How to Navigate Multicultural Holidays

This blog post was written by Counseling@Northwestern online faculty member and assistant director of clinical training Tonya Davis.

Almost everyone knows about the typical holidays celebrated during the winter months like Christmas and Thanksgiving. But, there are many other holidays not traditionally celebrated that sometimes get forgotten. Additionally, not everyone will experience the holiday season in the same way, or celebrate it at all. In being mindful, it is helpful to take an inventory of our personal willingness to be more aware of what others around us experience. This post provides questions and answers that you can apply this holiday season to learn more about both well- and lesser-known traditions, and open your mind beyond what you celebrate.  

Q. What typical challenges arise when people who celebrate different holidays try to combine traditions?

A. Usually the biggest challenge is the inability to be flexible. A starting point involves the concept of intentionality. Being fully aware of the challenge or conflict and willing to compromise can aid in this conundrum.

 Q. What important questions should people ask in order to understand a holiday that is unfamiliar to them?

A. Ask yourself if you are open to experiencing something new. If not, think about what is preventing you from being open to learning something new (i.e., a past experience, fear of the unknown, unconscious biases yet to emerge to the surface). This question may elicit additional questions to start an internal dialogue. By challenging ourselves to build on our current knowledge base and to seek out what we do not know, we give ourselves the chance to experience a sense of personal growth and fulfillment.

 Q. How can someone weave multiple holiday traditions into one holiday celebration that makes people feel comfortable and included?

A. Be willing to compromise. For example, if you celebrate Christmas and your partner or friend celebrates Hanukah, then you might consider combining values of each holiday in one occasion. There are many books to share with children and adults alike regarding multi-faith celebrations and how to make this work best for you.

Q. What tips do you have for different demographics (teachers, parents, couples, families) on navigating multicultural holidays?

A. Teachers can be intentional about including conversations about the many multicultural holidays that will be celebrated during the holiday season. Regardless of the age range, the ideas are endless. Activities can include small theater productions, guest speakers, approved treats, lesson plans, games, books, story time, arts and crafts, and writing exercises.

Parents, couples, and families can try new experiences that may look similar to the types of things that teachers may already be doing with students. You can take trips to the library or bookstores in your area or visit museums; seek out and attend multicultural holiday events going on in your community or venture out into other communities; prepare and/or try new foods synonymous with multicultural holidays; or even add a multicultural holiday spin to your already existing holiday beliefs to share with family and friends.

Q. What can you do when you meet someone who may not want to celebrate or be included?

A. There will be people who will not be participating in a holiday celebration this season who are doing just fine. This is vastly different from someone who will be silently shying away from social gatherings right in the midst of those joyously planning celebratory moments with families and friends.

 For some people, the holidays may be riddled with a void of feelings or emotional and/or psychological pain. Here is where we might commit to paying attention to those we hold dear. These feelings are often silent and not something that will be broadcast to the world. Take notice of those around you. Observe behaviors that shift, change suddenly, and are out of the person’s established norm. Reach out to people if you believe they are having a hard time with the holiday season. A simple “Hello, how are you?” can mean a lot to people who experience difficulty this time of year. This may be a good start in a healthy direction to provide potential relief to those experiencing stressors and concerns that arise during this holiday season.

 Below you will find a brief history of holidays celebrated between the months of November and January. Use these to expand your understanding of other traditions this holiday season.

Hanukkah (Chanukah) — December 2 – December 10

Also known as the “Festival of Lights.” The narrative shared by Religion Facts  is that Hanukkah came into existence because the Jewish people were displaced from their home in Jerusalem, fought a very difficult battle, and won. Upon their return to their homeland, their goal was to celebrate their triumph and rebuild. A central tradition of Hanukah is the lighting of the menorah, an oil lamp. Jewish people today will light a new candle every night for eight nights in reverence to their victorious outcome of centuries past. During this holiday, Jewish families enjoy time with one another and share in traditional Hanukkah foods such as sufganyot (fried jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato cakes). Contingent upon the region, not all Jewish families celebrate this holiday the same way.

Kwanzaa — December 26 – January 1

Kwanzaa is a Swahili term  that means “firsts.” It relates to the first fruits of the harvest and is a celebration of African-American heritage. While Kwanza may be considered a young holiday, its values are not. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kwanza. Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanza in 1966 because he wanted to stress and share the importance of African values. According to Dr. Karenga, there are seven principles of Kwanzaa and seven candles to light each night to commemorate them. The colors of the candle are symbolic. There is one black candle for the people represented, three red candles for their struggle, and three green candles for hope and the future. You can read more about Kwanzaa and these principles in Dr. Karenga’s book, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family Community and Culture .

Christmas — December 25

The celebration of Christmas varies, but it is on December 25 each year. For some people, Santa Claus is on his way and the countdown to Christmas begins the day after Thanksgiving. For others, the meaning of Christmas  is symbolic of the birth of Jesus Christ. Many practice Christianity, and spend time with family and friends in church and give thanks for their blessings. They may also exchange gifts, which is symbolic of the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to give baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense (oil/incense), and myrrh (perfumed oil/incense) shortly after his birth. There have been many forms of symbolism surrounding the Christmas tree and Christmas lights as well. This is where people may be open to discovering the different types of personal meaning and interpretation for this holiday.

Three Kings Day — Christmas Day to January 6

This is a Christian holiday , celebrated among many Mexican communities. This holiday is also called the “El Dia De Reyes” and “Feast of Epiphany.” Considered the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas, the celebration begins on Christmas Day and ends on January 6. The holiday represents the 12 days after Christmas and is symbolic of the trip taken by the three wise men to travel to Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus Christ. There are many types of foods, traditions, and parades that coincide with this holiday.