How to celebrate cultural festivities in multicultural classrooms

Image: Tucker Good /

How can schools reconcile their cultural celebrations with a multicultural student body? Towards the end of the year, this debate has become so lively that, across the Atlantic, it has come to be known as the December dilemma. But it is just as present in Europe, where marches, songs and Santa’s helpers have all been put under the microscope.

In the Sinterklaas festivities that take place in the Netherlands and Belgium, Santa is aided by Black Pete, whose racially stereotyped characteristics are worrying to a number of parents and principals. In Finland, concerns have arisen around traditions that feature displays of Otherness or religious elements like school hymns. In Greece, mandatory student participation in the national parades has alienated some Jehovah’s Witnesses, since it clashes with their pacifism.

How can we learn to live with our differences in a pluralistic society? Research points to several strategies:

  • Studies highlight that teachers must be trained and supported to implement inclusive policies. According to the Ministry of Public Education in Italy, “this does not mean training teachers to respond to ‘special’ needs – on the contrary, they must get used to reading the overall school context as marked by difference”
  • Staff members of different backgrounds need to cooperate to improve intercultural understanding
  • Instead of cutting off elements that one or more children are not “allowed” to see, teachers may draw attention to the diversity of worldviews
  • Teachers may need to be more aware of exclusionary practices they may accidentally engage in, or of ones that children themselves may be involved in
  • Differences among children should be taken into account; teachers in Riitaoja and Dervin’s study were surprised that some Muslim students could not attend dances or Easter activities, while others could
  • Differences between children and adults should also be considered; for instance, Dutch children seem to view Black Pete more as a fantasy figure than a racial stereotype

More importantly, schools and teachers should strive for a holistic approach to intercultural education. By focusing on “heroes and holidays”, we run the risk of essentialising or exoticising minorities. It seems that multi-ethnic food parties and multi-faith calendars should supplement, not replace, the goals of restructuring school curricula, improving the relational climate, and promoting equity.