Professional Development

Religious Holidays

Religious holidays occur throughout the year.

Do not focus on holidays solely in December. When inquiry is restricted in this way, it's often done to disguise that Christian Christmas is being favored. It also can leave students with false impressions about the importance of holidays in other faith traditions. Hanukkah, for example, receives much attention in schools because usually it falls in December, yet Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are actually “higher holidays” of the Jewish faith.

Use the multi-faith calendars available from Harvard’s Pluralism Project and the BBC to create a yearlong schedule of high holidays to include as part of classroom study.

Educate yourself, and your students, about the meaning of holidays, and distinguish between religious and secular traditions.

Focus on a holiday’s origins, history and general meaning, as well as how and when they are observed. The BBC’s Directory of World Religions offers useful fact sheets about numerous holidays.

In today’s commercialized world, it’s also important to distinguish between religious and secular traditions. There is perhaps no greater example of this than Christmas in the U.S., where Santa and his reindeer are as likely to be discussed as Jesus, whose birth the holiday acknowledges. Although it’s desirable to examine secular traditions that relate to holidays, students should understand the difference between secular and religious meanings.

Be careful about “reenactments.”

Although it can be fun to reenact particular cultural traditions related to holiday observances—serving vegetarian dishes associated with Buddhist holidays, for example—such activities must serve an academic purpose. And, in order to foster religious inclusivity and competence, students need to understand the religious purpose behind the practices. Buddhists serve vegetarian dishes because they believe all beings are afraid of injury and death, and hurting or killing animals is wrong (Dhammapada 129). Also remember, encouraging or compelling students to participate in religious activities like prayer is never OK.

Consider using a thematic framework to connect holidays throughout the year.

The holidays of many world religions share thematic elements, such as peace, thankfulness, forgiveness and caring for others. Focusing study on such themes and then employing holidays as a vehicle to explore how people of diverse faiths and cultures understand and practice shared values can be useful.

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