"Festivals of Light" A Multicultural Celebration in Brooklyn

Judith Y. Singer and Alan Singer
Winter lights are a special holiday symbol that join together people and cultural experiences from all over the world. They express people's hopes for peace, freedom, and understanding. At the Morris L. Eisenstein (MLE) Learning Center in Brooklyn, New York, the children, staff, and parents have developed their own special winter celebration, the multicultural "Festivals of Light." During the Festivals, all share the customs, ideas, and joys of Diwali, Hannukah, Loi Krathong, Kwanzaa, Nacimiento, and Christmas. The celebration also includes the Learning Center's own International Torch of Peace, dramatic presentations, stories, songs, and candle-lighting ceremonies. The population of the Learning Center and its surrounding East New York, Brooklyn, community is largely African American, Caribbean and Latino. The staff, the community board, and parents are committed to a program that explores cultures within the community and from all over the world. According to Theodora Harbour-Ridley, Director of the MLE Learning Center, "In the past, we had some children and staff who celebrated these holidays as part of their home cultures. We don't want to lose these celebrations at the Learning Center, just because children grow older or families move away."

The winter festivities reflect the Learning Center's multicultural educational philosophy. The culture of each member of the Learning Center community is recognized so that children, parents, staff, and board members see that their customs and beliefs are important to everyone else. Including as many holidays as possible also allows the children and staff to learn how the goals and concerns of people all over the world are similar to each other, even though they are expressed in different ways. An overarching goal of the Learning Center is to help children learn about the ideas, values, and practices of a wide variety of people so they may grow into confident, informed citizens of the world.

Assistant Director May Harrison Isles, whose parents are immigrants from Cuba, believes that ceremonies like the "Festivals of Light" make it possible for children and adults to "learn about themselves as they learn about others. As I grew up, I took my culture for granted. I thought that's just the way people did things. I began to look more closely at what I believe, when I started to learn about other people."

Sharing Stories
Every year at the "Festivals of Light," children tell stories about the holidays of Diwali, Hannukah, Loi Krathong, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. Older children from after-school groups are paired with pre-school classes to help the younger children with preparations and planning for the Festivals. Diwali is a five-day Hindu holiday that originally comes from India. It means "cluster of lights." During Diwali, people celebrate the story of the hero-king Rama and ask Lakshmi, the Goddess of Light, to shine on the pathway towards knowledge and understanding. Diwali was brought to Brooklyn by East Indian immigrants whose ancestors migrated from India to Guyana in South America. At the Learning Center, children make oil lamps out of clay to celebrate Diwali. Hannukah, the Jewish celebration of lights, is a holiday that honors national resistance and religious freedom. During the eight days of Hannukah, Jews light candles in a menorah to commemorate victory in an ancient battle against an invading country. This victory allowed Jews to preserve their religious beliefs. Hannukah also celebrates the survival of the Jewish people in the modern world, especially following the Holocaust of World War II.
Loi Krathong is a Buddhist holiday from Thailand. During Loi Krathong, people in Thailand honor the spirit of their ancestors by placing lighted candles, incense and flowers in a krathong. The krathong is a lotus-shaped basket, the size of a small saucer, made from banana leaves. Loi means "to float." After dark, Thai people make wishes and set krathongs afloat in a stream. People hope that this ceremony will wash away sins and create new possibilities for the coming year.

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, dating back to the 1960s. It is an African American celebration of African culture and roots. Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days, and each day is dedicated to a different human value. The values are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. On each day of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit in a kinara, or candleholder, to highlight one of these basic principles.

Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus almost 2,000 years ago. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, and that his appearance on earth is a signal of hope for the future. Over the centuries, the celebration of Christmas has incorporated songs and customs from many regions of the world. For example, the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol from northern Europe.

Singing Songs
Singing songs is an important part of the "Festivals of Light" celebration. Children sing "Pastores a Belen" and "Feliz Navidad" in Spanish, the German song "Oh Tannenbaum," and a song from the Caribbean, "The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy." They decorate and light a Christmas tree and reenact a Latin American Nacimiento, or candle-light parade. The procession symbolizes the search for a place for Mary to give birth to Jesus, and teaches that citizens around the world need to make room so that all people have shelter.

Taking Social Action
At last year's "Festivals of Light" celebration, the oldest children in the Learning Center, 10-12 year-olds, added a somber note to the festivities. As part of their presentation, they read a letter they wrote to the city's police commissioner calling for action to end drug dealing on the street corner outside of their school. They wanted their "Festivals of Light" program for peace to extend to their neighborhood throughout the year.

Ending the Celebration
The International Torch of Peace, which is modeled on the torch lighting ceremony that starts the Olympic Games, plays a special role in the program's multicultural curriculum. The Learning Center children study about areas of the world where the lives of children are endangered by war, disease, and poverty. As they pass the torch, the children tell the audience about these countries and their own hopes for a world where all human life is valued. The addition of the Torch of Peace to the "Festivals of Light" is an important part of the school's effort to create a shared sense of community and culture. At the end of the "Festivals of Light," children, staff, parents, and board members join in a song from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, "This Little Light of Mine." They sing verses that express their hope for the future and their connection to one another and to people all over the world:

This little light of freedom, I'm gonna let it shine
Black, white and Latino, I'm gonna let it shine
Free from fear and hatred, I'm gonna let it shine
All over the world, I'm gonna let it shine.

The celebration ends with this song because it summarizes the messages of the "Festivals of Light." By taking part in celebrations like "Festivals of Light," children may learn that differences enrich our lives; that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness; and that it is much better if we light the candles together.

About the Authors
Judith Y. Singer is an educational consultant at the MLE Learning Center and a doctoral candidate and adjunct faculty member in the New York University School of Education. Alan Singer is a member of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching in the Hofstra University School of Education.