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Navigating the Holiday Cultural Waters

Dec 14, 2011

by Caleb Gardner

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As the holidays approach, my wife and I have been talking about how to help Miles begin to navigate the cultural differences of the season. Living in Chicago affords us the opportunity to expose him firsthand to other cultures in a way that wouldn’t happen in a monochromatic city, and we want to take full advantage.

Kids tend to be notorious about pointing out truths in a way that makes everyone in the room (especially their parents) uncomfortable. As Miles’s language skills develop, he’s like a time bomb of embarrassment waiting to go off.

Child-sized honesty is, after all, born out of genuine curiosity, but kids don’t have the necessary relational filters to know how to ask appropriate questions. When they ask, “Why does she have to dress in all black and cover her face?” or “Why do they have to always wear those hats?”, they are only seeking information about cultures different from their own.

As Miles’s understanding of relational filters grows, we want to encourage him to explore his childlike curiosity of other cultures. We want Miles to understand and appreciate other traditions, and I think that starts by fully appreciating his own. So far we’ve been very intentional about what traditions from our own families of origin we’ve decided to continue, so as Miles grows, he can learn about each of them. Both as a religious and a cultural tradition, Christmas is rich in symbolism, and we want Miles to appreciate it as his heritage.

From that place, coupled with an instilled sense of respect for other traditions, he should be better equipped to handle the kinds of intercultural conversations that are inevitable around this time of year. This will lead to healthier relationships with his friends, coworkers, and his own background.

Of course, how to actually do that is where it gets difficult. Luckily we expect Miles to go to a school that has a very diverse student body, so that should help him gain exposure to plenty of different ways to celebrate the holiday season. Hopefully there will be opportunities to invite his fellow students over to our place to witness how we celebrate Christmas, and vice versa.

Beyond that, I’d love to take Miles to different places of worship around the city and show him the diversity of experiences within just one city. It’s one thing to learn about them in books; they’re much more intriguing to experience firsthand. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that myself on more than one occasion.

I’d love to hear some ways that you’ve successfully exposed your kids to different holiday traditions. How do you instill a sense of appreciation for your cultural heritage in your kids? Do you find it difficult to navigate cultural conversations with your kids around the holiday season?

4 Featured Comments

  • sherrytruitt

    sherrytruitt said 4 years ago Featured

    Our son was born in Central America and we live in a home of cultural, religious and racial diversity. What I learned early on, is that it is adults that see the differences and filter the experiences. Children embrace all they are exposed to in a very pure way, without labels and judgement. I've found that less steering and geniune interaction is best.

  • HBeliveaux

    HBeliveaux said 4 years ago Featured

    This is a great article! Growing up my mother worked at a medical center and at Christmas she invited all the residents and other faculty from other countries to our house, not to mention an eclectic group of friends. So, I grew up with the idea "everyone is welcome' and that we don't all have to look or think the same for us to join together. Now, my Iranian-born husband and I are Baha'i, my family is Christian, our daughter goes to a Jewish school and we live in a mixed Christian/Jewish neighborhood, so we are well on our way to experiencing all of the religious traditions. I don't think there is any other way to do it but to live it.

  • manzanitakids

    manzanitakids said 4 years ago Featured

    I love reading your articles, Caleb! I'm a kindergarten teacher in a very culturally diverse classroom so I grapple with this issue constantly. One tough thing is honoring and protecting the excitement that so many kids have about Santa while preserving the feelings of those kids who are not visited by Santa. You should check out this great picture book called "Celebrations of Light" - I don't remember the author right now - it is a beautiful read-aloud that tells about 12 holidays around the world that use/celebrate light. I think it helps children to put cultural differences in context when they focus on looking for similarities between their own experiences and others, rather than just differences.

  • psebastian

    psebastian said 4 years ago Featured

    My parents taught me to respect the religious traditions that we have and that of others by simply coming out and saying to me "Our traditions are important to us because of this. You need to respect other people's traditions and beliefs because those are important to them." They also encouraged me to ask questions if given the opportunity. It also helped to grow up in a place where a person could wish their neighbor "Happy Hanukkah" and not get offended when they were wished a "Merry Christmas" in return.

39 comments

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 4 years ago

    My brother and I grew up in a household that celebrated Christmases two different ways, one American and one Swedish. We were lucky that both traditions didn't compete and both were encouraged. This left us curious and open to other ways of celebrating. Conversation without judgement, particularly discussion of similarities, differences, and why's, helped.

  • sonyarasi

    sonyarasi said 4 years ago

    I guess I was brought up with a little Polish and Finnish traditions.

  • Grafxquest

    Grafxquest said 4 years ago

    I was a very lucky child in that my grandparents owned a resort in Wisconsin, that was frequented by those who were predominately Jewish. My grandparents on the other hand were devout Christians. I learned at a very young age that it is a good idea to expose yourself to many cultures but mostly to learn that there is no wrong way or right way to celebrate. Life is about celebrations, we all just have different ways of doing it. There can be an immense appreciation for it and learning to immerse yourself past your mind but through spirit is the way to be open to other cultures. Teaching your son that its ok to ask questions, and encouraging him to join in and celebrate is not only the most healthy thing you can do for him but you are also opening up his mind and encouraging him to make his own choices in how he wishes to pass on his own heritage someday. Bravo!

  • mandymoomoo

    mandymoomoo said 4 years ago

    I think exposure and example are the two best ways I can teach my kids to appreciate different cultures. We haven't had time to hit a midnight mass (my kids are pretty little) or go by a Synagogue during Hanukah but for right now, we read them books from the library about different cultures. As they get older I hope that we can visit different places of worship and cultural events just to expose them to the different people and traditions across the world.

  • uniquefabricgifts

    uniquefabricgifts said 4 years ago

    Very interesting! We did the same things with our kids when they were growing up. Now they can participate, celebrate and talk with everybody without feeling any awkwardness. Not understanding our religious and cultural differences bring hate and division between people. We are all human beings with the same wish, just to be happy

  • chARiTyelise

    chARiTyelise said 4 years ago

    on a shrinking planet, such as this- i think that the greatest gift that we can give our children is a sense of wonder and love for other people. I believe that we are all the members of one human family and that these delicious, different bits can really be the cause of enhancing our unity. How wonderful that you are cultivating this in your little one!! i hope many others are inspired by this example!! As a members of the Baha'i Faith, my family doesn't celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah in a traditional sense, but we do recognize them and teach our children about their sacredness.... we give some gifts and bake together for many of our Christian friends and we are also looking for a service project to do in our community this year to "celebrate". As Baha'is, our gift giving season is in February, followed by a period of fasting and then our new year-- which is the beginning of Spring! (also- there is a beautiful Baha'i Temple in Wilmette with lovely gardens to explore if you ever wanted to bring your son there!)

  • RivalryTime

    RivalryTime said 4 years ago

    I love the "amateur father reference for Caleb. Isn't amateur father an oxymoron?

  • ThePolkadotMagpie

    ThePolkadotMagpie said 4 years ago

    You live in my former hometown. A great place for diversity. The magnet schools in Evanston ARE diverse. Check them out for Miles. We celebrate many holidays because of living there for so many years. We just found out we're Jews, and I happen to already have a menorah. :-) Happy Holidays!

  • CactusCreek

    CactusCreek said 4 years ago

    I live in a small town in northwestern Missouri, not to far from Ft. Leavenworth, Ks. A man(military) called our town homoginized. I have 5 children, 4 sons and 1 daughter, when they were small I would buy tons of books about children and traditions all over the world. I have continued to do that, they're all grown, but I still luv reading their children the books I've gathered. I couldn't physically expose them to different cultures, but I tried to expose them to as much cultural diversity as possible, in a book. Thankfully all of my children have grown into great adults, that appreciate people for who they are. Diversity is the common thread, we're all different, regardless of your faith. Good job dad, keep up the good work.

  • RetroKittenVintage

    RetroKittenVintage said 4 years ago

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am recently engaged to a Chinese American who fluently speaks Mandarin and still celebrates Chinese New Year, the Moon Festival, and many other traditional Chinese practices. I am a white American with some sort of mysterious European ethnic mixture. If we should decide to have children I would want them to have an understanding and connection to both of our ethic and cultural backgrounds and of other cultures. How best to do this I am unsure.

  • Guchokipa

    Guchokipa said 4 years ago

    We are an American family living in Japan. My husband and I celebrated Christmas as children and so now we face a lot of pressure from our family to pass that on to our children. We are Buddhists though so besides for a cultural interest in the holiday, it isn't that important to us. We have embraced the Japanese New Year as our main holiday and do a lot to prepare for it. Luckily, the kids are better informed than we are on how to celebrate the holiday since they attend local schools. We haven't yet shared traditions from other cultures and societies yet. This is because we are too busy balancing our biculturalism to add another element to the mix. As our biculturalism becomes more stable, we do plan to share other traditions, hopefully by traveling to the places themselves.

  • EverythingElena

    EverythingElena said 4 years ago

    I was raised in the heart of the Soviet Union. Everything they taught us had a Communist spin. Everybody was supposed to be equal in thinking, income, life style and appearance. I had seen other cultures once in a while on Soviet censored TV. Not a very good place to learn diversity or nurture the imagination. However, my mother quietly but surely taught me two concepts: 1. Treat others as you would like others to treat you. 2. Don't judge others by their appearance. I left Russia at the age of twenty-one, never to return. With a single suitcase and these two simple rules, I had no problems fitting into the American/ Western society. I teach my five children the same and suggest everybody tries it. Set an example on how to respect other human beings and when the time comes to deal with another culture your child will be ready.

  • sherrytruitt

    sherrytruitt said 4 years ago Featured

    Our son was born in Central America and we live in a home of cultural, religious and racial diversity. What I learned early on, is that it is adults that see the differences and filter the experiences. Children embrace all they are exposed to in a very pure way, without labels and judgement. I've found that less steering and geniune interaction is best.

  • AntwarePottery

    AntwarePottery said 4 years ago

    I am not sure places of worship are the best way. Friends with families is what worked for me. Places of worship (generally) ask for blind fate rather than open discussion. However seeing friends at home after finding out they are fun people are much better at explaining why they eat those funny foods and keep two sets of dishes or always cover their heads. Or what it is about that Roman implement of torture that so many of their friends and neighbors worship in so many different ways. Books are also a great idea as is always answering their question with as detailed explanation as necessary for their understanding. Places of worship should come later when they have a native guide to help them avoid stupid mistakes. I had grew up in communism country and learned early on that diversity is far more at home than anywhere else where people need to conform to prevailing culture in order to function in society. Thus I heartily recommend the domestic approach to cultural diversity.

  • MissHildebrandt

    MissHildebrandt said 4 years ago

    I believea special and fun traditions should always take place. No matter what!

  • hardcorestitchcorps

    hardcorestitchcorps said 4 years ago

    I grew up celebrating Christmas but we weren't religious at all. When I was a kid I was so jealous of kids with grandparents from other countries (my family has been in the US since 1606) or who belonged to cultures with rich traditions and festivals. We had an exchange student most years though and celebrated different traditions with them. My sister and her children live in the same city I do, so now I bring various traditions to them. I just look up holidays, figure out what to do/say/bring and make sure to be at my sister's house on that day. My nephew is still a bit too young to get into it (he's three) but it's a start. Really though, I think having exchange students is the best way to expose your kids to other traditions (esp. if you live in a small town with almost no diversity). That way they get to learn about them from someone who grew up with those traditions.

  • silverlily786

    silverlily786 said 4 years ago

    LOL @" why does she wear all black and cover her face' I am a Muslim women who covers her face and it's so true about children's honesty I get children pointing at me and asking parent's about The way I dress (BTW I don't wear all black!) and alot of the time parent's do a good job explaining or sometimes if the parents are open to it I explain.But being a mother of 3 (our middle one being 5 he is our embarassing honesty guy)and also being born and brought up in Canada I want my kids to learn about the different cultures around them so whenever there is a christian holiday they ask and I do my best to explain also thankfully the school my kids attend is very multicultural,which is a huge help (the kids at the school don't bat a lash at my covered face!) '

  • HBeliveaux

    HBeliveaux said 4 years ago Featured

    This is a great article! Growing up my mother worked at a medical center and at Christmas she invited all the residents and other faculty from other countries to our house, not to mention an eclectic group of friends. So, I grew up with the idea "everyone is welcome' and that we don't all have to look or think the same for us to join together. Now, my Iranian-born husband and I are Baha'i, my family is Christian, our daughter goes to a Jewish school and we live in a mixed Christian/Jewish neighborhood, so we are well on our way to experiencing all of the religious traditions. I don't think there is any other way to do it but to live it.

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    Enjoying the responses. Caleb says "I’d love to take Miles to different places of worship around the city and show him the diversity of experiences within just one city." Yes!! And what a great city to do it in.

  • shannondzikas

    shannondzikas said 4 years ago

    This is a subject I hadn't given much thought to with my 3 year old. I'm sure I'll go to bed asking myself similar questions. Thanks.

  • manzanitakids

    manzanitakids said 4 years ago Featured

    I love reading your articles, Caleb! I'm a kindergarten teacher in a very culturally diverse classroom so I grapple with this issue constantly. One tough thing is honoring and protecting the excitement that so many kids have about Santa while preserving the feelings of those kids who are not visited by Santa. You should check out this great picture book called "Celebrations of Light" - I don't remember the author right now - it is a beautiful read-aloud that tells about 12 holidays around the world that use/celebrate light. I think it helps children to put cultural differences in context when they focus on looking for similarities between their own experiences and others, rather than just differences.

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 4 years ago

    Great article!

  • psebastian

    psebastian said 4 years ago Featured

    My parents taught me to respect the religious traditions that we have and that of others by simply coming out and saying to me "Our traditions are important to us because of this. You need to respect other people's traditions and beliefs because those are important to them." They also encouraged me to ask questions if given the opportunity. It also helped to grow up in a place where a person could wish their neighbor "Happy Hanukkah" and not get offended when they were wished a "Merry Christmas" in return.

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign said 4 years ago

    Cool!

  • jinny888

    jinny888 said 4 years ago

    good article

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    I was always really curious as a kid about other forms of Christmas and Winter Holidays, I had a book when I was a kid explaining how Christmas is celebrated around the world!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 4 years ago

    Interesting post.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    It's not easy to bring children up within a faith while not knocking other faiths. I think the best approach is simply to encourage openmindedness & the asking of questions. Surely most people understand that when small children ask what could be seen to be impertinent questions they aren't being insulting, just curious. I've had many kids over the years ask why I have an earring in my nose & I don't take offence, just explain. :-)

  • HBeliveaux

    HBeliveaux said 4 years ago

    I recently read an article from Rainn Wilson (actor) that talked about how he, his wife and young child have 'Belief Nights' where they invite a friend from another Faith to their home to talk about their beliefs and customs. They invite a group of friends and enjoy an evening of learning. You could apply this same concept to visiting other houses of worship once a month in your own town. The Interfaith Ministries in my city sets up monthly talks and local Houses of Worships take turns hosting them. Another option.

  • calebgardner

    calebgardner said 4 years ago

    Thanks for the thoughts, guys. Love hearing all the different stories!

  • SeeBlake

    SeeBlake said 4 years ago

    My grandmother put it very simply to me when I asked who was right about how to celebrate the holidays - or what holidays to celebrate - when I was younger. She said: "Think of it like looking at clouds - you may see a whale, and someone else sees a duck. You're both looking at the same thing, so no one is wrong - they just see things differently!" I'm using that on my kids when the day comes!

  • DarkAutumnArt

    DarkAutumnArt said 4 years ago

    I taught my son about some other religions,cultures,beliefs and practices aside form the whole holiday season...I teach him all year long. He is five but he understands well that not everyone has a Christmas like we do with a tree, Santa and presents. He knows that in other places children do not go trick or treating or that they may not celebrate the same way as us or live the way we do but that what they works for them. It isn't confusing for him and has not quashed his magical little mind (the whole idea of Christmas and Santa is just as much of a twinkling star for him as ever.) He not only enjoys and appreciates the way we live and what we do to celebrate the holidays but he respects that not everyone else is like us in the way they live their lives. There is no right or wrong way to bring those holidays home but I'd have to say this time of year can be high in stress (and love) for all whether you are of a mixed religion/culture family or not.

  • rivahside

    rivahside said 4 years ago

    The true meaning of Christmas; the birth of our Savior, is how we celebrate.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 4 years ago

    Great article.

  • CualliRose

    CualliRose said 4 years ago

    What a wonderful topic! Never too early to start introducing your child to the concept of diversity, inclusivity and tolerance. You are definitely right in that direct exposure and experience is the best teacher, and it helps (especially at those young ages when bluntness is not only the norm but usually asked/said in a loud voice!) to have some background first so that you can have some those honest conversations and questions first before bringing him into other homes and places of worship where his questions or statements might be considered offensive. I was lucky - not only do I come from a diverse religious and cultural background, and grew up with very diverse family friends - my mother is a storyteller, and between books and oral stories I was able to learn about my own heritage as well as that of others starting at a very young age. Your local library is a great resource for starting these conversations, as they can help find age-appropriate books. (Just beware of stereotypes!) Another great resource is your network of friends - having a "guide" who is comfortable introducing him to their traditions helps deter some of the awkwardness and also makes it more personal by being able to share their own stories of how they experienced their traditions/culture at his age. This can be an adult but it can also be an older child (if they are comfortable with it) as it's a great way for the older child to learn how to explain their traditions and teach diversity themselves. Preparation helps hugely - if you know you're going to be explaining things to a young child ahead of time, it's less obtrusive/offensive and can give some time to think of the best wording for a young child to understand. If you have certain terms you use to explain differences while honoring your own traditions, share them with the person who will be explaining - it often helps with younger children to use the same "language". The best thing you can do at any age is to just encourage his curiosity - encourage him to ask questions to you, and (sometimes with a little help on wording/framing) to others, and above all to understand there will always be ways that people are different and there will always be ways that people are the same, and that's what makes life great. Hope this helps! Thanks for bringing this conversation to light - it's a great one for anyone with children!

  • ChimeraGraphics

    ChimeraGraphics said 4 years ago

    We always did X-mas growing up. But I'm pagan. It's tons of fun telling my mom who much of her holiday is based on mine. It's even more fun now that she's dating a Jehovah's Witness. We love tag teaming against her. Three faiths under one roof respecting and laughing at the holidays threw the connections between them.

  • Zalavintage

    Zalavintage said 4 years ago

    It sounds like you're doing a good job by encouraging Miles to ask questions, to explore the world around him with great curiosity. Our tradition included the Christmas Eve pageant at Collegiate church in Manhattan, where the youngest carried the star around the sanctuary as the older, wiser ten year old served as guide and will always be a fond foundation in faith for my curious daughter. As the kids grow older, they are encouraged to ask questions and actively discuss the bible and it's applications in our modern world with teachers as diverse as a broadway actress and a state judge, where else but NYC? This group encourages further curiosity by embracing other faiths, one memorable Sunday when the discussion was Abraham, the pastor invited a local Imam, a local rabbi to join in service. The three religions merged and formed one ancient truth as the Imam called us to worship, the organ played a standard hymn while the rabbi sang his prayer. This triune experience still resonates within; reminding us of our shared common roots, that it was primitive curiosity leading us to the innovations that made us human. Caleb, if you and Miles are ever in NYC on a Sunday morning, try a Collegiate church, the children have a lesson prior to the adult sermon, it's usually interactive, thoroughly engaging and always entertaining for all ages.

  • 711laurakay

    711laurakay said 4 years ago

    I agree that it is important to expose children to all kind out cultures. However, I think exposing and encouraging a young child to explore all venues and traditions in depth, may confuse a child greatly, and do more harm than good. There is time in a person's life to do soul searching.I don't believe childhood is the appropriate time. Children should feel safe, not only physically but in their minds as well. It is a parents job to help children establish a secure belief that can guide them and make them feel whole.

  • studiorandom

    studiorandom said 4 years ago

    That was a great point about the way children absorb cultural stuff without judgment, but there's a reason they're like that. Children absorb information so easily and without judgment because that's how they learn. It's our job to teach them our cultural values; it's their job to learn those values. Think about how easy it is to learn something when you're constantly stopping to judge what you hear, versus how easy it is to learn when you accept everything someone tells you. While I think it is important to teach children tolerance of those who are different than themselves, I also think it's perfectly OK to teach your children a specific set of traditions. I don't see how we are going to continue to have cultural diversity across the world if we're teaching kids that it's all the same anyway. One of the traits setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we rely so heavily on cultural transmission over instinct that this has enabled us to adapt to every continent except Antarctica (and we've even learned how to live *there* for short periods, albeit with modern technology, which doesn't seem to quite count as much!). You don't adapt to a desert by pretending you are still living in a jungle. But you can adapt to the desert without believing that jungle people are evil.

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