Rethinking holidays in schools

Schools are social institutions, agents not just of academic education but of socialization and transmission of cultural norms. We must be intentional, critical and reflective when we make choices about how we carry this responsibility. Holidays are just piece of a broader puzzle about inclusion, cultural responsiveness, and equity, but I’ll use this time of year as a good opening for conversation.

Every school should approach holidays and celebrations differently based on the particular community it serves. Here I’ve generated some questions that might serve as a starting place for conversations within your setting about looking at holidays with a critical eye and making some intentional decisions about how to move forward. Honest, vulnerable conversations are the first step to increasing equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for all.

Questions to ask ourselves, in no particular order:

  • Which religions’ holidays are acknowledged at my school? What are the ways they are acknowledged?
    • Are these acknowledgements intentional, or are they just “what we have always done?”
  • Which holidays are celebrated by the school as an institution? Are we spending money and/or time as a school on some holidays? Which ones? Who chooses? Why?
    • When thinking about money and time, consider: decorations, special foods, parties/dances/celebrations, special class materials, etc
  • Are students, staff and faculty supported to observe holidays in ways that are meaningful to them?
    • Example: what do we do as a school to accommodate people who are fasting for a religious observance?
  • Which religious and/or national holidays merit a school closing? Why? Who makes those decisions?
  • Who makes decisions about which religious and/or national holidays are acknowledged/celebrated? Do we have a “default” set of holidays that we all assume we will celebrate?
  • How often are we disrupting our school’s routine in order to celebrate or acknowledge holidays? Why? Is the disruption in routine worth the benefit? Is there a benefit?
    • Example: do we have holiday parties, assemblies, or special schedules? Are classes doing activities unconnected to their learning goals around holidays?
  • Which holidays, celebrations and other times are important to our students, our families, our staff and our community? Have we asked this recently?
  • How do we balance honoring and celebrating students/families/teachers and their cultural and religious values with a commitment to inclusion for all and not preferencing one culture over another?
  • How are teachers incorporating holidays into classes? Are teachers incorporating this in an educational and culturally responsive way, or do they perpetuate a preference for the dominant culture’s holidays?
    • Example: math word problems themed around how many Christmas presents Timmy can buy with X amount of money, vs. an educational piece around how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures and what that means in reference to our learning goals
  • Is our school participating in tokenism and/or perpetuating surface-level or incorrect understanding of holidays?
    • Example: if our school acknowledges Hanukah but not Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, we likely do not have a good understanding of the significance or meaning of different Jewish holy days.
    • Example: are we asking students from non-dominant cultures to take on the responsibility of educating their classmates, while assuming that students from dominant cultures don’t need to educate or explain things to others? Why?
    • Also consider whether holidays themselves promote damaging narratives, such as Columbus Day.
  • Do we acknowledge the increase mental  health and wellness challenges that occur around Christmas/winter holiday time? What are we doing to support students, families, teachers and community members who may experience increased challenges during the winter?
  • Have we examined seemingly non-religious holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day from different lenses? Have we examined whether those days actually do carry religious and cultural meaning? Have we questioned whether there is value in acknowledging/celebrating them, or do acknowledge/celebrate them unquestioningly?
  • How are we talking about holidays, especially Christmas? Are we using language that includes or excludes – and I’m not talking about saying “Happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas.” Are we using conversation prompts like “What was the best thing you ate for Thanksgiving?” or “What was your favorite Christmas/Hanukah present?” or even “Did you have a great break?” that make assumptions, or are we using neutral questions that allow students space to share any experience?
  • Do we have our own rituals, routines and celebrations as a school? How do we support students to build community with one another in ways that are not connected to religious or national routines, rituals and celebrations?


I would love to see some additional questions to add to this list – add them in the comments! I would also love to hear if anyone thinks through any of these questions, on your own or at your school – let me know in the comments or link to your own post!

One thought on “Rethinking holidays in schools

  1. This is a terrific resource. I am in several educator facebook groups and I constantly see questions like “What are you getting your students for Christmas?” or “What are some good Christmas lesson plans?”. When I mention that Xmas is a religious holiday and shouldn’t be celebrated in public schools, I get a tremendous amount of angry pushback and justifications that somehow Xmas is now “secular” or Santa isn’t really related to Xmas, or my favorite “well you know a lot of Xmas goes back to pagan rituals”. Growing up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood and being married to a Hindu, I hear firsthand how exclusionary these practices are, as I thought all along. I hope that teachers can, as you say, “rethink” with a lens toward equity and making all students feel welcome and acknowledged. December in US is seen as festive season, so clearly there will be some celebrations but using winter themes, using language that isn’t exclusionary (Secret Snowflake vs Secret Santa), focusing on kindness and gratitude rather than buying gifts (many families are struggling even more due to Covid, so no need to further exacerbate income disparities). I especially like the Hanukkah vs true high holidays, as many of my Jewish friends feel Hanukkah is thrown in as the consolation prize for not celebrating Xmas. Holidays should be taught, not celebrated, and (shocker!) happen outside of December. Thanks for writing this important piece.

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