by Susan M. Chilvers, Ed. D.
Children love traditions and rituals but it is often hard for parents and teachers to find meaning in holidays that are gift wrapped in commercialism. It seems that stores go from holiday to holiday advertising anything that will sell in connection with this tradition and if food is involved they have a hit. It would be unkind to ignore these opportunities for fun but if we examine why children enjoy them so much it can be possible to get more understanding and meaning from these experiences. Anticipation is a central theme of childhood. For children, time goes slowly so the waiting time for holidays and special events is full of anticipation and hopefully preparation. This is a time when teachers and parents instead of saying “not yet” or “soon” or crossing off the days can offer more depth to the upcoming experiences by explaining the underlying historical significance. Often this is religious and although it may not be the belief of all, or any, of the children participating in the holiday, it is a wonderful opportunity for adults to teach their children about different cultures. Sharing customs and traditions is a great way to promote understanding between children. Learning about the customs of other countries or religions broadens their horizons and also demonstrates how many similarities there are in the different traditions. This can help clear some of the ignorance that might later develop into intolerance. Sharing and reaching out to the community is an experience children can enjoy. Making gifts for family and friends, dressing up and singing songs at a nursing home, cooking traditional “goodies” and taking them to people who live alone and collecting toys at holiday time all give that holiday an extra dimension for children as they learn the meaning of “outreach.”
Children can also create their own rituals in connection with traditional holidays. At The New School we have our own Halloween tradition—a haunted house designed and created by the older children, ages 11-14, for the younger children, ages 5-10. The haunted house operators offer really scary or less scary, lights on or lights off versions and the build up of anticipation for this is amazing. New children quickly learn that this is an event remembered from year to year and younger children have a chance to share their memories of former haunted houses. The encouragement and support given to the children before, during and after these tours is amazing and “don’t worry, everyone takes care of you” is the message passed on to the children.
For the winter holidays, in addition to sharing how each holiday is celebrated and its origin, we have a gingerbread evening—a fun time for families to build amazing creations. These gingerbread creations are usually based on the school’s theme for that year such as art, food, boats, the environment, etc. As this tradition has progressed, ideas have been added, making it a learning experience through fun!
In addition to adding personal traditions to existing holidays, families, community groups or schools can create their own traditions. At The New School over 40 years we have developed some wonderful traditions. Boat Day happens every year when the students build boats from milk cartons and water bottles and sail on them in the bay. Each boat holds 2 to 3 sailors and they are built by a mixed age group of about 8 children. This event, which grew from a one-time activity, offers lots of skill, not only math, science and art, but also social skills, teamwork, leadership and problem solving. On the last Friday in September, parents come to help with the launches and it has become an annual event that everyone marks on their calendar.
Other New School traditions occur around graduation time. Students who are graduating paint their names on the walls in the hall. The names are re-read and discussed every time graduates visit and more than once a graduate has brought his or her child(ren) to see his or her name on the wall.
Also for graduation the older class teacher and graduate’s parents decorate kimonos to represent their child’s years in the school. This started as a graduation present one year when the teacher purchased kimonos and put a symbol on the back created by one of his students for a class project. They were such a success that the students begged to get kimonos every year and thus another tradition was born.
Traditions and rituals help children to feel that they belong to a family or group, something to anticipate and enjoy but it is in the sharing that they can learn more about one another and develop an understanding of why we need them.