Unity and Diversity
Holiday Celebrations Around the World

Ann Lockledge, Ted Henson, Denee Corbin

All peoples of all cultures find ways to celebrate — but they celebrate for different reasons. The commemoration of religious, historical, cultural, or patriotic events with ceremonies or festivities is common across cultures. In this country, as in most others, we tend to have four distinctive types of holidays. There are patriotic holidays like Flag Day and the Fourth of July, holidays that commemorate historical events as with Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, holidays that honor particular people such as Mother’s Day or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and religious holidays like Easter or Christmas. Developing a unit of study on the holidays and the rationale for their celebrations, even if done only on commonly celebrated holidays of the United States, can provide linkages among the cultures of the world.

Traditionally, holidays in the elementary schools of the United States are taught during the time of the year in which the event occurs. If a holiday is not a national event which falls during the school year, it generally receives very little attention. Furthermore, holidays are given mostly superficial treatment. While children might enjoy participating in the same sorts of activities year after year, it rarely helps them appreciate the multitude of observances that have become so dear to specific groups of people on particular occasions.

Instead, holidays around the world can be analyzed in terms of known holiday celebrations in the United States. The five themes of geography — location, place, relationship within places, movement, and region — as an organizational framework could help children to look beyond the celebration itself to its historic, patriotic, or cultural backgrounds. Students can visit a world where friendliness and neighborliness among peoples could develop because of the observances cherished in common. The consideration of location and place will provide a broad look at unfamiliar observances which are based upon love of country, remembrance of worthy people, and commemoration of special events. At the same time, the consideration of movement will provide an in-depth look at the origin of customs to explain why the same holiday is celebrated in different places using different traditions.

Tracing holiday customs as they move from country to country not only can be enjoyable but can introduce the concept of regional interdependence. Holidays which commemorate religious, historical, cultural, or patriotic events also can be explored in terms of the food, customs, landforms, and resources of the region. Investigating the countries in which the holidays are celebrated, reveals the interrelationship between holidays and culture.

Examples of Worldwide Holidays

In order to show how a classroom of students might be introduced to holiday comparisons, six holidays from different parts of the world have been summarized as examples. Selections will depend on the course of study, the background of the children, and individual preferences.
Children’s Day, Urini Nal, in South Korea, is celebrated on May 5 to give children one day of their own in return for the obedience and respect that is expected of them throughout the year. Schools are closed on that day and there is no charge for the rides in Seou#146;s Children’s Park. Events include exhibitions of wrestling and tae kwon do, tugs of war, and painting and creative writing contests. Special plays and puppet shows are popular as are the rice cake favors and pickled cabbage treats.

Carnival is a street celebration in Caribbean nations held during the two days prior to Ash Wednesday. Actual celebrations differ slightly between island nations, but all are the result of combinations of practices and ethnic elements from Europe and Africa. Parties begin after Christmas as people get together to prepare costumes for the coming parade. Steel bands can be heard performing and practicing for weeks. On opening day at dawn, participants cover themselves with mud, soot, and oil and dress in old clothes or dilapidated costumes to symbolize the joy of the slaves when the sugar cane harvest was complete and they were free for a time from the grueling work.

The parade recalls the days when black slaves used torches to light the way of those who had to be out. On Monday night, people attend parties and wait for the grand finale on Tuesday when they masquerade in the streets for hours until Carnival ends at midnight.

Thailand’s water festival, Songkran, is a three-day holiday from April 13 to 15 that is a joyous welcome to spring. Enormous statues of Buddha spray perfumed water on spectators celebrating the beginning of the Buddhist New Year. Parades include floats which are painted gold and carry girls in traditional Thai costumes performing folk dances. Children pour water on the hands of their parents as a sign of respect and on each other simply for the fun of it. People dress in their best new clothes and visit the temple to make an offering to the monks. In order to perform acts of kindness, people buy birds and pet fish and then set them free. The special family meal includes beef, chicken, or shrimp in a curry sauce, fried noodles, and special desserts made of coconut or rice.

Midsummer’s Eve on June 23 was celebrated in many European countries for centuries. It was a time of rejoicing and has been characterized as a time of fire, water, flowers, and young love. In rural European countries, some people danced around bonfires, while others jumped over them to ensure the growth of their crops. Some people even drove their cattle and sheep through the embers to cure and protect their animals from disease. Many young girls tried to envision their future loves throughout the festival. In Scandinavia, Midsummer's Eve is still celebrated as a welcome change from the long dark winters that occur there.

Tu Bishvat is a Jewish holiday by origin. It is one of the four Jewish New Years and represents the rebirth of the trees. When this holiday is celebrated in Israel on February 10, the fruits are beginning to bloom and the sap has risen which marks the rebirth of the fruit. After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu Bishvat was seen as a day to commemorate the rites of a nation living on its land. During much of Jewish history the observance of the Tu Bishvat holiday involved the eating of fruits associated with Israel such as almonds, dates, figs, pomegranates, and carob. When Israel became a state, Tu Bishvat became even more significant. On this day there are now elaborate tree-planting ceremonies involving school children.

The French celebrate their Independence Day on July 14, and it is known as Bastille Day. It commemorates the day in July, 1789, when an armed mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille prison to get weapons and, only incidentally, to release prisoners being held for a variety of reasons. This marked the beginning of the end of royal power and the start of national legislatures. Bastille Day is celebrated with speeches and parades much the same as other independence days in countries around the world.

Teaching Ideas

Sometimes we celebrate as members of families or citizens of local communities. Other times we may celebrate as a nation or along with others around the world. When holiday celebrations tap the expanding horizons of the social studies curriculum, students can begin to see themselves in such varying roles as family members and national or global citizens. Some possible activities are suggested here.

1. Researching the holidays in order to tell specific information about their events and origins can result in creative products such as holiday jeopardy games or sets of riddles using holiday descriptions.

2. Students can also construct content maps to organize information about different types of holidays around the world and the reasons for celebrations — who celebrates a given holiday, where, and exactly how it is celebrated (including food, clothing, decorations, songs, and legends).

3. Calendar timelines showing times during the year when holidays around the world are observed help learners to relate holidays to specific times of the year. Interactive bulletin boards can also be developed to match the holiday customs with their geographic location.

4. Historical and cross-cultural perspectives of the holidays can be developed by the use of guest speakers and oral history with senior citizens or recent immigrants. First, give students the opportunity to ask previously prepared questions of a guest speaker. Then send students to do interviews, taping the oral histories of celebrations in earlier times and/or different places.

5. Dioramas of historical events celebrated by different holidays nationally or worldwide could be constructed. Attention to the accurate portrayal of details and the correction of student misinformation is important here.

6. Role-play can be used to help students understand the feelings associated with experiences of cultural understanding or a lack of cultural understanding. Have students role-play solutions to situations where a child is invited to a celebration they did not understand. This is both a chance to have children describe ceremonies they have investigated and to express feelings about being an outsider.

7. Students might also be put in cooperative learning groups to create a new holiday and then plan an unusual celebration for it with the entire class.

Teaching strategies springing from the consideration of the similarities and differences of holidays and their customs around the world can be used in extending students’ cross-cultural awareness and global citizenship. Resources noted at the end of this article might be utilized to achieve these goals.

Selected Resources
Bauer, C. F. (1985). Celebrations: Read-aloud holiday and theme book programs. New York: H.W. Wilson.
Cohen, H. & Coffin, T. P. (Eds.) (1987). The folklore of American holidays. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Dunkling, L. (1988). A dictionary of days. New York: Facts on File.
Fradin, D. B. (1990). Best holiday books. (Separate 48-page volumes for Christmas, Columbus Day, Halloween, Kwanzaa, Lincoln’s Birthday, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and Washington’s Birthday) Hillside, NJ: Enslow.
Greif, M. (1978). The holiday book.
New York: Main Street Press, University Books.
Lockledge, A. (1992). Street festivals in the Caribbean: Geography lessons for elementary teachers. The Social Studies, 83, (1), 17-20.
Penner, L. R. (1993). Celebration,
The story of American holidays.
New York: Macmillan.
Ridley, J. (1985). Christmas around the world. Portugal: New Orchard Editions.
Schaun, G. & Schaun, V. (1986). American holidays and special days. Lanham, MD: Maryland Historical Press.
Van Straalen, A. (1986). The book of holidays around the world.
New York: Dutton.
Walter, M. P. (1989). Have a happy...a novel. New York: Lothrop.
Warren, J. & McKinnon, E. (1988). Small world celebrations. Everett, WA: Warren Publishing House.

About the Authors

Ann Lockledge is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, NC.
Ted Henson is Director of Elementary Education for the Alamance County Schools in Graham, NC.
Denee Corbin is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University, West Layfayette, IN.