Growing up in the United States meant that school vacations coincided with federal holidays, and most school systems accommodated and celebrated Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. When we would do activities in class, like writing letters to Santa or dying eggs for the Easter Bunny, my teachers would either try to give me a separate activity relating to my religion, or I would just participate, not entirely understanding what I was doing. I vividly remember being told by teachers in the second grade that instead of creating a flipbook of things I wanted for Christmas, I should make a flipbook about Eid and explain what it was and its history to my classmates. It should not have been my responsibility as an 8-year-old to educate my classmates about my religion and culture while they got to do a fun activity.
Schools need better infrastructure to educate children about other cultures to foster inclusivity and awareness of the diversity that surrounds them. They do designate time for teaching about other cultures, with many school districts observing Black History Month, among other notable examples. But schools are not doing enough. The history of Asian Americans is practically ignored in schools, which has resulted in detrimental effects on the community, as anti-Asian American hate crimes have surged at an unprecedented rate in the past few years.
When we educate children about different cultures, we build the foundations of inclusion that create a society where differences are respected and celebrated. Children begin noticing the physical differences society frets over from as early as 6 months old. If we as a society want to promote a more inclusive future, educating children about cultural differences is a good place to start.
According to a study by Brown University neuroscientists, children learn at a much faster rate than adults because they have a larger amount of GABA, or gamma-amino butyric acid. Children soak up new information like a sponge and that information lasts with them for much longer than adults. We can utilize this inclination toward learning to our advantage by aiming towards a more accepting society through the education of children.
While the Supreme Court has set the precedent that public schools cannot sponsor religious events, schools can teach about religion and religious holidays as long as it is secular instruction, rather than promotion of a particular religion. Many schools get away with this classification — sitting on Santa’s lap is not an educational activity, but a promotion of a Christian holiday. More should be done to educate students about other cultures in an entertaining and engaging manner to promote positive associations with these cultures. Schools should work to include the holidays of the entire demographic of students they educate, so that they all feel represented and students can learn about their classmates in a controlled, accepting and impartial environment.
Cultural background is an essential part of identity and plays a significant part in most people’s lives from birth. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, exposure to dominant social biases — such as favoring able-bodied, Christian, U.S.-born people — can make those who don’t fit the narrative look unfavorable in society’s eyes. This can negatively impact children psychologically and stunt their development.
In order to educate on cultures and holidays in an acceptable manner, schools need to distinguish between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Celebrating these holidays is not an opportunity to dress up in costumes or dishonor traditions. Rather, it is an opportunity to learn about different cultures and respectfully partake in certain traditions that are not inherently religious. For example, exchanging gifts during Christmas time and enjoying a large feast during Eid are not inherently religious activities. In comparison, lighting a menorah is a religious activity and it would be disrespectful to do if you are not part of the culture or have not been invited to do so by someone who is.
One way to encourage schools to acknowledge holidays that don’t coincide with Christian American culture is for the government itself to recognize these holidays. In April of 2023, Dearborn became the first city in the U.S. to make Eid a paid holiday for city employees. With the Muslim population in the world exponentially increasing, and Dearborn’s latest census revealing the majority of the city’s population is now Arab American, this is a great step in the right direction of celebrating the cultures that make up the United States. Other cities — especially ethnically diverse ones — would be wise to move in the same direction.
Higher education institutions such as the University of Michigan also have a responsibility to promote diversity by recognizing holidays from the numerous cultures represented in their demographic. This year, the University’s Board of Regents approved an extended Winter Break because they recognized how holidays benefit student well-being. Though the University is a secular institution, students should not be discouraged from partaking in their holidays because they interfere with class schedules. Giving additional time off that coincides with ethnic holidays and sponsoring cultural activities to allow opportunities for students to participate and learn about different cultures could be extremely beneficial to the school community.
As a non-Christian, I still partake in Christmas activities with my friends and loved ones because it is important to them. When my friends ask questions about my culture and participate in our holiday activities, I appreciate them for making the effort to know every aspect of me. It shouldn’t have been the responsibility of an elementary schooler to educate their peers about their culture, or for a single student to bear the responsibility of representing their background. If education systems take the initiative to teach students about different cultures and create positive associations with them by celebrating holidays, they can create accepting communities. Partake in holidays with your loved ones. Any opportunity to celebrate, have great food and exchange presents should be taken.
Lara Tinawi is an Opinion Columnist writing about campus culture and her everyday musings. She can be reached at email@example.com.