Holidays, Cultural Diversity, and the Public Culture

David T. Naylor Bruce D. Smith

Holidays have traditionally been part of the public elementary school experience, so much so that this aspect of school life is often described as “the holiday curriculum.” For years holidays have served as, occasions for special school-wide and classroom specific activities involving plays, musical concerts, decorations, parties, costumes, the making of various artifacts, etc. Many former and present students have fond memories of these times during their childhood years. For them, the holiday curriculum was frequently a source of excitement, joy, and harmony.
But that is not true of all students.
In recent years, holiday celebrations in schools have produced community controversies. In response, some schools have virtually abandoned holiday celebrations while some others have doggedly sought to hold on to traditional practices. Most schools, however, find themselves somewhere in-between these polar responses. This article examines the functions of holidays, raises issues about the selection of holidays to celebrate, offers perspectives on holidays as part of the “public culture,” and addresses both policy and instructional implications for the holiday curriculum. The companion pull-out feature provides a variety of instructional activities based on perspectives raised in this article.

The Nature and Role of Holidays

The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) defines a holiday as a “religious feast or holy day,” and “a day on which custom or the law dictates a halting of general business activity to commemorate or celebrate a particular event.” Holidays are cultural events; some are religious, others are secular. Religious holidays commemorate individuals, events, and values which are significant to those who share the beliefs of the group. They differ in regard to the particular individuals, events, and values a religious group chooses to revere. Secular holidays reflect the political, social, racial, and ethnic experiences of a society. They, too, revere particular individuals, events, and values.
Holidays are collective celebrations that serve three important societal functions. One is a legitimizing function, sanctioning which people, events, and values merit special attention. Another is a preservation function, ensuring that certain people and events are honored and particular values perpetuated. A third is a cohesive function, binding people together through shared participation in commonly practiced rituals and celebrations. Thinking about holidays in these ways has implications for developing policy and teaching about holidays in schools.

Holidays and Cultural Diversity

Celebrations of holidays in a culturally diverse society can be problematic. Government agencies, especially schools, give preference to the holidays of some groups and not others. For example, contrast how the Fourth of July and Emancipation Day or how Thanksgiving and Kwanzaa are treated. Note also that Christian holidays often receive more recognition than the holidays of other religions. Another problem occurs when one group publicly misconstrues the meaning of another group’s holidays, as when Hanukkah is described such as “the Jewish Christmas.” Controversy may also arise because a holiday may be a cause of celebration for some groups while, for others, it may be a cause of sorrow or reflect a different interpretation. For example, Pioneer Day is a day of celebration for Mormons but a day of sorrow for the Native American Utes. October 12, Columbus Day, is viewed differently by various groups including many Hispanic Americans who join with those in Latin and South America to celebrate “the day of the people” (la raza), a holiday which honors the common bond shared by all Mexican people of Indian, African, and European ancestry.

Understanding the “Public Culture”

These perspectives help explain why holidays, like the teaching of history, have become more difficult and controversial in our schools today. As we become increasingly more conscious of our cultural diversity, a need exists to find a framework that ties holidays together as part of a “public culture.” Thomas Bender (1989) describes the public culture as the synthesis of the contributions and experiences of various groups that shape our individual, group, and national lives. He suggests that, in a diverse society, public culture needs to be understood as an on-going contest among social groups and ideas “to define themselves and the nation as a whole” (p. 198).
Bender’s perspectives on the nature of the public culture are instructive. Applied to holidays, his views help to explain how holiday curriculum evolved and why there is so much controversy surrounding holidays in our nation’s schools. He writes:

To describe the public culture of a society is to explain how power in all its various forms, including tradition itself, is contested, elaborated, and rendered authoritative. The public not a given. It is historically constructed, the product of a contest waged, not necessarily fairly, among various social groups and also between inherited conditions and the desire for change. What individuals and groups seek in public life is, at a minimum, legitimacy and justice. At group or another will seek domination by defining the nature of public culture and of American nationality in ways favorable to itself and unfavorable to others... The point is not to homogenize the experiences of various groups, but rather to bring them, with their defining differences, into a pattern of relationships...[that gets] beyond the parts to a sense of the whole. (p. 200)

Policy Implications

When holidays are understood as part of the public culture, schools are able to deal with them in more appropriate ways. Consideration of the following dimensions of the holiday curriculum promises to yield thoughtful policies for any school or school district:

1. Examine the holidays and the holiday curriculum in the school or school district as a manifestation of the public culture. What do they reveal about our common life as a people and a nation?

2. What balance do the holidays celebrated strike between religious and secular holidays? How representative are the religious holidays of the religious preferences of the community, the state, and the nation? What ethnic holidays are included? How representative are they of the ethnic and racial composition of the community, the state, and the nation?

3. Assess the extent to which the district’s holiday curriculum fosters legitimacy and justice among diverse groups. Which groups are represented? In what manner? Is the legitimacy of any group denied? Which ones? Why? Are deeply held beliefs of any groups in conflict with the holiday curriculum? Which ones? Why?

4. Identify the process by which the holiday curriculum is established — and changed — in the school or school district. What mechanisms exist for resolving problems surrounding the treatment of holidays in schools? How do groups gain access to the system? How are complaints handled?

5. Emphasize to faculty, administrators, and the community that our public culture is in a state of change. Provide examples of how change in the treatment of holidays has occurred in the school or district. What holidays, if any, are celebrated today that were not celebrated twenty years ago, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? How has the manner of celebrating holidays changed over time, Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc.? What forces have contributed to these changes, federal law, Supreme Court decisions? Which groups in the community may produce changes in the future?

Teaching About Holidays

When teaching about holidays, it is important to be clear about the learning outcomes to be achieved. Holidays should be regarded as opportunities for children to learn about the nature of our public culture. Children can study the social