Reclaiming the Holidays

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Natasha Sky

Our family holidays and traditions focus on family. (We will be with more than 50 members of one side of my husband’s extended family for Thanksgiving next week.) Our family’s holiday celebrations also revolve around seasons. After unceremoniously moving this way for years, our family is now making a conscious effort to celebrate the original holidays that many national holidays were slapped over oh-so-many years ago.

As each commercialized holiday season rolls around, we use the increased community attention as an opportunity to talk with our children more about specific perspectives missing from mainstream culture:

  • What really happened at ‘the first’ Thanksgiving dinner? How did the Native Americans and English Puritans (the stereotyped ‘Pilgrims and Indians’) really feel about each other and treat each other?
  • Who was Jesus? What did he do? What do people believe about him? What is a prophet? Who are other biblical and non-biblical prophets?
  • Why do our Jewish friends light their menorah at Hanukkah?
  • Why was the holiday of Kwanzaa created? Who celebrates it? What are the 7 principles of Kwanzaa?
  • Who exactly gained ‘independence’ on the Fourth of July? (And who didn’t?)

One of our main goals with holidays is to be inclusive, (probably an outflow from living in our multiracial family). We hosted a Multicultural Family Celebration on New Year’s Eve a couple years ago. It was a family-focused vegetarian potluck here at our house. We still had our Holiday evergreen tree up and decorated. It was the 6th night of Hanukkah and friends brought their menorah to light. Other friends came in party-clothes from their home countries. We sang songs. It was the last night of Kwanzaa, and it was our family’s all-inclusive multiracial and multicultural celebration (which came out of my understanding that the celebration of Kwanzaa usually includes only people who have ancestry from the African diaspora).

In addition to family and seasons, we use holidays as a time to again think of others who are living through difficult times. Throughout the year, we encourage our children to reflect on the experience of other people (they usually think of children) who do not have as many advantages and comforts as our children. We are really careful to talk about this (especially because some of these are people our children know personally) in a way that does not induce guilt, but that encourages them to (a) be grateful for what they already have, (b) consider whether another purchase/present/item on the eternal wishlist is really necessary, and (c) think about what others need–as opposed to what our children/we simply want.

Our family has one friend in particular (I’ve known him since I was 11 or 12) who lives and works in a very impoverished neighborhood. In addition to just generally taking care of his friends and neighbors–and anyone else in need who comes to his attention–he houses and cares for homeless pregnant women, and then for the women and their newborns for a period of time after the babies are born. We send him money (mostly for fans, heating oil, and cab fare to the hospital) and diapers, baby clothes, and anything else he says he needs.

Last fall, my oldest two children decided we should take all the presents family members sent to our kids in December–and then box them up and mail them to our friend so that he could give the gifts to kids who didn’t have any presents for the holidays. The kids’ idea inspired us to talk to all our family (and ‘chosen’ family) and request that they send money directly to our friend’s organization, or to my brother (who then went shopping for specific items our friend had requested).

Now, I’ve got to be honest, this idea was not universally well received. There were several family members who took personal offense that we were asking them not to send the kids presents. (Please–no more stuff! We don’t need anything and I don’t know where we’ll put it!) Some family members instead gave money in our name to charities we do not philosophically support–but it was a start.

Without realizing it, our family has returned to celebrating the passing of the seasons instead of participating in most contemporary holidays. Even birthdays (which are a big deal here at our house, with a cake and singing and royal-treatment all day on your actual birthday, and a party on the weekend with lots of friends and more cake and singing) are focused on the person’s completion of another trip around the sun, a year to be reflected on, learned from, and celebrated.

Back to the U.S. holiday closest at hand: Thanksgiving. Here are some resources for parents seeking historical accuracy, age-appropriate content, a way to tell the entire story and still feel good about celebrating Thanksgiving. (My thoughts? We’re celebrating the end of a fruitful year and all the blessings our family has received.)

  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message: This book appears to have universally good reviews from all corners.
  • Teaching About Thanksgiving: A succinct recounting for parents who want to know the full story of the ‘first Thanksgiving’ including who the real participants were.
  • Oyate: “Oyate is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us. For Indian children, it is as important as it has ever been for them to know who they are and what they come from. For all children, it is time to know and acknowledge the truths of history. Only then will they come to have the understanding and respect for each other that now, more than ever, will be necessary for life to continue.” Visit their resources page for the article “Deconstructing the Myths of the First Thanksgiving” as well as books to avoid about Thanksgiving and recommended books.
  • American Indians in Children’s Literature: A new blog discovery for me, with many resources including suggestions and commentary about the way we represent Thanksgiving.
  • A Resource List for Teaching to or about Native Americans: A comprehensive list of books, not just related to Thanksgiving.

Natasha Sky is a multiracial woman, a writer, an artist, and an activist—as well as the fulltime mother of four multiracial children all under the age of six. Two of Natasha’s children joined her family through open domestic adoption and two of her children joined her family through homebirth. Natasha created, a website of resources for multiracial families. During naptime, Natasha writes about multiracial family life.

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