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Beyond the calendar: Teaching holidays through themes for cultural understanding and empathy


By J. Yuen (she/her), teacher, Richmond

Teacher, May/June, 2023


Grouping holidays by themes can be a great way to teach about different cultural traditions and celebrations in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. When compared to teaching individual holidays throughout the year, theme groupings can allow teachers to create a more inclusive classroom community that celebrates cultural traditions in a holistic and integrated way. Here are some examples of how holidays can be grouped by themes:


Harvest festivals

This theme can include holidays such as Thanksgiving, Sukkot, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, which all celebrate the bountiful harvest season.


Spring celebrations

Several cultures celebrate the arrival of spring and the renewal this brings. This theme can include holidays such as Easter, Passover, Nowruz, and Holi.


Light festivals

The use of lights as symbols of hope and celebration bridge cultures from across the globe. Light festivals include holidays such as Diwali, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.


New year celebrations

This theme can include holidays such as Chinese New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Janmashtami, which all mark the start of a new year according to different calendars.


Day of the dead celebrations

Holidays such as Día de los Muertos in Mexico, Chuseok in Korea, and Obon in Japan all honour and remember deceased ancestors.


Winter solstice celebrations

This theme can include holidays such as Christmas, Yule, and Dongzhi, which all celebrate the longest night of the year and the return of longer days.


By focusing on the theme of lights, rather than the individual holidays, you can help your students appreciate the diversity of cultural traditions while also finding commonalities that connect different cultures.

This approach of grouping holidays by theme can help to promote cultural awareness, respect, and empathy among students. A popular theme that some teachers use for winter holidays is the theme of lights. Here are some ideas for how to incorporate this theme into your classroom across different subject areas. A similar approach could be used for any of the theme groupings listed above.


Introduction Begin by introducing the theme of lights as a common element across different winter holidays. Explain how different cultures use light as a symbol of hope, joy, and peace during the darkest time of the year.


Research Ask your students to research different winter holidays that involve the use of lights, such as Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. Encourage them to explore the origins, customs, and traditions of each holiday.


Art projects Have your students create art projects related to the theme of lights, such as making paper lanterns, designing holiday cards with lights, or creating a class collage of different types of lights.


Storytelling Read stories or folktales related to winter holidays and the theme of lights, such as the story of Hanukkah, the legend of Diwali, or the history of Christmas lights.


Music and dance Have your students learn traditional songs and dances related to different winter holidays, such as the Hora dance for Hanukkah, the Bhangra dance for Diwali, or Christmas carols.


Culinary traditions Encourage your students to explore the culinary traditions of different winter holidays that involve lights.


By focusing on the theme of lights, rather than the individual holidays, you can help your students appreciate the diversity of cultural traditions while also finding commonalities that connect different cultures. Similar activities could be used for any of the themes listed above. This approach can promote cultural understanding and empathy, while also making learning more engaging and fun.

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