Chanuka and Eid at school?
A little girl stands before the mirror in the hall. She is putting on a red Santa-hat. Watching herself in the mirror, she catches her father glancing at her. He does not say anything. He just watches. The girl walks away, she walks to school, with the Santa-hat in her bag. While walking, she talks to God. When the girl arrives at school, she has made her decision. She goes straight to the teacher and tells him that she is not going to be a little Santa Claus like the others. The teacher is cross.
“Why not?” the teacher asks.
The girl says nothing more and just sits among the others in the festive hall. All the children are wearing red Santa-hats. They start to sing, and the little girl has decided that she will sing like the others. But when the name ‘Jesus’ comes up, she keeps her lips shut tight together. She keeps silent. The word ‘God’ is fine with her, but not ‘Jesus’. Because she is Jewish. Three other children in her class do not join the Christmas party. They are three Muslim boys with strict parents.
There are children with many different faiths and traditions in our schools, and the celebration of only Christian feasts and festivals can become problematic.
What to do? There is one simple solution — make every child’s important festival a part of school traditions. Listen to every child.
In Helsinki, more than 19 schools have been celebrating a Multicultural Year, where the whole school comes together to prepare and celebrate everything from the Muslim Eid to the Hindu Diwali, Jewish Purim, the Western-Christian Christmas, and Easter according to the Orthodox-Christian tradition.
I have been helping with festive celebrations in schools for a long time now, but each and every time is special. When an eight year old Muslim boy realised that his own feast that has so much importance at home had become part of the school-life, he came to me and asked: “May I put on my Eid outfit, my long, beautiful outfit at the feast?” “Of course you may” I answered.
Then a Christian Finnish girl came over to me and asked: “May I put on my dress from Colombia? I thought it would be suitable because it is from abroad.” And I replied, “Of course you may.”
The festivals we celebrate are always joyful in a special way. Children and teachers, parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters come together to celebrate. The atmosphere is warm and filled with laughter.
Our organisation, Ad Astra, has been helping schools to celebrate different multicultural feasts and festivals for the past nine years. We provide the children with knowledge about the feasts, as well as acquaintance with religions and cultures through dance, theatre, song, music and poetry. The diversity within each religion is emphasised. We have seen that it is important to provide knowledge about the feasts of the majority-kids as well, since it is not always self-evident that Christian children know what the meaning of Christmas is.
Multiculturalism means many different cultures coming together, and we all should do our best to learn more about each culture. Integration is a mutual two-way process, which involves everyone.
The role of a teacher is to help children speak and become visible.
It is only natural that many teachers lack knowledge about certain traditions, and that religion therefore often becomes something to keep silent about. But by depriving pupils from minority groups the opportunity to express their own cultural and religious traditions, these pupils risk becoming voiceless and invisible. They grow up without guides and roadmaps.
In many European countries, celebrating Christmas is important, with the celebrations lasting for weeks. It becomes hard for Muslim, Jewish, and other non-Christian families to bring up their children according to their own traditions. Therefore, it is crucial for schools to help in some way.
A one-day Eid or Diwali festival at school is really not much compared to one month of Christmas-partying in society, but the gesture is meaningful and important. In the nine years since we started, it has worked very well. Last year, we also started to partner with young persons from different religious backgrounds; educating them in interfaith-dialogue and story-telling methods through our project, Together For Finland (TFF).
The young people are trained in analysing norms, ensuring safe spaces, human rights, as well as other conceptual methods derived from anti-racism work. This training is also great for interfaith-dialogue. In addition, our young trainees learn about story-telling on an artistic level.
This experience has given me the chance to listen to story after story about what it is like to grow up as a Catholic, Muslim, Jew or Baha’i in Finland. I now understand that our work to make children’s religious and cultural traditions more visible at school is even more important than I had initially appreciated. I have discovered that children are easily hurt if you overlook their heritage from home, and that this can cause great damage to the child. I understand that children observe and pick up on a teacher’s disinterest and draw their own cruel conclusions. But I also learnt that it is possible and easy to support a child —through gestures or words, and that an interest in the child’s own faith is worth more than gold.
Traditions and feasts matter. Let’s celebrate more!
Ad Astra, Finland
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.