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Handling the Holidays: Honoring different cultures and traditions

Handling the Holidays: Honoring different cultures and traditions

As early childhood educators, it is our responsibility to understand, respect and honor each child in our care without bias. Many programs have families enrolled with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. Even in programs that appear homogeneous, families have different ways of celebrating their traditions. 

Quality early learning programs partner with families in ways that respect the dignity and preferences of each family. During the holidays, conflicting views of the holidays with strong ties to emotions can cause contention, but you can keep the peace and joy of the season with these few tips.

To Celebrate or Not?

Each early childhood program needs to address the basic question of how to handle the holidays. It is entirely your choice.

Bringing in your staff in the beginning is a good start to creating a peaceful environment. If holidays and celebration are important to the team, perhaps staff holiday parties, team luncheons or staff gift exchanges would be welcome. Whether you decide to celebrate or not, it is important to have shared understanding with your staff and colleagues, whereby honoring personal choice throughout the decision-making process.

In addressing families, often the question of the holiday season is whether or not to participate in festivities. Here are a few questions to help you to create a plan:

  • What are the holidays or traditions recognized by the families of the children in my care?
  • How do they recognize, mark and celebrate these days?
  • What values are important to them?
  • Are there families that do not recognize specific holidays or who choose not to celebrate holidays in general?

When you get this initial information, it can help you realistically look at your situation and decide what is the best plan. It’s important to note that learning about a holiday, cultural practice or belief is different than engaging in the practice, ritual or belief itself.  

Your program type may also impact how you handle the holiday season. Religious holidays take on a special significance for faith-based programs. Families who choose faith-based early education settings are likely to welcome this component of faith teaching.

However, families of shared faiths may differ in how they choose to mark holy days, so talking to them to gain a better understanding of their traditions is important.

Focus on Values

Only your program, including your staff and the families of the children in your care, can answer the holiday question and determine your approach to holiday celebrations year-round. One potential approach to consider is to focus on the underlying values rather than on the holidays themselves. Rather than focusing on Christmas and the trappings generally associated with the holiday, your program may choose to focus on the values of Christmas, such as joy, peace, goodwill and generosity.

Units exploring the values of Hanukkah, such as charity, faith and dedication, will be meaningful to children who practice Judaism as well as children of other faiths. Values-based units could be meaningful to children of all backgrounds and provide opportunities for all children to develop richer understandings of the values associated with celebrations.

Avoid the Tourist Approach

Many well-intentioned early childhood programs dedicate a unit to explore and learn about diverse cultural traditions, often during the winter months. Although this provides an introduction to differences and appreciation of cultural diversity, it is just the beginning. Opportunities for this type of learning should be offered throughout the calendar year, and woven into the fabric of an early childhood curriculum.

Not all cultural celebrations take place in the winter months and many opportunities for learning about other families’ traditions come up throughout the year. It is the educator’s charge to be on the lookout for these opportunities in ways that are meaningful to the children in the group.

It’s also important to consider the books, pictures and materials in your early learning environment. Do they reflect the cultural, linguistic, ethnic and national diversity of the children and families in your program? How are Native populations depicted? Do you include actual photographs of the children and their families?

Communicate with Families

Developing an authentic relationship with families and seeking to learn about each family helps you avoid the tourist approach and begin the process of recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of each family. At intake, ask families to share how and what holidays they celebrate.

Be clear with families about how your program recognizes (or does not recognize) holidays. Provide information on program calendars, newsletters, lesson plans and in your handbook so families know what to expect. Encourage ongoing dialogue about special events and celebrations in each child’s life.

As with any effort, there are likely to be mistakes made along the way as you seek to learn about, respect and honor the culture, values and customs of the families of the children in your care. A good relationship with families, based on ongoing communication and grounded in good intention and authentically seeking to understand, helps you navigate the bumps in the road. The important thing is that you are willing to embark on the journey in an effort to respect the dignity of each child in your care.

For more on the topic of diversity and holidays, please visit:

NAEYC Holiday Resources 

NAEYC Holiday Tips

Teaching Diversity

For further reading, review the Promoting Acceptance of Diversity chapters of the following companion books to the Environment Rating Scales- Revised tools:

Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2003). All about the ECERS-R: A detailed guide in words and pictures to be used with the ECERS-R. (Lewisville, NC): Pact House Pub.

Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2004). All about the ITERS-R: A detailed guide in words and pictures to be used with the ITERS-R. New York, N.Y: Kaplan Pub.