In a country with a majority of citizens all holding the same or similar beliefs, it is often difficult to remember that there are a multitude of treasured winter customs that are celebrated throughout the world. For educators who wish to incorporate the teaching of multiculturalism and diversity, end-of-the-year customs are a rich and abundant topic.
Classroom teachers may want to approach this unit from a very inclusive point of view. This will allow students to learn about many of the less well known holiday practices.
From Humble Beginnings
Many of our most treasured holiday traditions come from very simple, very humble beginnings. These beginnings have often been forgotten, either because the particular peoples who originally celebrated the customs no longer follow them, or because those in power adopted them. Consequently, once adopted by the ruling class, the origins were quickly forgotten.
Take for instance, the Christmas tree. Originally, an ancient custom of the Germans, evergreen trees were used in pagan winter solstice celebrations. However, by the 16th century, the custom was seen as a Christian tradition with sweets and fruit used to decorate the trees as gifts to the children of the town or the poor. Later, Martin Luther is said to have begun the practice of adding candles to the ends of the branches. In the 1800s, Queen Victoria brought the tradition to Britain and subsequently to the United States, where it has become one of the world’s most recognized winter traditions.
Another very old and pagan holiday tradition is mistletoe. This plant, which grows by taking sustenance from other trees or bushes, can be found throughout Europe. Mistletoe bears its fruit in the wintertime. It is connected to the mythology of both Greece and Rome. The British Druids used it in their winter solstice celebrations, while the Celts believed it would bring fertility to their animals in the upcoming year. Today, mistletoe is hung high, usually in the entrance of the home where those who stop below it are kissed. We owe this tradition to the Scandinavians (Norse) who called mistletoe, the peace plant. If warriors happened to a place where it grew, they would lay down their swords, meeting in peace. Eventually, this led to lovers meeting under the trees and kissing, which continues to this day.
Winter rituals have always been a favorite of children around the world. Whether it is a group of children in Israel playing dreidel, or children in a South American city swinging at a piñata, the holidays are filled with customs especially focused on the joy and entertainment of children.
Interestingly enough, many of these practices do not originate during the winter months. For instance, dreidel, a top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin etched on the sides, was a toy that many children had throughout Eastern Europe and even in England and Ireland where it was called totum.
Additionally, the piñata, most often found during festivals in Spanish speaking countries, originated in China. Used during the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, the piñata is believed to have been discovered by Marco Polo. Brought back from his travels, the piñata soon became an intricate part of the traditions of people in Spain. Subsequently, the Spanish brought the tradition with them to the New World. Today, the colorful shapes and figures are filled with treats that spill out once the container is hit with a stick and cracked open. Piñatas are part of the winter celebrations, as well as birthdays.
Celebration of Light
Many year-end traditions center on light because the longest day of the calendar year occurs during the winter months. Originally, many of the celebrations were reminders that the “light” would return, however, some have their own historic or cultural origins.
The lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah has its beginning in the ancient story of the Maccabee’s victory over the Greek-Syrian army, when one day’s worth of oil burned brightly for eight days in the Temple. Today, Jewish families remember this story during the festive lighting of the menorah. The lit menorah is usually placed in a window or by the door for all to see.
Those African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa light candles, which are placed in the kinara as part of their observance of the holiday. The kinara is a reminder of the roots African Americans have in Africa. Seven candles symbolize the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. There are three red, three green and one black, with the latter placed between the red and green candles and lit first. The Seven Principles are Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Each night, the family reflects on one of the Seven Principles.
While there is no formal lighting of candles, per se, Buddhists throughout the world also celebrate during the winter months. Bodhi Day is an observance of the “enlightenment” of Buddha. On this day, Buddhists remember how the Buddha sat under a pipal tree to contemplate life, pain and suffering. On the eighth day, he realized that all suffering stemmed from ignorance. Bodhi Day is considered the birthday of Buddhism.
Hindus, also, celebrate the light in the feast of Diwali or Divali. This is a celebration of good over evil that is observed by the lighting of candles, often in small clay containers as a reminder that the Lord Rama triumphed over the evil demon king, Ravana. It is celebrated for five days, following the lunar Hindu calendar; therefore, observance can be anytime from between September to November.
For educators in classrooms today, teaching a unit on treasured customs celebrated during the winter months with sensitivity to the multicultural and diverse backgrounds of their students can be challenging. Incorporating lessons that allow students to explore various traditions, discover the origins, and connect to the history of the various cultures can be a stepping-stone for in-depth discussions on tolerance. Pointing out the similarities and connections that winter holiday traditions have helps students to find common ground with others during a time that has traditionally called for “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All.”
- Holidays: http://www.holidays.net/kwanzaa/kinara.htm
- The Holiday Spot:http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/mistletoe.htm
- Christmas Tree by stevep2008 under CC BY 2.0
- Official Kwanzaa Website: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml
- Religious Tolerance: http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice.htm
- Diwali: SS1981: Creative Commons License: Wikimedia Commons
- Scholastic Reader: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/holidays/
- Bhudda Statue taken by author.
This post is part of the series: Multicultural Learning and Diversity
Lesson Plans and ideas to promote diversity and multicultural learnign