Teaching about Holidays

David T. Naylor Bruce D. Smith

Holidays offer excellent opportunities for increasing children’s understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity. They are collective celebrations that serve important societal and group functions. Holidays enable people to acquire a common identity as members of a group, e.g., national, regional, ethnic, racial, religious, etc. When studying holidays, children learn about the important concepts of culture, cultural diffusion, cultural change, acculturation, and cultural pluralism. They come to understand the importance of tradition and the similarities and differences in cultural practices. Presented in this manner, the study of holidays does much to enrich the social studies curriculum. Included here are a series of activities for teaching about holidays.

I. Official Holidays: Choosing Your Top Ten

Legislatures frequently designate days to honor a person, group, event, product, or value. When those days involve the closing of government offices, they become “official holidays” and are widely observed. In this activity, children decide on ten days they feel should be designated as official holidays in their state.

Suggested Procedures:

1. Ask the children to identify those days on which schools and government offices are closed. List responses on the chalkboard.

2. Explain the concept of official state and federal holidays. Use a list of official state and federal holidays to verify and supplement the list of holidays the children generated. Explore reasons why these holidays may have been selected.

3. Divide the class into groups of three to five children. Give each group a calendar which has some major holidays listed on it. Tell the children to decide on the ten holidays they feel should be official state holidays.

4. As each group shares its choices, list them on the board. Compare similarities and differences. Ask groups to give reasons for some of their choices.

5. Conclude by having the class vote on the ten holidays to observe. Save the results for later use (see activity III).

II. Holidays and Their Meaning:A Matching Exercise

Holidays provide an effective way of illustrating our cultural diversity. Increasingly, schools are broadening the range of holidays they recognize and include in school-based programs. The matching activity in Figure 1 tests children’s familiarity with various holidays. It provides an effective way to initiate a discussion of why the children may be more familiar with some holidays than with others and to expand their knowledge of culturally diverse holidays.

How Familiar Are You With Holidays?

Instructions (see Figure 1): Column A contains descriptions of holidays. Column B has the names of those holidays. Match the correct description with its name. Place the letter from Column B next to the number of the correct description.

Suggested Procedures:

1. Distribute the matching exercise. Have the children complete it individually or in pairs.

2. Have the children put a check next to the holidays they have heard of but do not know much about and circle the holidays they do not know.

3. Reveal the correct answers. Clarify any misunderstandings.

4. Elicit which holidays received check marks and which were circled. Explore reasons for this. Save responses for later use (see activity III).

III. Types of Holidays: A Classification Activity

Holidays are not alike. Some are religious; others are secular. Some commemorate people, others events, and still others values. By distinguishing among types of holidays in this manner, children gain insight into the nature and role of holidays. This activity involves giving children a stack of index cards, each one containing the name and description of a different holiday. The children then separate the cards into different sub-groups and label them.

Suggested Procedures:

1. Place the holidays listed in Figure 2 on separate index cards. Put the name of the holiday on one side of the card and its description on the other side.

2. Divide the class into groups of three to five children. Give each group a set of the holiday index cards. Ask the groups to put all the holidays into two mutually exclusive categories. Elicit responses and write them on the board. Discuss reasoning.

3. Focus on the religious and non-religious classification. If not widely used, have children regroup their cards on that basis at this time.

4. Next have the children sub-divide the religious and non-religious classification piles. Refer to the holiday topology shown in Figure 3. Use it and this exercise to help children understand the various sub-categories and their functions. Elicit examples of each. Give examples as necessary.

5. Have the children examine their responses to activity II. Which types of holidays are they most familiar with — religious or secular? Which religious holidays? Why? Which secular holidays? Why?

6. Share the children’s responses to activity I. How many of their “top ten” holidays were religious? How many were secular? How many were political holidays; ethnic holidays; social holidays? How representative are the selected holidays of different religious or ethnic groups? Have the children explore reasons for their responses.

IV. Holiday Symbols and Traditions

Symbols and traditions provide recognition, meaning, and common experiences for holidays. Children are often familiar with symbols and traditions associated with commonly celebrated holidays. This familiarity can lead to an exploration of the nature and role of symbols and traditions and the variations in holiday symbols and traditions associated with groups within and across nations.

Suggested Activities:

1. A card-matching exercise for primary children: Put the name of a holiday on one card and symbols associated with it on one or more other cards. Then have children match the holidays and their symbols. Examples include: Easter — cross, colored eggs, rabbit; Thanksgiving — turkey, pilgrim’s hat; Valentine’s Day — cupid with bow and arrow, greeting card; Hanukkah — menorah, dreidel; Independence Day — flag, Uncle Sam, red, white, and blue crepe paper. An alternative, especially in the intermediate grades, is to substitute traditions associated with specific holidays instead of the symbols.

2. A data-retrieval chart for intermediate children: Develop a data-retrieval chart using categories similar to these: type of holiday — religious or secular, political, ethnic or social; name of holiday; what the holiday commemorates — person[s], event[s], value[s]; holiday symbols; and holiday customs and practices. Have the children complete the chart by placing appropriate information in the cells or blocks of the chart. Lead a discussion by focusing on similarities, differences, and the importance of symbols and traditions.

3. Using children’s literature: Take advantage of some excellent children’s books that deal with
cultural diversity, symbols, and traditions. For example, Molly’s Pilgrim (Cohen, 1990) connects Thanksgiving with the Jewish harvest holiday, Sukkoth, by focusing on the meaning of Thanksgiving through the perspective of an immigrant girl and her mother. Susan Sussman’s There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush (1983) cleverly addresses the issue of how
children can deal with symbols and traditions of holidays celebrated by persons of other faiths. In Thanksgiving Treat (Stock, 1990) a teacher can explore holiday traditions with primary-age children. Additional references are found throughout this issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner.

V. The Value of Holidays: Create Your Holiday Activity

An interesting culminating activity for a unit on holidays is to give children the opportunity to create their own holidays. The Egyptian holiday, Sham Al-Nessim (“Smelling of Spring”), may be used as an example. This family holiday, celebrated on the first clear day of spring, involves visiting the most beautiful spot in nature that can be found. What people, events, or values would the children in your class choose to commemorate? What could they use as symbols for that holiday? What traditions would be appropriate? An activity like this can do much to emphasize the significance and collective value of holidays.

Cohen, B. (1983). Molly’s pilgrim. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shephard.
Stock, C. (1990). Thanksgiving treat. New York: Bradbury .
Sussman, S. (1983). There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush. Niles, IL: A. Whitman.

About the Authors
David T. Naylor is a Professor of Education and Bruce D. Smith is an Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education at the University of Cincinnati. Both are specialists in social studies education.

Figure 1.

Column A
A. Christmas

B. Constitution Day

C. Diwali

D. Easter

E. Emancipation Day

F. Hana Matsuri

G. Hanukkah

H. Independence Day

I. Kwanzaa

J. Labor Day

K. Mardi Gras

L. Memorial Day

M. Ramadan

N. Shichi-Go-San Day

O. St. Patrick's Day

P. Thanksgiving Day

Q. Valentine's Day

R. Yom Kippur

Colomn B

1. The day which celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the beginnings of national independence

2. A day for expressing one’s love for another person. B. Constitution Da

3. A week when African Americans celebrate their African heritage. C. Diwal

4. A day set aside to honor work and working people. D. Easte

5. A day to express thanks for what we have. E. Emancipation Da

6. The day which commemorates the birthday of Gautama Buddha. F. Hana Matsur

7. A Shinto thanksgiving ceremony celebrated by 3-and 7-year old girls G. Hanukka and 5- year old boys and their families

8. A day honoring those who have died in wars. H. Independence Da

9. The day before Lent on which people party and eat well. I. Kwanza

10. The sacred month during which members of the Islamic faith fast J. Labor Da daily from dawn to sunset

11. An eight-day Jewish celebration that commemorates the rebuilding K. Mardi Gra
of the temple following the Maccabean victory over the Syrians.

12. A five-day Hindu festival of lights which ushers in the new year. L. Memorial Da

13. The day that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. M. Ramada

14. The Jewish Day of Atonement involving fasting and prayer. N. Shichi Go-San Da

15. The day which celebrates President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the Confederate states

Figure 2.

Illustrative Index Card Entries

Kwanzaa Shichi-Go-San Mother’s Day

Christmas Ramadan Thanksgiving

Columbus Day Memorial Day Yom Kippur

Veteran’s Day Labor Day Valentine’s Day

Easter Emancipation Day Independence Day

New Year’s Day Halloween Pioneer Day

All Foo#146;s Day Hanukkah Hana Matsuri

Lincoln’s Birthday St. Patrick’s Day Native American Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. Boxing Day