know where to ask. New York: Gumbs & Thomas. ISBN 0936073-08-X. Softcover, $5.95.
Multicultural Festivals - books only. Carson, CA: Lakeshore Learning Materials. A200, $19.50.
Multicultural Festivals Celebration Boxes - complete set. Carson, CA: Lakeshore Learning Materials. A7020X, $119.
Resnick, A., Pavol, M., & Pappas, H. (1991). Every day’s a holiday. Carthage, IL: Fearon Teaching Aids. ISBN 0-8224-6372-5. Softcover, $21.95.
Walker, H. T., & Montgomery, P. K. (Eds.). (1990). Holidays: Lessons and activities for library media centers. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 0-87436-592-9. Softcover, $21.95.

About the Author
Dr. Priscilla Porter, Assistant Professor of Education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, teaches courses in social studies education and is co-director of the Dominguez Hills site of the California History-Social Science Project.