By Allison Wedell Schumacher
When I was in sixth grade, my teacher had us read Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which remains to this day one of my favorites. It was one of my first experiences with literary analysis. When we got to the stanza that ends, “The darkest evening of the year,” my teacher asked, “What night do you think he’s talking about?”
I’m not sure whether any of us 11- and 12-year-olds came up with the answer—the winter solstice—ourselves, but that was the first time I really started to understand that many cultures and religions celebrate the return of the light in one way or another. And we’ve been doing it a long time. One of the earliest stories we know about is Persephone, who, according to ancient Greek myth, was the daughter of Demeter (goddess of, among other things, grain and the harvest). Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, and when he took her down to live with him, the world became dark and lifeless because of Demeter’s grief. After an arrangement between Demeter and Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the world, but she had to go to the underworld for three months each year: winter.
All of this is to say that humans have been celebrating the return of the light and anticipating the arrival of spring for at least 3,000 years, so it’s no wonder that there are a lot of different ways to do it. Helping children learn about the things different cultures do to celebrate at this time of year (and why they celebrate at this time of year) is important. The more children learn about how families are different, the more open-minded and compassionate they’ll be.
So how can we help our kids learn these things? For starters, you can do lots of reading together. Books like The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer can help your child learn about the science behind the shortening of days and how different cultures and religions celebrate winter holidays.
But learning about these celebrations in person is even better. Step into just about any home during November through January, and it’s sure to have some holiday decorations in evidence, whether they’re for Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or one of the many other holidays celebrated at this time of year. As an adult, you may feel silly asking about holiday decorations—one feels one should know by now why there are nine candles on a menorah even though Hanukkah is only eight days long.
That’s when kids’ natural curiosity comes in. Don’t pretend you have all the answers; instead, encourage your child to ask questions (respectfully, of course) about others’ holiday traditions, where the traditions come from, and what they mean. Even if someone celebrates the same holiday(s) your family does, your child is bound to learn something interesting about this person’s family traditions.
What’s wonderful about learning about (and appreciating) the differences in cultures and religions is that doing so brings to light the similarities between your holiday traditions and other people’s. Maybe you celebrate Christmas and your neighbors celebrate Diwali, but both holidays focus on light, love, family, and generosity, among other things.
Helping your child maintain a spirit of open-mindedness and curiosity during the holiday season (no matter what the holidays look like for your family) can help pave the way for compassion, tolerance, and learning in the future—which is just about the best holiday gift you can give.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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