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Planning holiday celebrations: An ethical approach to developing policy and practices

Comments like these can arise in the struggle to incorporate cultural, religious, and individual beliefs into early childhood programs. One person’s real and sincere holiday “spirit” offends another. Children’s emotions may range from wild enthusiasm to increased stress, even depression. And celebrations and decorations associated with “traditional” holidays are so pervasive that we may not recognize that there are alternatives.
In this article, we propose that programs develop a policy for celebrating holidays based on core values and ethical principles.
A holiday policy can lead to teaching practices that enhance our understanding of, and respect for, the different cultures and beliefs of children, families, staff, and community.

Re-thinking dominant-culture holidays
Many teachers use holiday-theme activity books to plan their school-year curriculum. Some examples of holiday-based monthly themes include Halloween in October, Thanksgiving in November, and Christmas in December—and maybe Kwanzaa or Hanukkah in a nod toward multiculturalism.
The themes mentioned above represent holidays of the dominant culture. For the purposes of this article, we define as the “ruling or prevailing culture exercising authority or influence” (York 1991). Dominant-culture holidays, then, are the holidays celebrated most widely by a large segment of a population.
In the United States, the holidays most commonly celebrated in both elementary schools and early childhood programs are religious in origin. The celebrations themselves, however, are generally secular in nature. While a great number of people celebrate the dominant-culture holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter—many do not. Of those people who do, not all celebrate in the commercialized manner popular in our society.

Some early childhood programs have begun moving away from dominant-culture holidays in an effort to respect the diversity of their children, families, and communities. Results range from celebrating no holidays to celebrating every holiday on the calendar. Other options include celebrating the major American holidays, celebrating unique program or classroom celebrations, and celebrating only those holidays observed by the families and staff in the program.
Regardless of which holidays you choose to celebrate, the key is to make a conscious choice. We propose that programs write a holiday policy, using a process of careful planning that involves teachers and parents

A holiday policy, like other program policies, requires a basis in knowledge and ethics. One source of this knowledge and ethics is the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In particular, we can look to NAEYC’s standards of developmentally appropriate practice. These standards describe interactions, curricula, and environments that reflect knowledge about how children develop and learn both individually and in groups as well as the social and cultural contexts of that learning (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). In other words, we propose that the needs of children be the most important curricular consideration—not the calendar.
In addition, we can look for guidance to NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct and the principles behind an anti-bias curriculum.
For the purposes of this article, we have identified several sections of the ethics code that can be used to evaluate and inform particular aspects of typical holiday celebrations. You may choose other sections that more closely fit your program’s goals and vision.

Identify core values
The NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct describes standards of ethical behavior based on core values deeply rooted in the history of our field. We have committed ourselves to these principles and values.
We appreciate childhood as a unique and valuable stage of the human life cycle.
We base our work with children on knowledge of child development.
We appreciate and support the close ties between the child and family.
We recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society.
We respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague).
We help children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust, respect, and positive regard.
These ethical considerations are the basis of all program policies. We use them to examine all aspects of our interactions with children and adults, health and safety practices, environments, curriculum, and other services, including holiday celebrations.
You can thoughtfully approach the development of a holiday policy from many directions. Make sure, however, that any policy reflects your ethical principles.

Ethical responsibilities to children
Ideal 1.1: To be familiar with the knowledge base of early childhood care and education and to keep current through continuing education and in-service training.
Ideal 1.2: To base program practices upon current knowledge in the field of child development and related disciplines and upon particular knowledge of each child.

One reason teachers and directors often dread the holiday season is the disruption it brings. In many settings where traditional fall holidays are celebrated, disruptions in routines occur non-stop from October until January. This pace is exhausting for teachers and even more so for children. The continuous disruption in routine can cause children to feel unsure of their environment. When children are off balance, they tend to react erratically. This unpredictable behavior can frustrate teachers, and an unhealthy cycle begins.
The holiday pace can be stressful for young children, particularly since similar changes may also be happening at home. Family members that children rarely see come to stay at their home and may take over their own beds and bedrooms. Stores, streets and homes are decorated profusely with Santas, greenery, and toys. Well-meaning friends and relatives ask: “Have you told Santa what you want?” and “Are you being good?”
Parents stressed by extra shopping, cooking, and gift wrapping often act tired and irritable.
All of this can overwhelm young children, as well as confuse them about a holiday’s true intent. Often the very things that we are doing for children are the things that are contributing to their stress. Regardless of which holiday is being celebrated, the activities pull children out of their routine.
Holiday activities often involve the creation of decorations and gifts. These craft activities are often product—rather than process—oriented. When children make teacher-directed holiday crafts, they lose valuable time that could be devoted to more open-ended, creative art activities. In assessing the appropriateness of holiday activities, consider what we know about young children’s motor skills and their need to explore and experiment with materials.
Another area to evaluate is children’s holiday performances for parents. These performances pressure children to memorize spoken lines, move on cue, and perform before a crowd of family members and strangers. These activities do not take into account the children’s stage of memory development, level of social-emotional development, and individual differences in temperament.
All holiday activities need to be re-examined for bias or historical inaccuracy. Consider the inappropriateness of dressing African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American children in paper-bag vests and construction-paper feathers and teaching them about “our forefathers” and the first Thanksgiving. Reviewed from a developmental perspective, these common Thanksgiving activities are incompatible with preoperational children’s inability to understand history. These practices negate the children’s (and their families’) own rich and varied cultural histories

Ethical responsibilities to families
Ideal 2.3: To respect the dignity of each family and its culture, language, customs, and beliefs.
Ideal 2.4: To respect families’ childrearing values and their right to make decisions for their children.

A respectful way to include families in our programs is to have a policy that is inclusive of their customs and cultures. Parents are often invited to provide food, decorations, and activities for holiday celebrations. This does involve families in school life, but it can have a drawback. Providing food or activities can be a financial hardship and potentially an additional burden on top of holiday preparations at home. Some parents feel embarrassed to let anyone know this, so they may remove their child from school on the day of the party.
Making gifts or cards for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day assumes that children have a father or mother at home. A well-meaning teacher may suggest that a child make a card for another family member instead. This suggestion can make the child feel singled out.
Some families’ religious or cultural beliefs preclude celebration of dominant-culture holidays. There are a few solutions to this dilemma that do not single out particular children and make them feel less a part of the classroom. One solution is to invite parents to share their family celebrations and traditions—with classmates in the role of guests. In this way, children are exposed to a wider view in a manner appropriate to their developmental level.
Through reflection and experience, we have learned to respect each and every family’s traditions and beliefs. We believe program personnel have no right to impose personal holiday customs and traditions, religious or otherwise, on children and families. Common classroom situations include the following:
children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are unable to celebrate any holidays at school,
children whose allergies disallow wheat or dairy foods (common ingredients in holiday treats),
children whose parents do not support the promulgation of myths such as the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
When evaluating program policy, engage parents in respectful negotiation. In the give-and-take, a policy may emerge that both honors the ethical foundation as well as the families’ beliefs. The resulting policy can be truly satisfying to both parents and staff.