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Holiday Celebrations Around the World

The growing ethnic and cultural diversity of children in programs and schools throughout the United States provides teachers and child care professionals the opportunity to rethink how to introduce culturally and developmentally appropriate holiday activities to young children. If used sparingly, holiday activities can contribute to anti-bias curriculum because they are fun to do and participating in celebrations and rituals enhances children’s feelings of being part of a close-knit group.

If they are thoughtfully used as a part of a more inclusive curriculum about cultural diversity, learning about holidays can broaden children’s awareness of their own and other culture’s experiences. Early childhood educators should invite children to participate as "guests" in a holiday activity not part of their culture, and encourage the children whose holiday it is to share feelings as well as information. Honor every group that is represented in your learning environment and be careful not to treat some holidays as "exotic" and others as regular. It is also important not to assume that everyone from the same ethnic group celebrates holidays in the same way--make sure that any differences in how each family celebrates are evident and respected.

Here are brief descriptions of some of the many holidays and customs celebrated by children and their families around the world:

  • Hanukkah: Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration that lasts eight days and symbolizes the Rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. When it was time to light the Temple lamp, there was only enough oil for the lamp to burn one day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. The significance of the eight days is celebrated by lighting one candle for each day of the celebration in a figure called a menorah.

  • Los Posados: This holiday is celebrated in Mexico and lasts for nine nights. Each night, children and their families reenact the story of Mary and Joseph trying to find lodging in Bethlehem. Families travel to neighborhood houses holding lighted candles and are turned away until they reach the house where the festivities of the night are being held. Once that house is found, they are welcomed in to join the celebration. As part of the celebration, children are often blindfolded with a bandana, given a stick, and encouraged to break a piñata--a hanging decorated ornament containing candy and fruit.

  • St. Lucia Day: Celebrated in Sweden, Finland, Italy, and the Caribbean Islands, this holiday is based on the story of a young Sicilian girl who lived more than 1,700 years ago. She is represented as wearing white robes and a crown of light. This light represents the breaking of the winter spell and bringing light into the world.

  • Kwanzaa: This African-American celebration is based on seven principles symbolized by candles which are placed in a candleholder called a kinara. Each night, a candle is lit and families talk about the meaning of one of the following principles: 1) umoja/unity; 2) kujichagulia/self-determination; 3) ujima/collective work and responsibility; 4) ujamaa/cooperative economics; 5) nia/purpose; 6) kuumba/creativity; and 7) imani/faith.

  • Diwali: Also known as the Festival of Lights, this celebration is popular in India. It symbolizes the return of Ram--an Indian god who long ago returned from the forest after 14 years and was crowned king of Ayodhya. Some people celebrate Diwali by lighting their homes with oil lamps or electricity to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Celebrants also wear colorful new clothes and eat special foods and sweets.

  • Le Re’veillon: Celebrated in Canada and France on Christmas Eve, a large candle is lit symbolizing Christ, Light of the World. This candle is left to burn throughout the night.

  • ’Eid-ul-Fitr: Also known as the Festival of Fast Breaking, this three-day Muslim celebration takes place at the end of a fasting period called Ramadan. Celebrants dress in holiday attire, attend special community prayers in the morning, and visit family and friends. Greeting of "Eid mubarak" or "a blessed ’Eid" are exchanged, and children are sometimes given gifts or money by their family members.

  • Boxing Day: Celebrated in Great Britain, Australia, Bermuda and some Caribbean Islands, this celebration takes its name from the fact that long ago on the day after Christmas in Great Britain, the alms boxes (offerings) which had been placed in churches over the Christmas holiday were opened. The contents were then distributed to the poor.

  • O-misoka: This Japanese tradition celebrates the end of the year and longevity. Celebrants usually eat a special kind of soba (noodles) called toshi-koshi-soba, reflect on the good year, and wish for long lives.

Additional Resources

Derman-Sparks, L. and the A.B.C. Task Force. 1989. Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. Washington, DC: NAEYC. #242/$7.