Teaching Holidays

Once again this academic year, I face a strange teaching week; my 16 day January term course on the history of American holidays will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today and examine the inauguration on Friday. When I realized months ago that these two holidays would fall In the same week, I was thrilled with the possibilities for discussion. While we still have lots to discuss, I know these classes will lack some of the hope I had envisioned in September.

What I actually want to talk about in this blog post today, however, is why I use holidays as teaching tools and why I think they are a vital topic for the survey course. Holidays are not a topic often covered in our classes and when we do talk about MLK Day for example, I think we tend to emphasize the man and his principles over the history of the holiday. This intellectual history is much needed but doesn’t always get at the major themes we center our survey courses around. The historical nature of holidays, on the other hand, does. So, here are a few reasons I hope you will consider integrating holiday history into your syllabus:

  1. They are incredibly visible events and make change over time concrete to students who struggle with the concept. For example, the aluminum Christmas tree fad can be shown quickly and its relationship to the Cold War and space race are easily explained.  Another example here is the rise of the public 4th of July firework display and its connections to the professionalization of the medical field and concerns about class and urban poverty.  The images, proclamations, etc. associated with holidays are great primary source tools that can be digested quickly in class as ways of demonstrating historical change.   
  2. Class, racial, and ethnic tensions are highlighted on such days. Indeed they are often the driving force behind the creation of or transformation of holidays. Labor Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day, just to name a few, all have important origin stories that speak to the way that these tensions are managed, challenged, and protested.  These stories demonstrate the agency of the disenfranchised and the ways that people in power attempt to mitigate issues of class and race.  
  3. They provide a clear link to the present and to student action. Most of my students struggle to understand how they can act on the history they have learned.  The history of holidays demonstrates the power of family celebrations and the way what you celebrate and how you celebrate it can shape our current cultural norms and values.  Most of my students know MLK Day only as a day off of school and a time to talk about African American history.  Every student who takes my class has the potential to celebrate the day differently and that has the potential to change societal values.  
  4. Finally, holidays are microcosms of our lives: both personal and public, products of popular culture and government proscription, religious and secular. Holidays make a great opportunity to show our students what we do and the way in which our lives and the lives of our historical subjects are incredibly complex.  America’s Labor Day serves a set of cross purposes that our students should understand and that demonstrates the importance of studying history.  

Do you use holidays in your classes? Do you have a particular source you find compelling?

2 thoughts on “Teaching Holidays

  1. Interesting concept and a nice way to make history relevant to the students. I’d never considered incorporating holidays into the lesson plan. I’ll definitely be looking at this idea a little more closely.

  2. Thank you for sharing! I just finished reading Stephen Nissenbaum’s very engaging Battle Over Christmas and was struck by the parallels he draws between Christmas celebrations by English peasants and African American slaves (inspired by E.P. Thompson, no less). Studying holidays is a way of highlighting systems of power and inequality. I’m also beginning to think that there are parallels between the commentary on commercialism that both certain holidays and Sabbath-keeping communities make.

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