German Christmas Traditions and Why Celebrating Holidays from different cultures Is Important for children
3 EASY WAYS TO TEACH WORLD CULTURES TO STUDENTS THIS CHRISTMAS
Every year on the night of December 5, my kids clean and polish the biggest little winter boots (or California winter shoes:) they own and place them by the front door. The next morning they wake up, run to the door and find Nicholaus had graciously filled their boots with little treats!!! (such as special snacks, books, clementines, or small toys. Honestly, most years it’s whatever I have at hand. It may be some stickers or little toy/book I have in my treasure box, no extra Target run required. You can always fill it up with healthy snacks.)
This tradition is based on the true story of Saint Nicholas, a man in Greece who loved people and helped the poor. Ever since I have had kids I struggled with the Saint Nicholas/Santa Clause dilemma: Wanting to instill world culture in my children and wanting always be truthful with my children (one of my core values). But at the same time not sure if I wanted to spoil the in some sense beautiful tale of a giving Santa Clause.
If you feel me on that, introducing the story of Saint Nicholas to your kids is actually a great way to stay honest and yet maintain a beautiful (true) tale! There are some great books on him that tell children that the legends surrounding Santa are based on a real, historical figure named Nicholas, a bishop known for his generosity. I like this
The Legend of Saint Nicholas that has beautiful illustrations and tells the story of how Nicholaus saved three daughters of a poor man with his generous gift of dowry. And though I'm not a huge Veggie tale fan we absolutely love their super cute and cheerful Veggie Tale movie on Nicholas). Most German children don’t know much about the historical Nikolaus but still all kids in Germany eagerly place their shoes by the front door on December 5!
(In Germany you can even hand your shoes to some stores and they fill them with candies that day:)
The first time I posted our tradition on Instagram I was amazed on how many people thought this was an interesting and fun tradition for them to try as well within their own cultural context. I thought it was sweet that my friends were interested in picking up our tradition. Only later did I realize that it is not just sweet but actually of major importance that we as parents and educators incorporate not just their own holidays but traditions of other cultures into their children's learning. According to The Guardian, "Global awareness and international collaboration during the formative years results in more rounded individuals, encouraging our pupils to see things from different perspectives and helping them to make informed decisions, acquiring transferable skills that will be useful to them and will remain with them for life."
Is knowing and celebrating Nikolaus detrimental to my kids? No. But what I like most about doing our Nikolaus tradition is that it teaches my kids that there are traditions from other cultures that are worth observing, honoring, celebrating, even when only few others around us do so. By incorporating new traditions we are also preparing our children to function well in the global market place when they are adults. According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters companies "cannot find enough applicants with the requisite skills to operate in an international market place, indicating that greater efforts by schools in fostering global awareness and international collaboration are needed to best prepare our students - and ourselves - for life in the 21st century."
In the light of that I was reminded of a book we have and we page through a lot when we encounter new cultures. It’s titled “Children just like me: Celebrations” and it’s a fun book for kids to learn about various cultural holidays around the world. My daughter loves this book. It's very fun and engaging telling the stories of different children in ways that children in the U.S. can easily relate to even though there are of course many differences. Just like one of our timeless favorites “Children just like me: A unique celebration of children around the world” this UNICEF book features differnt children and how they celebrate the holiday. It also shows a German child with St Nickolaus tradition!(:
This book among others challenged me as an African-German to learn more about different traditions, research their origin without prejudices or preconceived notions on how one is to do or celebrate things. It helped me stay away from judging traditions for the simple fact they are different or unfamiliar. Why do people paint their faces, or use certain interesting decoration on special holidays? Why do they dance a certain way or around a tree? What do they believe, celebrate and attempt with the holiday? Can I allow my children to draw their own conclusions without over explaining? Can I let my children see the humanity and universality in the faces and lives of children that may look, dress or write very differently from them? Will I allow the wonder and appreciation of other cultures take shape in my kids hearts and trust they will simultaneously continue to love and appreciate the culture I’m teaching? Will I allow the exposure to other cultures extend our hearts to know more, think deeper, see wider and become a more loving people?
That’s why we constantly talk about other cultures. To grow. I believe you can’t teach too much culture. To a certain degree we’ve all (including me) been raised with some sorts of culture phobias. There are just certain cultures that we were consciously or unconsciously taught are scary, dangerous or simply less “cultured” or less significant than our own. Therefore my responsibility as an adult is to dismantle some of those phobias and silence them with the truth of seeing value in each and every culture. Only that will set me free and only in that will I set a responsible example for my students.
On that note: Being a home educator I honestly have difficulty with some circles of (well meaning!) educators who overemphasize the classical Western education or traditions. Why? Because by doing so they consciously or unconsciously omit literally a world of other rich cultures! Moreover in this train of thought the Western world is unfortunately often almost exalted to holy status. I know because I attended such a school myself. Though I’m grateful for all the education in classic Latin and Greek language and thought I received it was to the detriment of other cultures that I and my fellow students would have benefited in learning about. Plus subconsciously students in my school (including myself) believed we were nobler, smarter or just more fully educated by going to school that emphasized this type of education. I believe these educators honestly mean well and want the best for their children or students. However, if a curriculum leaves out a world of treasures I begin to question if there is a more noble way. Because fact is that there is a world of customs and experience out there that can only be discovered when we step out of our comfort zones of our (western) and dive into new, unfamiliar and unknown cultures. And I get it. It’s scary sometimes. Ok it’s scary most of the time. Even for the most culturally trained of us. To constantly learn and relearn and unlearn, to constantly humble ourselves to glean from other cultures and model to our kids that well, Mama doesn’t know it all either, even grandma may have not known it all and it’s ok to grow and learn.
It’s that very honest journey of discovery together with our children that cultivates beautiful bonds with those we teach, tutor or mentor. It’s that very humility to not condemn but embrace, cherish, honor and learn from other cultures that will foster in our students (and us) tender hearts that are filled with compassion and a strength to change the world.
Because there is no such a thing as simply teaching “Culture”. Because there is not just one culture not a culture that could be capitalized due to being higher than any other. No culture is superior to another. Just like men and women all cultures are equal and filled with beautiful things that need to be celebrated as well as some things that may hurt others people hurting and require redemption (or being discarded). All cultures. Each and every culture contains beautiful gems that wait for discovery and yes trash. Even subcultures, urban cultures, suburban culture. And we as educators receive the privilege of taking our students on the discovery and celebration of diverse cultures. We need to read the “great books” of Western Civilization just as much as we need to read the “great books” of Eastern Civilization. We need to study Napoleon, Cesar and European royalties just as much as we need to study great African and Chinese royalties and heroes. We can’t leave out a culture in favor of another. Because after all, we need a full array of experiences or having read about different cultural experiences and met with, enjoyed the friendships of people from various cultural backgrounds to be a whole, well rounded, well educated person. Knowing merely the classics won’t cut it in this day and age anymore. Thankfully there is so much more literature even for kids around these days to learn from ancient and modern scholars and artists of various shades, backdrops and life experiences. It is those women, men, boys and girls that I aim to bring into our library for my students to meet. So “Celebrations” is one of my 8-year-olds favorite books that is on the “free reading” book shelf. And she’s been reading it multiple times in her spare time and using the information when we encounter some of the countries or cultures in our other books. Today we read a book on medieval village and she exclaimed “oh yeah I know May Day”. Frequently she will point out how other cultures celebrate certain holidays and why. And what I love most is when she discovers similarities in traditions of geographically very different cultures. It teaches her the universality of humanity.
And lastly I love how organically she is able to relate the celebration even to our family’s own peculiar celebration, such as St Nikolaus Day(:
So how do you incorporate world celebrations and holidays in your child’s mind?
1.) Expose them to literature that talks about the celebrations' of other cultures and do so without judgment. For example during the Advent season read books like this beautiful book Christmas around the World (see next blog post on Christmas books), books that celebrate with other cultures through jumping into the pages of the book! That alone will open up your child's heart and mind to the richness of new cultures. When you hear your child starting to laugh at an outfit or tradition that’s unfamiliar, gently explain that just because it’s different doesn’t mean is not as beautiful or good. Use it as teaching moment to explain that in this house (or classroom) we honor all people and culture just as we want other people and culture not to laugh about us but honor us. Explain that there’s so much we can learn from culture and point out tangible examples.
2.) Make special field trips to cultural celebrations. Our city always had a fun cinco de mayo that is filled with treats and fun games. Being able to celebrate (on this case freedom/independence) with another culture alone teaches volumes and shapes minds and hearts without having to explain beyond the basis. I’m a big advocate in joining in I dependence celebration. There’s just something about the won freedom that I believe transfers way beyond nations into the students personal understanding of the right, fight and beauty of liberty and equality in this world as well as their personal lives. And if there is no event in your neighborhood this year, you can always travel in good books. I like the National Geographic's Kids Holidays around the World: Celebrate Christmas: With Carols, presents and peace (see above). It has beautiful photographs (hey, it's National Geographic...), fascinating facts, a recipe, and for the teachers of us it even has Common Core-alignment activities.
3.) Lastly, enjoy learning about other cultures and model humility with “oh wow! I didn’t know that... that’s so cool. Let’s try it this year!” Have fun learning other cultures! Let your kids taste the beauty of other cultures. During Christmas time we like to try baked goods from various cultures (yes, lots of calories for me...) and I believe it's such a simple but impactful way for kids to appreciate other cultures. I love the concept of this book A World of Cookies for Santa: Follow Santa's Tasty Trip Around the World (see below) which takes your kids to lots of fun places and treats from countires like the Philippines, Malawi, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa! Yes, enjoy the cookies with them! Your students will ultimately always imitate you. And they will always remember your attitudes and gain an attitude of adventure and honor with you.
Practical tip: We like to keep a “culture journal”. You know how people do thankful journals and nature journals? (We do those too, sometimes:). We started keeping a scrap book like journal that takes a page for each new fun cultural experience. For example we have a culture page for Mexican day of the dead after we watched “Coco”. (That was a fun easy culture lesson;), one on Japan when we had a Japanese tea party with our friends, one one the coyote as it is depicted in Mexican stories, or the spider Ananse as it is depicted in West African stories and one for German 'Nikolaus'. (:
On that note: Who will join us December 6 in celebrating this German holiday? I'm sure your kids will appreciate this new cultural experience of finding treats in their shoes! (:
Ps: Another very German fun traditions is opening the little gift for each day in December in a handmade calendar or doing the (pre-made;) chocolate calendars! (That's what we do every year)
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California based Ghanaian-German educator, writer, bookworm and mama of three. A lover of all things nature, diversity & healthy.
"Education is nothing else than discovery.
And discovery full of diversity is beautiful."
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About the author
My name is Nancy. I'm a teacher, home educator, wife, mother, writer and accidental German-Ghanaian transplant to the U.S., in love with California and all things diversity.