Learning Identity and Tolerance from Holiday Traditions

By Katharine Strange

America is such a large country that it’s easy to forget that there is a world outside of it. American culture and media have seeped into other countries and we can begin to believe that our traditions are universal, when in fact, they are very particular to our time and place.

The problem comes when kids grow up thinking “My tradition is the correct way” instead of “my tradition is one of many different traditions. My tradition can be special to me, but I can also recognize that other peoples’ traditions are special, too.”

Take, for example, the idea of Santa Claus. In America, we talk about how “Santa flies around the whole world in one night.” But, in reality, many people in the world would probably only know Santa from Coca-Cola commercials.

There are many holidays to celebrate in December! Why not introduce your children to a new tradition this year? Talk about your own traditions and culture and learn about new ones. If your kids say something is “yucky” or “weird,” push back on that idea. How might a child from another culture feel about our traditions?

By teaching our kids about their heritage, we encourage them to be proud of who they are. We can also encourage them to be curious and respectful towards other peoples’ heritages.


Hanukkah started on December 1st this year and will go until December 10th. It is a minor Jewish holiday, and not “Jewish Christmas.” Still, it can be fun to celebrate. Some American Jewish traditions include lighting candles on a menorah, playing dreidel, giving gifts and chocolate coins or “gelt.” Traditional foods include potato latkes, donuts, and other foods fried in oil.

St. Nikolaus’ Day:

In Germany, Belgium, Romania, and The Netherlands, Saint Nicholas actually comes on the 5th or 6th of December, not on Christmas. In some Eastern Orthodox countries, St. Nicholas comes on December 19th. Children leave their shoes by the door, and St. Nikolaus fills the shoes of good children with oranges, walnuts, chocolates, and a small toy.

St. Lucia Day:

This holiday is celebrated on December 13th primarily in Scandinavia, but also in several other European countries and in Venezuela. A girl will be chosen to play St. Lucia. She’ll dress in white and wear a wreath of candles for a processional. She may hand out gingernut cookies as well as St. Lucia buns.

Solstice Day:

Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is on December 21st. Traditionally celebrated by Pagans, this holiday is growing in popularity with non-religious folks, too. The ancient tradition celebrates the rebirth of the New Year, the changing season, and the return to longer days.


Christmas is celebrated in many ways around the world, by Christians and non-Christians alike. In the Philippines, it’s celebrated with giant lanterns. In France, gifts are delivered by a flying bell. While Christmas isn’t popular in Japan, some people celebrate by eating a seasonal KFC dinner.

In African countries, Christmas is less associated with gift-giving; instead it’s a day for caroling, feasting, and religious services. In Senegal, Christians and Muslims enjoy celebrating each other’s religious holidays as a way of showing unity.

In countries with a large Eastern Orthodox or Coptic Christian populations, Christmas will be celebrated on January 7th, and may be celebrated with candles or a bonfire. It is also less present-focused.

Some American Christian traditions also de-emphasize Santa and the American mythology of Christmas, instead focusing on the holiday as the birthday of Jesus.


Kwanzaa is celebrated the week of December 26-January 1st. It is a secular holiday created in 1966 by activist and scholar Maulana Karenga, to celebrate African heritage and diaspora. Karenga sought through this holiday to help African Americans reconnect to the history and heritage that was lost when Europeans abducted and enslaved various African peoples.

There are seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each principal has a candle which sits in a kinara, or candle holder. Families may celebrate Kwanzaa by wearing traditional African clothing and decorating with African art. Fresh fruit and corn are important because Kwanzaa means “first fruits of the harvest.” There may also be music, a reflection or discussion about the days’ principal, and gifts. Traditionally, at least one of the children’s gifts should be a book.

Whatever or however you’re celebrating this season, all of us at Kids & Race want to wish you very happy holidays!

If you’re looking for books to give the young people in your life, check out our previous blog entries, or Embrace Race’s great lists!

Photo credit: Colorín Colorado