Turning Them into Us during the season of giving: Here are some ideas to bridge cultural divides with new traditions

Even though we are in the midst of the holiday season, right now it seems more than ever that we have an “us vs. them” problem. Whether it is with politics, religion, race, economic status or even sports teams, we, at times, lean into our opinions and create more division. This can be harmful because, as we create this division, we start to have less understanding, perspective-taking, and empathy for others (and vice versa). Further, we are modeling this to our children; we are teaching them to perpetuate the division.

The reality is we are all in this together. So, the more we see “them” as part of “us,” the more we are likely to do what is helpful for everyone. One of the best ways to break down the walls of “us vs. them” is to learn more about “them.” With the various cultural holidays that take place in December and January, children have the ability to see a world and perspective beyond their own. This will help them learn how to take another perspective and become more empathetic. Which, in turn, will make them more helpful people.

I remember teaching at a preschool where there was a family from Denmark. They brought in some traditional Christmas tree decorations to show the other children. Candle holders with real candles! This was definitely a lesson in learning about their culture, before saying “You can’t do that.” Turns out, they actually take a lot of safety precautions and the risk of burning your house down is very low.

We ended up having several families share some cultural traditions around Christmas and the children enjoyed learning each of them. In the process, the children started to feel more connected to other children as they learned about their culture.

With Christmas being one of the major holidays celebrated around the world, every house and every culture has their unique and beautiful traditions. It can be easy to think yours is the right one (I don’t understand people who open presents on Christmas Eve). But really, that’s just because they are familiar and comfortable. There are many wonderful traditions to explore — and, might I add, a lot of wonderful food to eat.

Pick a culture or denomination, do a little research with your kids and find an interesting tradition. Learn about the story behind it, find out why it holds value to those who practice it and watch those who do it (YouTube can be very helpful for this). This can be even more meaningful if you have a family member or friend who has brought traditions from their culture. Thanks to an uncle from Holland, my family writes poems to go with the presents we give to the other adults.

Beyond just Christmas, there are several holidays this time of year that children would also benefit from learning about. And remember, learning about it doesn’t mean you celebrate it, but rather just understand the history and perspective. Some of the other major holidays are Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, and various New Year celebrations.

There are also many lesser-known holidays throughout the months, such as Saint Lucia’s Day, Yule, Epiphany and Old New Year. These holidays each offer us a chance to look into the past and learn about others.

It is in this learning about others that we offer our children a real gift, the gift of love. We can teach them to practice understanding and empathy with those who might at first seem different. We can show them how to listen and learn even if it’s not something you believe or practice. We can instill that we are all in this together, regardless of where we come from.

  • Here are a few online suggestions to start your journey:

    Search Wikipedia for a list of multinational festivals and holidays

    Kids Konnect has some great ideas for sharing new holidays with preschoolers at https://bit.ly/KidsKonnectHolidays

    More holiday ideas by age group are at www.pbs.org/parents/sharing-your-creativity

    You’ll find a dozen different holiday foods at www.smartertravel.com/12-tasty-holiday-foods-around-world-make.

    Erin Bartsch is the P-3 Coordinator for the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub and a part of the UMCHS team, working to bridge early childhood resources and prepare children for kindergarten. For more information visit www.bluemountainearlylearninghub.org.