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Planning holiday celebrations: An ethical approach to developing policy and practices

Ethical responsibilities to colleagues
Ideal 3A.1: To establish and maintain relationships of respect, trust, and cooperation with co-workers.
Ideal 3C.1: To promote policies and working conditions that foster mutual respect, competence, well-being, and positive self-esteem in staff members.

Some caregivers love holidays and want to share their excitement with the children by providing holiday experiences. They may do this by bringing in decorations, preparing traditional holiday foods, planning parties, or exchanging gifts. Caregivers may plan activities, particularly crafts, around the current holiday. Every day it may feel as though the new and different is replacing the comforting and familiar in the classroom.
Teachers are a part of the classroom community, and their interests should play a part in forming policy. But as ethical professionals, we need to consider the backgrounds, experiences, and developmental levels of children in our classrooms before adding, or changing, any activities and experiences.
Our ethical standards also guide us to respect and support the well-being and positive self-esteem of our peers. Teachers working in settings that appear similar to the culture in which they grew up may assume that the children and families will celebrate the same holidays in the same ways. A way to explore the backgrounds and traditions of both the individual classroom and the larger program community is to conduct a family and staff survey. Ask whether the holidays being celebrated reflect the lives of all children and families. Ask whether families celebrate different holidays and if parents would be willing to share those with the classroom.
While a holiday policy ideally incorporates the views of all stakeholders—children, families, and staff—it does not guarantee that everyone will participate. As in all conflicts, listen to what the parent or teacher wants, and ask why this is important to them. Refer to the values the program has adopted and try to help the parent or teacher figure out a way to celebrate within the framework of the policy.
For parents who do not wish to follow school policies, consider planning a party outside of school. Your role could include attending as a guest or facilitating communication between families. Private, off-campus celebrations are not subject to school policies.

Ethical responsibilities to community and society
Ideal 4.1: To provide the community with high-quality (age and individually appropriate, and culturally and socially sensitive) education/care programs and services.

As with everything else that happens in the classroom, values are being transmitted through all that we do and say. As we develop holiday policies, we need to consider what values will be passed on to the children during holiday activities and celebrations.
The United States as a capitalist country is based on commercial enterprise. The celebration of dominant-culture holidays reflects this. When we buy and exchange gifts, we may be passing on the value of generosity along with an emphasis on things. When we accumulate decorations and trinkets associated with holidays, we may be passing on the values of creativity and beauty as well as consumerism. We need to think about which values we want to emphasize.
Positive values that typically accompany holiday celebrations are togetherness, family, sharing, friendship, giving to others, and tradition. Negative values include consumerism, greed, competition, and commercialism. Many holiday activities have been done for so long that we’re not really sure why we do them anymore. We get so caught up in the planning and decorating that we can’t defend the message our celebrations give children.
The tradition and continuity of holiday celebrations are important. In writing a holiday policy, state how you will evaluate it. A yearly examination of holiday activities can ensure that the values you want to send are the messages actually being sent.

Religious celebrations in public institutions
Beyond the ethical considerations of holiday celebrations, you need to be aware of First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution if you are teaching in a public school or a publicly funded program, such as Head Start.
Religious holiday observances, if held under public school auspices, violate the First Amendment’s mandate for separation of church and state.
Joint celebrations (Christmas-Hanukkah, for example) do not solve the problem, because they only serve to introduce religious observances into the schools. They also tend to put holidays in competition with each other and distort the significance of each.
Look carefully at traditional icons used for holiday crafts and be certain that they are not religious symbols. Recognizing a diverse group of holidays—Easter and Passover in March; and Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa in December—might validate the beliefs of children and their families. But bringing religious observances into a public setting is not appropriate.
Plan carefully before using religious symbols such as a cross, menorah, crescent, Star of David, crèche, Native-American talismans, the Buddha, and other symbols that form part of a religious tradition. Use of such symbols is permitted as a teaching aid, provided they are displayed only as an educational example of the culture and religious heritage of the holiday, and are temporary in nature. It’s inappropriate to use these symbols as decorations.
Consider the religious symbols you have seen displayed in early childhood programs. To guide your use of religious symbols, consider the following questions:
How were the symbols handled?
Were they discussed or merely displayed?
How do you feel about displaying religious symbols in your classroom?
Would you display different symbols for different age groups?
How would you explain the display of religious symbols to a non-religious parent?

Tips for ethical holiday practices
Celebration is important to a well-rounded life. One way to transmit this value is to encourage children in a class or in all classes to create their own reasons to celebrate. Some classroom ideas that have been successful in other programs include beach day, snow day, pajama day, stuffed animal picnic, fall festival, starry night, and first spring leaf celebrations.
When children, families and staff develop and plan celebrations, we take into account family and cultural considerations and develop a celebration that includes everyone. Use these suggestions.
Provide holiday activities as a free-choice activity, rather than as all-class activities.
Think of providing opportunities for children to give back to the community rather than the children or program “taking from” or being passive recipients of the community’s goodwill.
Instead of observing Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, create a separate holiday at a different calendar time. Encourage all children to choose either a family member to celebrate and appreciate—a favorite brother, sister, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or godparent.
Focus on seasonal changes instead of dominant-culture holidays.
Move from holiday-theme-based curriculum planning to emergent planning based on children’s needs and interests.
Plan inclusive celebrations. For example, substitute a family spring picnic for an Easter egg hunt.
In (Carter and Curtis, 1996) two October curriculum plans are compared and contrasted. One “centers around the traditional practice of using commercialized, European-American holidays as the focus for planning.” The other “reflects the concrete and sensory aspects of children’s daily experiences” and provides “ways for them to explore and learn more about what they can see, hear, and smell all around them.” The first contradicts and the second supports the tenets of developmentally appropriate practice and conforms to clear, ethical standards and program policy.
By developing and using a holiday policy, you will have a guide for choosing, implementing, and evaluating holiday activities (Bisson 1997). Remember, there is no universal model for celebrating holidays. Make your program’s holiday policy vital—not static. Revisit it every year and make sure it reflects the diversity of your program’s families and staff.

When the world slips into a classroom
As we know from other areas of early childhood care and education, the world outside our door slips easily into our classrooms. Children will be exposed to a nearly non-stop onslaught of holiday hype for much of the fall and winter with one holiday being introduced before the previous one has even occurred.
The media will focus heavily on the few well-known, dominant-culture holidays. Acknowledge the children’s awareness of, and experiences with, the saturation of holiday hoopla.
In developing your holiday policy, decide what the focus will be in your program and how to counterbalance or integrate the wider media world into it.
Sometimes segments of the community, in an attempt to be helpful, will provide materials like packets of green and red construction paper that do not support your policy. How do you encourage participation in your program in a way that’s true to the policy without rejecting community interest and support. When community organizations offer their involvement, welcome the help and thank them for it. Share your holiday policy and the philosophy behind it. Then together determine an effort that will meet both your needs.

Change is rarely easy. Often when changes need to be made, the implicit message is that what was being done before was wrong all along, or worse, harmful. It may be helpful to remember that prior to the change, the staff or parents were doing the best they could with the information at hand. Now there is new information, so new decisions can be made. This cycle is continuous: new information will become available, new decisions will be made based on the most current information, and then change will happen again.
Respectfully listening to differing viewpoints is part of the process. But it may or may not guarantee full participation by everyone. Not all adults will fully buy in to every modification of policy and philosophy. Authentic change cannot be forced, so the process usually takes time.
A dynamic holiday policy is an opportunity to share perspectives and bond with all partners in the care and education of children. A written policy ensures that staff and teachers can explain why they celebrate the holidays they do. While nothing is guaranteed, creating a holiday policy will lessen the possibility of children and families being left out of celebrations. The construction of a holiday policy can help an early childhood setting examine values and beliefs and perhaps form a stronger community relationship.

Resources and references
Bisson, J. 1997. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Bredekamp, S. and C. Copple, eds. 1997. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Copple, Carol, ed. 2003. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Derman-Sparks, L., and the A.B.C. Task Force. 1989. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, Stephanie and Nancy Freeman. 1999. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The Brown School.
Mountain Brook Schools.
Mayesky, Mary. “Think about it—constitutional concerns and celebrations.”
National Association for the Education of Young Children. statements/pseth98.htm.
National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Pistone, Roy.
York, Stacy. 1991. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.

About the authors
Katie Campbell has been employed in the field of child development and early childhood education since 1984. She has been a center director in programs serving culturally and economically diverse groups, and a training specialist since 1991. She is currently an adjunct faculty member in the Child Care and Development Department at Austin Community College, teaching CDA classes.
Mary Jamsek has taught young children in a variety of settings including private and for-profit preschool, public school, and laboratory school classrooms since 1988. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Austin Community College in the Child Care and Development Department, as well as a trainer and consultant in early childhood care and education.
P.D. Jolley has been teaching young children since 1985 and college classes since 1988. Currently she is a master teacher working with 4- and 5-year-olds at the University of Texas Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory and an adjunct faculty member in Child Care and Development at Austin Community College. She conducted her first anti-bias training in 1992.