There is an increasing proliferation of cultural or religious festivals for units to celebrate/mark should they so choose – and in our programmes we are often encouraged to mark a range of different ones, and learn about the countries/cultures/religions from which they originate. No longer just the traditional festivals of the UK such as Saints’ days and Christian festivals, remembrance and hallowe’en and Burns night and such – but also a range of festivals and events from around the world.
That brings a twofold problem. If we celebrate a number of these international/multicultural festivals in addition to the UK ones we might regularly mark anyway, rather than instead of – do we risk having a programme which simply lurches straight from one festival to another, with little gap between for other topics to be covered and other skills taught? Or, are there some traditional festivals which we tend to mark every year, but actually could quite reasonably either mark very briefly, or not at all? Need we always mark Easter, and Hallowe’en, and Christmas, or devote an entire meeting to any of them - if every other club and school is covering them anyway, not to mention the fact the girls will likely do so at home too in many cases? Is there something original or different that we do at these traditional festivals or is it just much the same things the girls are doing elsewhere? (Do they need or want every club for three full weeks before Easter/Christmas to abandon all regular programmes in favour of non-stop craft, food and parties?) Might the child who doesn’t have both a father and a mother on the scene be glad to get a break from mother’s day/father’s day publicity for an hour or so?) Can it be a balanced and varied programme if we mark the same festivals every single year, in some cases for several meetingsin a row, in a similar way every year?
And as we consider whether to broaden our unit’s horizons, and help the girls think more internationally and more diversely - we then hit the second big problem - our lack of knowledge about the origin and meaning of some of these international festivals which we might opt to mark. Which means we do run the risk of making mistakes, and causing offence, through that lack of background knowledge and understanding about the origins of the customs in question. For the thing is, with the familiar festivals we don’t really have that problem. We’ve grown up with them around us whether our families did much to mark them or not - so we automatically know which ones can be celebrated in a silly/frivolous way without many people minding ‘children having their fun’ – santas and reindeer, dressing up as St George or the dragon, serving ‘mock haggis and neeps’ whilst wearing bin-bag kilts etc. But we also know which ones ought to have a more respectful approach, giving thought and consideration to sensitive feelings and beliefs - like Easter, or Remembrance, or hallowe’en. But when it comes to festivals from other countries or cultures, we may not be so clued up on which ones can be marked in silly ways, and which ones could offer scope for significant offence if we were to misjudge tone. In the UK we might make poppy crafts in early November – but we wouldn’t have a ‘poppy party’, and we would be very wary of ‘re-enacting’ a remembrance ceremony with people dressed up in costumes and carrying improvised flags and mock wreaths, wouldn’t we? And yet – nowhere is it actually written down what is and what is not an appropriate way to teach children about remembrance, so someone in another country or from another culture coming across scanty details about ‘this festival that happens in Britain where the people all wear bright red flowers and take part in big parades through their towns with marching bands and flags’ - could easily misjudge the tone of event, form a mental picture of ‘celebration parade’ rather than ‘sombre procession’. How easy it would be for such a misinterpretaion to be made . . .
So before planning to mark a festival with your unit, please, do as much research as possible about the background to both how the people celebrate it, and more importantly, why they celebrate it. Do not rely on online information from children’s activity sites or from books about worldwide festivals, unless it is also backed up by authoritative sources. Speak to someone who is actually from the relevant country/culture/religion, to find out not just ‘what the locals do’ but why they do it, what significance or message lies behind the things that are done, what is the atmosphere or mood? Find out which parts are solemn or very meaningful, and which parts might be taken more lightheartedly. Would the person from that country/culture/religion think it an appropriate event for the children to mark at all, and if so, how might children from that culture or country mark it – and what would be appropriate or inappropriate for children here to do?
Whatever sort of event you mark or celebrate – please also think cultural appropriateness, not cultural appropriation. Make sure you stay on the right side of the line between marking and mocking. Be aware of sensitive cultural traditions, and try to be both authentic and respectful - especially of native or cultural art, music, dance and traditional customs/lore. Seek to understand and then explain ‘why’ to the children, rather than risk it merely being seen as ‘this weird custom they do in this faraway place for some unknown reason’. There is lots to learn about the world around us and the range of cultures and belief systems followed by the people who share it - if we approach with an open enquiring attitude, and a desire to learn, understand and appreciate. But before we can teach the girls, first we must take time to learn the background information for ourselves . . .
And – keep festivals in their place. As something we occasionally utilise as an excuse for the educational activities we would like to do to broaden the girls’ horizons.