Planning holiday celebrations: An ethical
approach to developing policy and practices
Comments like these can arise in the struggle to incorporate
cultural, religious, and individual beliefs into early childhood
programs. One person’s real and sincere holiday “spirit” offends
another. Children’s emotions may range from wild enthusiasm
to increased stress, even depression. And celebrations and
decorations associated with “traditional” holidays
are so pervasive that we may not recognize that there are
In this article, we propose that programs develop a policy for celebrating
holidays based on core values and ethical principles.
A holiday policy can lead
to teaching practices that enhance our understanding of, and respect for, the
different cultures and beliefs of children, families, staff, and community.
Many teachers use holiday-theme activity books to plan their
school-year curriculum. Some examples of holiday-based
monthly themes include Halloween in October, Thanksgiving
in November, and Christmas in December—and maybe
Kwanzaa or Hanukkah in a nod toward multiculturalism.
The themes mentioned above represent holidays of the dominant
culture. For the purposes of this article, we define as the “ruling
or prevailing culture exercising authority or influence” (York 1991).
Dominant-culture holidays, then, are the holidays celebrated most widely by
a large segment of a population.
In the United States, the holidays most commonly celebrated in both elementary
schools and early childhood programs are religious in origin. The celebrations
themselves, however, are generally secular in nature. While a great number
of people celebrate the dominant-culture holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter—many do not. Of those people
who do, not all celebrate in the commercialized manner popular in our society.
Some early childhood
programs have begun moving away from dominant-culture holidays
in an effort to respect the diversity of their children, families,
and communities. Results range from celebrating no holidays
to celebrating every holiday on the calendar. Other options
include celebrating the major American holidays, celebrating
unique program or classroom celebrations, and celebrating only
those holidays observed by the families and staff in the program.
of which holidays you choose to celebrate, the key is to make
a conscious choice. We propose that programs write a holiday
policy, using a process of careful planning that involves teachers
A holiday policy, like other program policies,
requires a basis in knowledge and ethics. One source of this
knowledge and ethics is the National Association for the
Education of Young Children. In particular, we can look to
standards of developmentally appropriate practice. These
standards describe interactions, curricula, and environments
that reflect knowledge about how children develop and learn
both individually and in groups as well as the social and
cultural contexts of that learning (Bredekamp and Copple
1997). In other words, we propose that the needs of children
be the most important curricular consideration—not
In addition, we can look for guidance to NAEYC’s Code
of Ethical Conduct and the principles behind an anti-bias
For the purposes of this article, we have identified several sections of the
ethics code that can be used to evaluate and inform particular aspects of typical
holiday celebrations. You may choose other sections that more closely fit your
program’s goals and vision.
Identify core values
The NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct describes standards of
ethical behavior based on core values deeply rooted in
the history of our field. We have committed ourselves to
these principles and values.
appreciate childhood as a unique and valuable stage of
the human life cycle.
base our work with children on knowledge of child development.
appreciate and support the close ties between the child and
recognize that children are best understood and supported
in the context of family, culture, community, and society.
respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual
(child, family member, and colleague).
help children and adults achieve their full potential in
the context of relationships that are based on trust, respect,
and positive regard.
These ethical considerations are the basis of all program policies. We use
them to examine all aspects of our interactions with children and adults, health
and safety practices, environments, curriculum, and other services, including
You can thoughtfully approach
the development of a holiday policy from many directions. Make sure, however,
that any policy reflects your ethical principles.
Ethical responsibilities to
Ideal 1.1: To be familiar with the knowledge base of early
childhood care and education and to keep current through
continuing education and in-service training.
Ideal 1.2: To base program practices
upon current knowledge in the field of child development
and related disciplines and upon particular knowledge of
One reason teachers and directors often dread
the holiday season is the disruption it brings. In many settings
where traditional fall holidays are celebrated, disruptions
in routines occur non-stop from October until January. This
pace is exhausting for teachers and even more so for children.
The continuous disruption in routine can cause children to
feel unsure of their environment. When children are off balance,
they tend to react erratically. This unpredictable behavior
can frustrate teachers, and an unhealthy cycle begins.
The holiday pace can be stressful for young children, particularly
since similar changes may also be happening at home. Family
members that children rarely see come to stay at their home
and may take over their own beds and bedrooms. Stores, streets
and homes are decorated profusely with Santas, greenery,
and toys. Well-meaning friends and relatives ask: “Have you told Santa what
you want?” and “Are you being good?”
Parents stressed by extra shopping, cooking, and gift wrapping often act tired
All of this can overwhelm young children, as well as confuse them about a holiday’s
true intent. Often the very things that we are doing for children are the things
that are contributing to their stress. Regardless of which holiday is being
celebrated, the activities pull children out of their routine.
Holiday activities often involve the creation of decorations and gifts. These
craft activities are often product—rather than process—oriented.
When children make teacher-directed holiday crafts, they lose valuable time
that could be devoted to more open-ended, creative art activities. In assessing
the appropriateness of holiday activities, consider what we know about young
children’s motor skills and their need to explore and experiment with
Another area to evaluate is children’s holiday performances for parents.
These performances pressure children to memorize spoken lines, move on cue,
and perform before a crowd of family members and strangers. These activities
do not take into account the children’s stage of memory development,
level of social-emotional development, and individual differences in temperament.
All holiday activities need
to be re-examined for bias or historical inaccuracy. Consider the inappropriateness
of dressing African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American children in paper-bag
vests and construction-paper feathers and teaching them about “our forefathers” and
the first Thanksgiving. Reviewed from a developmental perspective, these common
Thanksgiving activities are incompatible with preoperational children’s
inability to understand history. These practices negate the children’s
(and their families’) own rich
and varied cultural histories
Ethical responsibilities to families
Ideal 2.3: To respect the dignity of each family and its
culture, language, customs, and beliefs.
Ideal 2.4: To respect families’ childrearing
values and their right to make decisions for their children.
A respectful way to include families in
our programs is to have a policy that is inclusive of their
customs and cultures. Parents are often invited to provide
food, decorations, and activities for holiday celebrations.
This does involve families in school life, but it can have
a drawback. Providing food or activities can be a financial
hardship and potentially an additional burden on top of holiday
preparations at home. Some parents feel embarrassed to let
anyone know this, so they may remove their child from school
on the day of the party.
Making gifts or cards for Father’s Day and Mother’s
Day assumes that children have a father or mother at home.
A well-meaning teacher may suggest that a child make a card
for another family member instead. This suggestion can make
the child feel singled out.
Some families’ religious or cultural beliefs preclude celebration of
dominant-culture holidays. There are a few solutions to this dilemma that do
not single out particular children and make them feel less a part of the classroom.
One solution is to invite parents to share their family celebrations and traditions—with
classmates in the role of guests. In this way, children are exposed to a wider
view in a manner appropriate to their developmental level.
Through reflection and experience, we have learned to respect each and every
family’s traditions and beliefs. We believe program personnel have no
right to impose personal holiday customs and traditions, religious or otherwise,
on children and families. Common classroom situations include the following:
children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are unable to celebrate any
holidays at school,
children whose allergies disallow wheat or dairy foods (common ingredients
in holiday treats),
children whose parents do not support the promulgation of myths such as the
Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
When evaluating program policy, engage parents in respectful negotiation. In
the give-and-take, a policy may emerge that both honors the ethical foundation
as well as the families’ beliefs. The resulting policy can be truly satisfying
to both parents and staff.