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How to Teach Students About Holidays & History

Introduction to American Holidays in Classrooms

Every country has holidays that are nationally or culturally important - typically centering on religious festivals, historical traditions and important events in their history. The US is no different and in over 500 years of history - historic moments before, during and after independence - they have come to make forge the American culture and traditions. Some are far older, but even those have come to take on an American flavor of their own.

There are presently ten Federal Holidays (government mandated days off work for Federal employees) and numerous holidays besides that are big public celebrations. In some cases, individual states have adopted these Federal Holidays as public holidays too, with some opting to adopt other holidays unique to their state. Most employees will get a paid day off - some, but not all holidays and in not all states.

Major American Holidays at A Glance

The following represent current US Federal & State / Public Holidays and other major celebrations that are not government mandated as time off of work. We've tried to be as inclusive as possible, with major holidays and celebrations from most major religions, but it is not exhaustive. There are many more that we have not included, it's intended to be representative.

Where Federal Holidays are concerned, each will fall on the specified date unless it is at the weekend. if the holiday falls on a Saturday, then Friday becomes the day that people have off work; if it falls on a Sunday, the day off will move to Monday.

New Year's Day

What is it? The first day of the New Year in the Gregorian calendar

When is it? January 1st

Why do we celebrate it? New Year's Day has different meanings for different people. For most, it is marked as the end of the Christmas holidays before going back to work, a natural end to the festivities and a time to reflect on last year and to think about what the next year will bring. For many, it is a time to make positive changes through "New Year Resolutions". These will typically center on: getting a new job, resuming education, getting married, having children, losing weight, give up smoking and so on. New Year's Day is important the world over and in some religious communities, part of the wider Christmas celebrations.For most, it is a secular holiday and a time for reflection, recovery and a new start. For Catholics, it is a liturgical feast day. Once known by several names (including the circumcision of Christ), today it is Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God Feast Day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

What is it? A holiday marking the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

When is it? The third Monday in January

Why do we celebrate it? Although the man himself was born on January 15, the Federal holiday is scheduled for the third Monday in January every year as it is invariably the closest Monday to his actual birthday. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was, in life, a Christian minister and the most famous son of the Civil Rights Movement, advocating non-violent demonstration until his assassination in 1968. Labor Unions and senators from both parties advocated making his birthday a Federal Holiday soon after his death, but it did not become law until 1986 under President Ronald Reagan. Though he was not the only person to defy segregation laws in the 1960s, he was arguably the most famous at the time and across the world - an important figurehead for enfranchisement of ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans and especially for abolishing segregation.

Chinese New Year (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? The first day of the New Year in the Chinese calendar

When is it? Varies, but when compared against the Gregorian calendar it can be anytime between the end of January and mid-February

Why do we celebrate it? We mark Chinese New Year in the United States thanks to the large number of ex-pat communities across the country, especially in New York where a ban on firecrackers was lifted in 2007. Many of these Chinese communities have become so integral to modern American life that most cities have their own Chinatown around which the celebrations gather. Chinese New Year is a time of joyous celebration, colorful costumes and parades - not all that different from the Gregorian New Year.Only, it lasts for 15 days, each with its own traditions and festivals. On the first day, the gods are welcomed to Earth with parties and fireworks. The fifteenth day is traditionally a day of romance, where young singles attempt to find a partner.

Here are some fun lessons to help teach about Chinese New Year: Chinese New Year, Fan Dance, and Lion Dance.

Valentine's Day (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? A celebration of romantic love

When is it? February 14

Why do we celebrate it? Named in honor of St. Valentine, it is a time when romantic partners exchange gifts, send each other flirty cards or text messages and have romantic meals in the evening - typically involving flowers and small tokens of affection. Some go away for short breaks, spending the night in a hotel for some private time. For those who are not romantically attached, it is a chance to send a card to express their feelings towards their crush or crushes. Part of the fun of receiving a card is to attempt to guess precisely who might have sent it. The tradition is believed to have begun in medieval England or France during the age of chivalry when we see the beginning of romanticism and romantic poetry. It may have links to more ancient pagan fertility festival, being just a few weeks before the beginning of spring, but it has been a main celebration of courting couples for hundreds of years.

Washington's Birthday

What is it? Celebration of the birthday of George Washington. Today, the Federal holiday is more commonly known as President's Day to honor all past presidents

When is it? The third Monday in February

Why do we celebrate it? Another moving Federal holiday, George Washington was born on February 22 and following the success of the American Revolution, was elected as the former colonies' first President, effectively creating the birth of the Union. It became a Federal Holiday in 1879, some 90 years after his inauguration as the first President of the United States. However, as Abraham Lincoln's birthday is also in February (12), the day is marked in both of their honor as state holidays, generally known as "President's Day" or "Washington and Lincoln Day" or "Washington & Lincoln's Birthday" depending on the state. Either way, the Federal Holiday marks the contribution to the country of these two men and many others in making the USA the country that it is. Leading up to President's Day, schools will often focus on history lessons about the importance of the role of President as well as teaching about individual presidents - a great time to educate children of all ethnicities in the US about our history.

Mardi Gras (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? "Fat Tuesday" The beginning of Lent - a Christian observance leading up to Easter

When is it? Varies depending on the dates for Easter, but it is 40 days before Easter Sunday. Please see details below on how Easter is calculated. Mardi Grascan fall any time between mid-February and early March

Why do we celebrate it? The modern Mardi Gras as we see in some of the French-descendant areas of the modern US has its roots in Catholic Europe's Carnival period - a time of celebration and a final few days of feasting and enjoyment leading up to the first day of Lent / Ash Wednesday. Lent is a time that Christians fast for 40 days through to Easter and attend a period of confessions. Of course, fewer people are observant today but even in secular US, some people think it is prudent to give up an indulgence for the period. The Mardi Gras we see in cities like New Orleans are direct assimilation of French and Italian carnival celebrations and are colorful and extravagant affairs. Parades are plentiful and the Caribbean culture has added something unique to set it apart from its traditional (yet no less colorful or celebratory) Catholic counterparts in Europe and the rest of the world.

St. Patrick's Day (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? The Saint's Day dedicated to St. Patrick - the Patron Saint of Ireland

When is it? March 17

Why do we celebrate it? Patron Saints Days have been common in Europe since the Middle Ages, but St. Patrick's has been firmly adopted into American culture, largely thanks to the Irish immigrants who came over during the 19th century. Parades take place anywhere there is a strong Irish population, particularly Boston MA, Buffalo NY and many others. St. Patrick is credited with taking Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, though the Vatican did not make it a Saint's Day until the 17th century. By then, it had become a symbol of Irish patriotism especially against the growing influence of England over Ireland following England's break with the Catholic Church. When the Potato Famine struck in the 19th century, it paved the way for Irish immigrants to bring "St Paddy's Day" to the Americas. Most cities have a Parade where people wear green, buildings are lit up in the colors of the Irish flag, there is singing and dancing and fireworks. It is as much as symbol of Irish American culture as it is of modern Irish culture.

Easter (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? A long weekend signifying the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ - the spiritual head of all Christians

When is it? Easter Sunday is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Good Friday is the Friday that precedes Easter Sunday. It can fall any time between March 22nd and April 20th

Why do we celebrate it? To observant Christians, Easter is more important than Christmas because it signifies the time that Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of all humanity, died and was then resurrected. Easter is at the end of Lent that began with Mardi Gras and marks a period of both celebration and remembrance. Non-Christians, mark Easter as a continuation of ancient fertility rites. The Easter Bunny and chocolate go hand in hand with this as a celebration of the rebirth of spring. Children often wake up on Easter Sunday morning to find baskets full of candy or toys. Easter Egg Hunts, sometimes they too are candy but sometimes they are decorated eggs that make it all part of the fun of the season. To most, Easter signifies the beginning of spring - days are getting longer and warmer.

Orthodox variation: The Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Polish) uses the same formula to calculate the dates of Easter but use a different calendar so the dates with for adherents to these churches will always differ by about a week. The same is also true of Christmas.

Passover

What is it? An eight-day festival of Judaism, celebrating the Passover - the liberation of the Jews from Egypt

When is it? Like Easter, any time between late March and late April, but as Judaism uses a different calendar, they will not always fall close together - though they do frequently.

Why do we celebrate it? One of the biggest festivals in the year for Jews all over the world, Passover is the start of the New Year. It coincides with the beginning of spring and falls close to Easter. As there is a large Jewish population in the US, particularly in New York, you will often find public signs of Passover celebration. Families get together on the first night for the seder dinner during which wine is consumed while the story of the Exodus is recounted. They may exchange gifts of baskets containing food and wine, and special seder plates. Passover lasts for seven or eight days, depending on the sect of the celebrants and each day has its own special rituals tied into Jewish belief and biblical history.

Hanukkah

What is it? An 8-day long Jewish festival to mark the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem

When is it? Starts on the 25th day of Kislev. In the Gregorian calendar, it varies between the end of November and late December

Why do we celebrate it? Far from being merely "The Jewish Christmas", Hanukkah is an important festival in its own right. It celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem which took place in the 2nd century BC when The Holy Land was under the control of The Seleucid Empire (one of the factions that formed out the dissolution of Alexander's Greek Empire); the event of the Maccabean Revolt is mentioned in Book of Maccabees. The celebration of Hanukkah began following the success of the rebellion but it never became a popular in public until the 1970s. The eight-day period is signified by the lighting of nine candles on a special candelabra called a "menorah". Starting with the central candle, one candle is lit each night of the Hanukkah period. There is some debate amongst Jewish scholars about whether the miracle of the oil actually happened. The story goes that on the rededication of the temple, the olive oil used to light the candles lasted eight days. True or not, it is now the foundation of the lighting of the candles every year.

Here is a fun lesson plan on the Menorah and one on the History of Hannukkah!

Vesak

What is it? Anniversary of the birth of Buddha, though it also celebrates his enlightenment and death

When is it? The first full moon in May

Why do we mark it? The festival has been around since 1950 when the World Fellowship of Buddhists assembled for the first time - it had already been celebrated by different Buddhist groups all over the world for hundreds of years, but only then did it become officially recognized. It celebrates the birth, life, enlightenment and death of the founder of the religion - Gautama Buddha. It perhaps did not enter the public consciousness until 1999 when The United Nations opted to mark it officially in their offices around the world. On the morning of the day, Buddhists assemble at their local temples or place of observance. Here, they chant or sing prayers to Buddha, to the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha) and to the Sangha (Buddha's disciples in life who spread the word). Candles and incense sticks are spread around the place, typically about the feet of the teacher. Many Buddhists who are not vegetarian will give up meat for a couple of days; in countries where Buddhism is a major religion, abattoirs will close. Other symbolic acts of freeing animals may also take place.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

What is it? A day remembering the victims of the Nazi Holocaust (mostly Jews) between the 1930s and the fall of the regime in 1945

When is it? 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, typically late April to early May. The US marks its official Holocaust Remembrance Day as May 8 but the official United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day is January 27

Why do we mark it? "Yom HaShoah" is largely marked to remember those Jews who were victims of the Holocaust though we understand that there were many other groups who were victims of Nazi atrocities: disabled people, Marxists, Socialists, Trade Unionists, Ukrainians, Poles and other ethnic Slavs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Spanish Republicans and many more.This day is the specific day set aside by Jews for Jews. The reason is that it marks two other occasions that are important to their culture and history of Jewish people. Within the specified range of dates of Holocaust Memorial also falls Israeli Independence Day and the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising which saw Jews in the ghettos of Poland fight back against the Nazis. It is partly to honor those killed by the Nazi Regime and partly to vow that it should never happen again.

Cinco de Mayo

What is it? Celebration of the victory of the Mexicans over the French at Battle of Puebla 1862

When is it? May 5

Why do we mark it? It is a celebration of an unlikely victory of the Mexican army over French forces in 1862.Outnumbered and outgunned, thereby becoming one of history's most shocking battles, the Mexicans experienced a victory against all odds. It began as a celebration in California, arguably bigger there throughout its earlier year than it was in Mexico where it was all but ignored. It is not a public holiday in Mexico but schools and other public places will close. Here in the US, it was strictly a California tradition until around the 1950s-60s. Today, it is marked with festivals, singing and dancing, food and drink in some 21 states. The significance is not lost here in the US - it was an important battle as there was concern that sustained French victory in Mexico could have turned the tide for the Confederacy should they have helped farther north. As it was,

Mother's Day (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? A day honoring the important role of mothers in our lives

When is it? The second Sunday in May

Why do we celebrate it? A completely different tradition from Mothering Sunday celebrated in some other countries (which is tied to Christian rite and associated with Easter and the birth of spring), this Mother's Day began in the USA. It was organized by women's peace groups from both sides during the Civil War, primarily by those who had lost sons during the conflict, and particularly Ann Jarvis who most famously worked nursing soldiers from both sides and campaigned for better sanitation conditions.She was instrumental in improving the state of camps following typhoid outbreaks among both Union and Confederate troops. Carnations are the common flower of the day, and have symbolized the celebration since Ann Jarvis herself delivered 500 of them at the inaugural Mother's Day celebration in 1908.Today, children show affection to their mothers with flowers and handmade gifts. Families will often have a celebratory meal,which they will cook themselves, giving mother the day off. Older children might return home if they are able; we now live in a much more mobile world and it has become more important to honor our parents by visiting them.

Memorial Day

What is it? The day in which the US honors the war dead

When is it? The last Monday in May

Why do we celebrate it? The USA has a long military tradition, having fought in many wars since its inception. The modern Federal Holiday of Memorial Day began life as "Decoration Day" following the end of The US Civil War. It was an act of reconciliation in honoring the war dead on both sides in order to heal rifts and bring the two divided groups of states back together into The Union. Since then, we have gone through two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea and many other modern operations in the last few decades that Memorial Day has evolved to become a way to remember those who have given their lives to preserve the freedom of all Americans in all conflicts. It is separate from Veteran's Day, which is later in the year and honors the contribution of present serving armed men and women and retired veterans. Each Memorial Day, people visit graves and military cemeteries in their communities to honor and remember the war dead.

Father's Day (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? The day honoring the important role of fathers in our lives

When is it? Third Sunday in June

Why do we celebrate it? Mother's Day (rather than Mothering Sunday which started as a different and much earlier tradition) began in the USA and so did Father's Day - the same year in fact. Grace Gold Clayton Fairmont, West Virginia had proposed it to honor her father, but following a mine collapse in 1907 it was decided in that a Father's Day was necessary to provide an equivalent appreciation in honor of all fathers and to remember the dead miners. The first occasion was even more poignant, but it did not spread outside of Fairmont until 1910 when it spread to Washington State. From there, it spread out over the country. It began in tandem with Mother's Day, in the same year, and soon became an international celebration. Some people feel dads are under-appreciated in the 21st century and want to show kind, hard-working, supportive fathers what they mean to them - especially when it is very easy these days to move to another part of the country or to the other side of the world.

Independence Day

What is it? The date that the Declaration of Independence was finalized

When is it? 4th July

Why do we celebrate it? The 4th July marks the anniversary of the day in 1776 when the 13 colonies of the British Empire became an independent nation. It is commonly believed that the July 4 date was when the document was compiled or signed - but neither is the case; nor is it the day that the American Revolution began. The day is important because this is when the leaders of the 13 colonies finally agreed to the wording of The Declaration of Independence. In the grand scheme of things, it is just as important as July 2 (when the colonies decided to declare independence) or August 2 (when the document was signed) or the date in November when it was delivered to the court of George III in London. Yet it is the date chosen as the Federal Holiday, marked in honor of all the historic events that took place during the process of independence, though it could have been any of those others. 4th July celebrations are usually marked with barbecues, fireworks, music and parties all over the country.

Labor Day

What is it? A Federal holiday honoring the valuable contribution of the employee in a working environment

When is it? First Monday in September

Why do we celebrate it? Many countries have a Labor Day or something like it, as a mark of thanks from the company or the business community to the valuable work that employees up and down the country make or have made to American business. Generally, most Labor Day equivalents throughout the world have been the brainchild of the Labor Union movement in the 19th century as a response to worker exploitation in the Industrial Revolution, and this is certainly true in the USA too. Who started it in this country is subject to debate, but we do know that the first Labor Day as a public holiday was in Oregon in 1887. Seven years later, it became a Federal Holiday and today it is a statutory holiday in the US and it is enjoyed for sports reasons too - traditionally, the start of the College Football and NFL seasons. Public celebrations are often low key, but college students especially make use of the last break before returning to education.

Ramadan

What is it? The Islamic holy month.The ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

When is it? Dates vary, and when compared to the Gregorian calendar it can fall at any time of the year. In 2006, it fell between late September and late October and in 2011 it started at the end of July. In 2020, it will begin at the end of April. Dates can also vary region to region depending on the phases of the moon

Why do we celebrate it? Ramadan is the Islamic Holy Month, the period in which it is believed Allah revealed the texts of the Koran to Mohammed. It is a 30-day period of fasting beginning with Hilāl (the first crescent moon) and ending with Eid al-Fitr (the breaking of the fast) at the first day of the following month known as Shawwal. Observant Muslims do not eat during daylight hours, instead having a single large meal after sunset. It is also a period of prayer right through the month. The most important day is Laylat al-Qadr, which is believed to be the day that the revelation began. Its actual date is movable, and will always be an odd numbered day during the last ten days of Ramadan.

Diwali

What is it? An ancient Indian festival acknowledging the start of the fall season. Celebrated by Hindu, Sikhs and Jains

When is it? Varies between mid-September and mid-November

Why do we celebrate it? "The Festival of Lights" arguably stands unique as it is a highly important festival to three major eastern religions rather than just one as is usually the case with other religious and ethnic periods of celebration. Until the last decade, many Americans would not have known about it - that was until 2003 when President George W. Bush officially recognized it as an Official Holiday. Each year, the Indian cultures that celebrate it hold "Mela" festivals, music and dance, food and celebration and one of the largest Mela festivals took place in 2009 at the Cowboys Stadium (of the Dallas Cowboys). It boasted over 100,000 attendees of all faiths and beliefs. In the same year, President Barack Obama became the first US President to attend a Diwali gathering at the White House. It is about celebrating the light over the dark, even though it falls at a time in India where the nights and drawing in, temperatures dropping and the country is heading into winter. Diwali is a five-day festival, each day having its own rituals and festivities.

Columbus Day

What is it? Marking the anniversary (all over the Americas) of the day when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the continent

When is it? 12th October

Why do we celebrate it? 1492 is an important year throughout the world; it was the day that explorer Christopher Columbus first set foot on the soil of "The New World"opening the colonization by the major European powers at the time - France, Britain, Spain (who had been his sponsors) and others. His arrival began what was to be the beginning of the exploration and mapping of Earth's last continents - North and South American. In the US, Columbus Day began as a public holiday in Colorado in 1906, but did not become a Federal holiday in 1937. Before this though, the day was used by preachers, teachers and others to educate people about patriotism and American history - a celebration of national pride; and that is how it is marked today, as a celebration of American culture and history. It is worth noting that the continents are named in honor of D'Amerigo, the first European to reach the mainland of the Americas. Columbus only reached The Caribbean as far as we can work out, several islands in what is now The Bahamas.

Veterans Day

What is it? The equivalent of Memorial Day for living serving military personnel and those who have retired from service.

When is it? November 11

Why do we celebrate it? As the USA has a separate memorial day because our tradition of commemorating the war dead is slightly older, the date that is "Armistice Day" or "Remembrance Day" in Europe and the rest of the world has become Veteran's Day here. It was originally called Armistice Day in the US, but changed in 1954 based on the argument that the US already had a Memorial Day to honor war dead. It is younger than its counterpart in May and began following the end of World War I as a way of acknowledging and thanking the brave acts of those returning from the war in Europe. It carried on, especially as war would return to Europe just a couple of decades later.Following the rise of the Soviet Union and other global conflicts, the country became involved in a number of wars in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, though it continues to acknowledge bravery of our servicemen and women, it is also used to raise awareness of issues affecting returning veterans - particular low employment, injury and disability, mental illness and poverty.

Halloween (Not a Federal Holiday)

What is it? A chance to dress up in scary costumes and go "trick or treating" around the neighborhood

When is it? 31st October

Why do we celebrate it? Though born out of ancient traditions of celebrating the dead (and specifically the Catholic tradition of All Hallows Eve ahead of All Saints Day - a celebratory feast for all saints), the modern celebration in the US has taken on a life of its own. Partly a way of marking the beginning of fall, partly to add a little color to our houses and life before the cold and dark really set in, trick or treating, pumpkins and the other symbols have been subject to much debate about their origin and meaning. To most though, it's a chance to dress up in scary costumes and come together as a community, have a good meal and spend time with family and friends. Trick or Treating is the major event that most people know of - families give out sweets to children who dress up in scary costumes such as ghosts, vampires and well-known monsters from films. Houses are decorated with carved pumpkins and traditional foods include pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving Day

What is it? A time for friends and family to come together in thanks and to remember one of the most important historic occasions in US history

When is it? The fourth Thursday in November

Why do we celebrate it? At Thanksgiving, we remember the first Thanksgiving Meal that took place between the Native Americans and the arriving Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock in modern Massachusetts. Many towns and cities will have a Thanksgiving Day Parade and mark it as the opening of the festive season that will lead us all the way to Christmas, but what does the actual day mean? Beginning in 1789 when George Washington declared the first National Holiday of Thanksgiving, it's highly likely that it has its roots in the older Protestant Christian traditions of the harvest.It was, in effect, a Harvest Festival between two peoples occupying the same continent; it was a time when relations were good. Turkey, potatoes and yam are all traditional features of the meal today but not everybody celebrates it - specifically, descendants of Native Americans. The meal eaten today would have had very little in common with the meal that those Pilgrim Fathers and natives would have shared.

Here is a link to a Thanksgiving Day lesson plan!

Christmas Day

What is it? A celebration of the birth of Jesus, the founder and spiritual figurehead of Christianity in all its forms

When is it? December 25

Why do we celebrate it? Christmas to many people, is the greatest festival of the year. A colorful, happy and joyous time, it has both religious and secular meaning and people take from it what they like. The religious meaning is the marking of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, arguably the most important festival in the liturgical year of any Christian group. The secular meaning is a general celebration of the end of the year in the darkest, coldest days and nights in the northern hemisphere. Between December 21 and December 23, hours of daylight start to get longer. People decorate their homes, put up trees and on Christmas Eve night, believe that Santa Claus travels the night skies delivering gifts to children. Adults give gifts to each other and use the time as a period of reflection: friends alive and gone and to think and muse on the new year to come. Most states now have December 26 as a Federal holiday, and it is the first day of the African holiday of Kwanzaa.

Orthodox variation: As with Easter, the Orthodox churches have a different date for Christmas Day than with Catholic and Protestant traditions because of the calendar, but also because of when it is celebrated. Christmas Day will usually fall on or around what in the Gregorian Calendar is January 7

Here are two Christmas plans: Christmas Around the World Part 1 and Christmas Around the World Part 2.

Kwanzaa (Only 1st January is a Federal Holiday)

What is it? An African-American / black American tradition suggested as an alternative to Christmas-New Year celebrations

When is it? December 26 to January 1

Why do we celebrate it? Though it does not have its roots in ancient West African tradition, when it was conceived in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement, it was based mostly on the older traditions of Americans of African descent and their beliefs passed down the generations to their families. It is a kind of a loose and modern interpretation of those beliefs and practices. The word "Kwanzaa" comes from Swahili. The language is East African - an ethnic group from a region that was not enslaved and the term is "matundaya kwanza" which translates as "The First Fruits of the Harvest". It is a time of gift giving and was originally conceived as an alternative tradition to Christmas. Today, many African-Americans celebrate both and it is no longer seen as an alternative, but a wider celebration of the festive season. It has seven observances to coincide with the seven days of the period - unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operation -particularly in economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

How Do We Teach Children About Beliefs, Holidays and Festivals of Cultures and Religions Different from Their Own?

One of the founding principles of the United States of America was that there should be no officially state sanctioned religion or belief at Federal or State level. The First Amendment of the Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". This is further codified in the sixth article of The Constitution: "…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Though it was true then as it is now that the majority of Americans are Christian in one form of another (over 70% at the last census), the US Constitution in many places prohibits the government promoting religion in any form. We are a truly multicultural society - non-believers and people of no religion represent the largest group demographically (22%), Jews make up approximately 2% of the population, Muslims 1%, Hindus 0.7% and other religions including neo-pagans and other minority religions make up around 2.7%. In terms of the Christian population, some 47% of the population is Protestant in one form or another, just over a quarter is Catholic, 2% are LDS/Mormon and 1% adhere to other Christian groups and sects.

This means that though the majority of children most teachers will interact with are likely to be Christian, there is an increasing likelihood that they will encounter children of many other belief systems, traditions and faiths. Each wave of migrants coming to the United States brings its own traditions and history, beliefs and cultures. It is as important that we teach the children of immigrant parents about the beliefs and cultures of the United States as it is to teach American children of all ages about the different beliefs, values and histories of those immigrants.

Why Is It Important to Teach About Other Faiths & Beliefs?

As the United States is a secular and multicultural society, and as previously noted despite that the majority population is Christian, there are many reasons for why we should teach children about faiths, beliefs and traditions other than their own, particularly of first generation immigrants.

Integration & Citizenship

The most important reason to teach minorities about American history and culture, and to teach American children about minority history and culture, is that it is important for integration of communities and between communities. Kids in the classroom are going to have to get along - and for the most part, childhood is the time of life where they will mix with the most number of people and groups outside of their own ethnic background - unless, of course, they attend a school specifically for one religious or ethnic type. In most public schools, you will find people from all lifestyles and backgrounds.

Integration is fundamental to people entering the United States and wishing to make a new life here. It's important for education and jobs and much more besides if they are ever to become naturalized as citizens or as permanent residents.Although it is also important that they honor the history and cultures from where they or their immediate families originate, and they will certainly wish to exercise their constitutional freedom in doing so, it is important that they understand the other cultures of those around them and of their adopted country. Knowledge of these is key to integration and eventually to citizenship, should they choose.

Tolerance & Understanding

The founding principles of the United States was to avoid the religious segregation "sectarianism" that had plagued Europe since the dawn of the Reformation in the 16th century and to create a country founded on secular principles. The Founding Fathers and the first few people to lead the country following independence designed a set of laws (codified in The Constitution and The Bill of Rights) to promote the rights and freedoms of all citizens.Tolerance of the varying beliefs of others, of those who lived in the former 13 colonies which made up the original United States of America, and those who may wish to leave Europe for a new life - especially those who were experiencing persecution on religious and ethnic grounds anywhere in the world - would be welcome.

Tolerance is accepting the right of others to hold beliefs that are contradictory to our own and not discriminating against them because of those beliefs. When we understand the differing beliefs and cultures of others, we come to be tolerant and welcoming of it while not accepting them or being expected to accept them as equally true to the beliefs of others. The more we know about a belief system or philosophy, or of a culture's practices, we are moved to accepting the rights of others to hold those differing beliefs - one of the founding principles of both The Constitution and The Bill of Rights. Teaching children the tenets of tolerance and understanding will make them open-minded and accepting as adults, this is why it is imperative to encourage this in the young in accepting the American principles of freedom of expression.

Identity & Cohesion

While integration is about ensuring good community spirit within the United States so that everybody gets along, it is important that schools and the education establishments that run our schools promote identity to foster cohesion. Most people use terms to describe themselves "black", "white", "Christian" and so on. These labels do not define us, but they are part of who we are and respecting these individual identities is part of the freedoms that we as Americans enjoy. Hence, somebody can be black and American (or African-American). We call this "multiculturalism" - the importance of recognizing that people have both individual and group identities, and that those individual and group identities make up a community, and finally that communities make up the multiculturalism in the country.

How Can We Teach About Other Faiths & Beliefs?

Questions of multiculturalism often bring us to asking questions about what role schools have in teaching and promoting multiculturalism, and in encouraging children to be open to learning about other cultures.

The most important thing for teachers to do is define the principles of religious freedom and the legal responsibility of the United States government bodies to protect the rights of the beliefs of its citizens - this includes freedom of religion (including the right not to believe). As a teacher, you have a duty of care to children that they understand what it means to be tolerant and accepting, and promote the principles of The First Amendment; no religion or set of beliefs should experience discrimination or favor. That said, we understand that the vast majority of teachers are open to teaching about other beliefs within the confines of American tradition of cultural acceptance. We've even created a few modern cultural elements to aid inclusiveness and tolerance. Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women's History Month and others are all ways we celebrate diversity in and out of the classroom.

A modern secular teacher should incorporate elements of other faiths and beliefs in the classroom where relevant - this is as true for teaching religious minorities about American holidays and culture as it is the other way around in encouraging American children tolerance of others.In many cases, you should be able to relate observances with which those children might be more familiar - the Muslim Eid-al-Fitrwould be considered a close equivalent to Christian Easter but there are many differences so caution will certainly be required. A closer comparison may be drawn between Lent and Ramadan as both require fasting and extra observance leading up to the most important date in the religious year - the former for Christians, the latter for Muslims. It is often easy to relate cultural traditions if we draw these parallels while being mindful of how they differ - both elements are important for promoting community cohesion.

Another good strategy to use is to decorate a classroom to reflect the cultural diversity of those who learn there. Introduce symbols and colors that reflect where some of these children (or their parents) may have come from. It needn't be stated how important it is to avoid national or religious stereotypes. Permit the children to introduce symbols (within the rules of the school) to make everyone feel at home in the diversity. Similarly with American holidays for immigrant children, some symbols are likely to be everywhere at certain times of the year. Approaching the season will always be a good time to teach them about the meaning of each holiday. Where possible, bring in cross-cultural references to improve a group's understanding of the similarities and differences.

"To truly engage students, we must reach out to them in ways that are culturally and linguistically responsive and appropriate, and we must examine the cultural assumptions and stereotypes we bring into the classroom that may hinder interconnectedness." - Tolerance.org

Going to school is about learning and a large part of learning comes from books. Classrooms and schools that have flexibility on what they teach in their curriculum may like to introduce literature - classic or contemporary - from those different cultures, assuming there is an English translation available of the text, of course, and that it is authorized by a relevant body as being authoritative or useful for educational purposes.

A great way to get children involved with each other and encouraging understanding is to promote "universality" of beliefs and traditions. As we see from the list at the very top, many of these American cultural icons, festivals, traditions and holidays have parallels elsewhere and once we have acquired the information to understand that, our job as educators becomes far easier. Thanksgiving can be compared to any of the many Harvest Festivals throughout Europe and to the Indian festival known as Diwali. Many countries have their own Independence Day and / or a Memorial Day and their own version of New Year (for those who do not use the Gregorian Calendar). You may use some of the methods above - cultural books and awareness days of festivals, and combine them in an overall theme of what different cultures have in common while celebrating the differences.

Also, it is important to recognize that we live in a global world. We are Americans primarily, and we should certainly promote and educate American values, holidays and traditions, but we do not exist in a bubble. Encourage children to take an interest what goes on in the rest of the world - important world events can affect us too: we may find ourselves confronted with an influx of refugees from other countries, and be expected to do our part in helping out by United Nations mandate. People flee insurrection, civil war, natural disasters and individual persecution because of their beliefs - in each case, the US may be one of those countries to which they apply for asylum and acquire refugee status, possibly with a view later to becoming American Citizens.

Most importantly of all, regardless of your own thoughts and feelings you are required to maintain neutrality in presenting alternate beliefs and cultural traditions an in presenting American culture to immigrant children.One way you can do this is to apply an academic approach to teaching beliefs and traditions, and not an "exceptionalist" approach. Focus on raising awareness from a dispassionate perspective and to neither disparage nor evangelize any one particular belief system, philosophy or culture.

What is The Lemon Test?

A 1971 Supreme Court case sought to define what and how schools should teach about religion and belief in the classroom; it was called Lemon Vs Kurtzman. The decision taken by the court, based on the law as it stands in the Constitution of free expression of religion and that government should make no laws concerning the promotion of religion, was that Pennsylvania's Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act (represented through David Kurtzman) was unconstitutional by reimbursing private schools (most of which were Catholic) with public funds. Several recommendations followed from the Supreme Court, mostly centered on that schools that engage in religious instruction were not entitled to public funds, that schools which received public funds could not engage in religious instruction but that no government body could either prohibit or promote the teaching of religion.

Naturally, this applies to all religion and not just Christianity as the case was originally about. Later, it was defined that there are no barriers to teaching about religion as a subject of study, as it is an important humanities subject in its own right.

Obstacles to Teaching About Other Faiths, Beliefs & History

Some religions and life philosophies actively discourage the participation of children or adults in learning about the beliefs and practices of others. Though this is certainly true of some members of some religions, it is not true of all. Jehovah's Witnesses for example, shun all celebrations - including Christmas and birthdays. They are not permitted to take national oaths, so the Pledge of Allegiance is certainly out, and encouraging them to take part in celebrations would be an abuse of their Constitutional Right to freedom of religion, even though it could be argued that they would not recognize the notion of that Constitutional Right to freedom of religion. They do not believe in icons of any kind so decorations and symbols - such as those presented at Christmas,which are not permitted.

"Jehovah's Witnesses are asked to stand and salute the flag for the Pledge of Allegiance but are not required to speak the words" - Doctor Patrick Coggins. Professor of Education, Stetson University.

In this case, it is best to talk to the parents and to the child about what they would find acceptable -they may be open to allowing their child or children to learn about culture and traditions so long as they are handled dispassionately and from an academic standpoint as defined by The Lemon Test. It can be hard to exclude a child from group activities based on their religious sensibilities, particularly if the other children are having fun doing so, and there is arguably a double bind in excluding a child from such activities because of their Constitutional Right while not seemingly singling them out either for special treatment or for prejudice. It may be that the child wishes to take a free period or you could involve them in making secular decorations. Taking Christmas as an example, getting Jehovah's Witnesses to paint a snowy scene or to make gingerbread people could be a way of getting them involved while still respecting their religious beliefs. To some, these are symbols of Christmas without being a direct holiday reference and therefore do not "celebrate" it. It is important that the decision is in the hands of the parents and the child.

"Teaching about Christmas is not required content in the state of Florida. What usually happens is that teachers note it as a holiday. If a teacher decided to have a comparative celebration, it will also look at Hannukah, Kwanzaa and others that are similar.And do it in such a way that students have the opportunity to opt out. This must be approved by the school district." - Doctor Patrick Coggins. Professor of Education, Stetson University.

Jehovah's Witnesses are just one religion, but you may experience issues with Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Christians and others. Handle these situations in a similar manner to those expressed above. The parental view is paramount in what may or may not be acceptable education-wise. However, some of these communities are likely to attend private schools dedicated to teaching their particular beliefs and philosophies, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses who do not recognize the concept of the state. In these cases, they are likely to be educated on what is culturally acceptable using methods that are already approved by their community leaders and education professionals.

A lack of understanding of culture and religion fuels the wrongful idea that anyone from one ethnicity or religion is a homogenous group - a Catholic with Irish heritage may have a different outlook than one with Mexican heritage but so will two Mexican Catholics hold wildly different views about a thing. A Muslim from Somalia will have a different attitude and approach to life and even to religion than a Muslim child from Pakistan or one from Turkey. While we recognize and promote that certain groups have a group identity, we should recognize and understand that they do not have group think. A solution may be in greater diversity in the teaching community, but that is something for government and school authorities to address.So, while one teaching method or philosophy may apply to one child, it will not always apply to another of the same heritage - you may receive hostility from the parents of one child (Orthodox Jew, Jehovah's Witness) but a more accepting and compromise from another.

"It was once assumed that immigrant children could adapt to their new environment with relative ease, but in reality, educators have long struggled to meet their needs. In fact, recent research confirms not only that many immigrant children face enormous educational and psychosocial challenges, but also that the current wave of immigrant children presents an even greater challenge to American educators than earlier waves" - Kristin McCarthy

Approaching Subjects of Cultural Sensitivity

With the modern make-up of the American population being even more multicultural than ever, teachers can expect to be presented with culturally sensitive subjects and questions. Some of these may center on evolutionary theory or the age of planet Earth, for example. These would be typical where there are communities with a population, no matter how small or large, of the deeply religious where disputing scientific discovery on religious grounds because it clashes with doctrine or scripture, is commonplace.

Other difficult or sensitive questions that may come up could include slavery before the US Civil War, treatment of Native American tribes, or any issue of American foreign policy and that of her allies during the 20th and 21st centuries particularly. Most recently, flash-points of the Middle East may come up from children of recent immigrants from these countries.It's always important to note that no country is without elements of social injustice in its history concerning both domestic and foreign policy, so questions about the US past (recent or not so recent) should be handled fairly and sensitively. Some children raising these questions may have strong views that oppose equally strong views of the teacher and other children in the class.

"Florida passed a law in 1994 that requires teachers educate about women, about the holocaust, the African diaspora to North America, the Hispanic Diaspora as well as migrations from Europe. The curriculum today is closing the gap in understanding that women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and others have contributed much to American culture. Students now have an opportunity to learn about the broader scope."-Doctor Patrick Coggins. Professor of Education, Stetson University.

How do we address such questions without whitewashing history?We should certainly address these questions and allow them to be addressed. If children with a non-American upbringing wish to understand history from the viewpoint of the American education system, there are likely to be areas of disagreement. The objective in the classroom would be to inform the child or children about what we know about the historical situation under discussion and present facts in response to direct questions. We all have cultural biases and we should do all we can to minimize this as much as possible. A minority view may be a minority view, but when it comes to political or religious opinions, their right to believe something is protected under law.

List facts and encourage discussion among the peer group; particularly, ask them to see the position from another point of view. You may wish to make them part of a classroom discussion where relevant.

  • Divide the class into groups and pose a question to each group - either the same question or slightly different question which may generate a wider debate at the end of the exercise
  • If asking a single question, ask half the class to come up with evidence to support one side of the argument and the other half to find evidence to support the other side
  • If dealing with multiple questions, ask the group to subdivide again with one side for the motion and the other side against
  • At the end, ask each group to present their case in turn, listing their conclusions and presenting their evidence
  • Pay particular note (and maybe ask) if anybody had had their previous opinion changed or at least, seriously challenged by the new evidence
  • As the teacher, it may be wise for you to present that both sides had good arguments - perhaps reiterating that the truth is sometimes in the middle
  • Finally, be sensitive to cultural attitudes - be careful not to single anyone out or ridicule a particular point of view

The lesson here is not to encourage people with different backgrounds or beliefs to your point of view or to persuade them to the general consensus, but to present that there are multiple points of view on most subjects.Cultural bias can sometimes get in the way of one person's point of view no matter the social background, religion or other cultural perspective. Be aware of your own as well as that of others.

Why Should We Do All This?

Why we encourage understanding and teach about different cultures and traditions to our children has many benefits and therefore we do so for many reasons.

  • Global workforce: Technology means that we are now more than ever before, a truly global community. The US has business links all over the world including in Russia and China - countries with whom we may have had conflict in the past and with which political links may still be a little icy. We also have trade links with the Middle East, also countries where there is instability. Nevertheless, we maintain these trade links and the children of today may become the CEOs of tomorrow doing trade in these countries. They may, in some cases, be from these countries
  • Community understanding: If we are to move forward in the US, to put aside racial and religious stereotyping, then we need to educate the youngest among us and to send them out into the world better informed about the beliefs and cultures of others than the generations that preceded them. Inclusiveness promotes understanding between communities.
  • Promoting equality: Some groups underperform in our schools; the reasons for this have been discussed extensively by decision makers. Whatever the reasons, many groups remain or feel they remain disenfranchised by the education system. By encouraging participation, we help to level the playing field for underachieving ethnic groups and those who have low expectations placed on them.
  • Constitutional obligation: The first amendment states that government should make no laws that neither advantages nor disadvantages any religion above any other. A secular state that was founded on multicultural principles has a document of law to protect both; this is as true in education as it is anywhere else.

Most of all, we do it to encourage participation in wider American culture and appreciation of our own history. With thorough knowledge and understanding of how our country has come to be the way it is, students will go out into the world with a better understanding of the country and the wider world. This is even more important for the global communication that we have today.

Learn more about becoming a history teacher and find social studies lesson plans.

If you are not yet a teacher but feel inspired to become one, a degree in Early Childhood Education or an advanced degree such as Master's in Education are popular for those interested in entering the field.

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