11 Fantastic Books for Children That Celebrate Different Cultural Traditions

11 Fantastic Books for Children That Celebrate Different Cultural Traditions
Brian Smith December 5, 2017

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The holiday season is truly magical when we set aside time to focus on the joy and wonder of the world. Families and friends gather, spread the cheer, and and indulge in traditions. It’s a time when adults have an easier time viewing the world through the eyes of the children that we have been blessed to have in our lives.

Children often believe that everyone celebrates the season the same way that they do and that their family’s traditions are the world’s traditions. That belief stems from the idea that all people are the same. This feeling of inclusivity is one that deserves to be celebrated even as we expand their knowledge and teach acceptance of other cultures. Teaching about traditions from around the world can even inspire new ways for us to celebrate!

Below are a few different holiday traditions to share with your students, along with timeless books that will help them understand the beauty and history of each.

Rejoicing in the night before Christmas

With Christmas, there is an abundance of traditions that people cherish such as making gingerbread, going to see The Nutcracker ballet, hanging stockings on the mantle, and singing Christmas carols door to door. These are just a few of my own family’s traditions, but most special for us is reading The Night Before Christmas. Clement Clarke Moore wrote this wonderful poem that captures all the joy and anticipation of Christmas night as children wait for Saint Nicholas to arrive.

There are several books based on this traditional poem but our favorite is The Night Before Christmas as illustrated by Bruce Whatley. We love the small details he included in his art that add so much to our family reading. Other favorites are Jann Brett’s The Night Before Christmas, and a version that includes a CD of the singing trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary along with Eric Puybaret’s beautiful paintings. For a comical twist, we like Natasha Wing’s The Night Before the Night Before Christmas. This version keeps our family in stitches each year as we each have our own favorite parts of this modern day retelling.

Decorating a Christmas tree

In my annual research about winter holidays looking for fun facts to share with my class, I learned it was Martin Luther who is credited with adding candles to the Christmas tree, which led to the string of lights we use today. The Christmas tree is historically credited to Germany but spread to different parts of the world such as Great Britain, Guatemala, and Canada. I then discovered O Christmas Tree: Its History and Holiday Traditions by Jacqueline Farmer and illustrated by Joanne Friar. This book does a great job of sharing the complex history of this wonderful tradition in a simple-to-understand way.

Giving gifts and feasting during Kwanzaa

Dimitrea Tokunbo masterfully wrote my favorite book about the celebration of Kwanzaa with The Sound of Kwanzaa. Illustrated by Lisa Cohen, this book uses music and repetitive text to convey the meaning of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa began in 1966 and was celebrated as the first African-American holiday. This cultural tradition may be newer than others but has gained popularity with each passing year as any celebration that teaches about unity, self-determination, supporting each other, creativity, and faith should grow.

The week-long Kwanzaa celebration begins on December 26th and culminates on January 1st. On December 31st, families traditionally participate in rituals such as gift-giving and a feast called Karamu. The feast includes delicious dishes such as Caribbean fruits, meats with jerk sauce, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and catfish. I also enjoy sharing Lisa M. Herrington’s book Kwanzaa that includes photographs to help the reader learn more about this special cultural celebration.

Lighting the menorah during the Festival of Lights

The 8-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. This translates to sometime in late November to mid-December. Also known as the Festival of Lights, this celebration incorporates many traditions including eating latkes, lighting the menorah for each of the 8 nights, and playing with the dreidel spinning top.

I have several books that I read when I introduce Hanukkah traditions to students, but my favorite is the one based on Woody Guthrie’s song “Honeyky Hanukah.” With wonderful illustrations by Dave Horowitz and a CD of The Klezmatics singing the joyous tune, this book is always a favorite. I do wish that the book mentioned the words dreidel and menorah although both items are featured in the illustrations. To teach these traditions, I read Hoppy Hannukah by Linda Glaser and illustrated by Daniel Howarth. The reader learns about all about the experiences of Hanukkah along with the children in the story. Reading this book first builds my students’ vocabulary for when we read and listen to Honeyky Hanukah. The CD included with my Honeyky Hanukkah book is requested multiple times during the holiday season.

Celebrating the history of poinsettias during Las Posadas

Las Posadas, a Hispanic tradition celebrated in Mexico, carries with it a rich history. Celebrated between December 16 and December 24th each year, Las Posadas (translated to “the inns” or “the accommodations”) commemorates Mary and Joseph going from place to place looking for shelter in the days leading up to Mary giving birth to Jesus.

Tomie dePaola’s book The Night of Las Posadas gracefully tells of the cultural celebration that happens today while working in the history of the holiday. I also love pairing The Night of Las Posadas with another dePaola book titled, The Legend of the Poinsettia. Every year my family revisits this wonderful story, based on an old folktale centering on the manger scene that happens in the days following Las Posadas. When a young girl presents weeds to the holy family, her act of giving is beautiful because it is filled with pure love. As the weeds fall around the manger, they turn into flowers that look like “flaming red stars” or what we know as the poinsettia. When these books are paired, they help build a wonderful understanding of the traditions that are celebrated in Mexico.

Around the globe

There are so many other traditions out there that I love sharing with my students each year. They range from Santa pulling up to the Australian beach in a boat to deliver gifts to all the kids enjoying their summer, to the Pirek (fish pie) and smoked salmon that is enjoyed if you are having an Alaskan holiday. I also can’t forget how the Scandinavians started using “the peace plant” during the holidays and how we continued that tradition today when we put up the mistletoe.

No matter where you celebrate the holiday season or what traditions you take part in, enjoy your season and take time to embrace all the joy in the world!

Brian Smith is a Top Teaching blogger for the Scholastic website, and has been an educator since 2001. He currently teaches kindergarten for Alexander County Schools in North Carolina. 

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