Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago - Table set for 16 - before the  carnage

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago – Table set for 16 – before the dinner carnage

In the class where I assist, explaining the customs surrounding Halloween and Thanksgiving to adult immigrants who are learning English is challenging. Understanding American customs helps immigrants fit in, even if they aren’t likely to celebrate the holidays the exact same way long-time Americans do. However, Halloween and Thanksgiving have evolved so much from their original meanings that often it’s hard to make sense of our current practices.

When I try to explain Halloween, it sounds absurd.

In class, I hear myself say, “Halloween” comes from “All Hallowed’s Eve.” “Hallowed” refers to people who have died—their souls are “hallowed” or “holy,” and Christians believe good souls go to heaven after they die . . . .”

I write the words on the board and think, How can I possibly explain the history? I try this, “Hundreds of years ago the Celts—people who lived in Great Britain and northern Europe—believed that October 31st was the end of one year and November 1st was the start of a new year. At that time of year, dead souls could visit earth. People dressed in costumes to trick the returning spirits, so the spirits or ghosts couldn’t harm them.” Wow. That sounds completely bizarre. Why is this still a holiday?

I say, “Most people don’t really worry about ghosts, but people still enjoy dressing in costumes.” I pause after that semi-lame comment. Moving along, I start to describe how trick or treating works, but falter when explaining the reasons why that custom is acceptable. Give me a treat or else I’ll play a trick on you? On the face of it, that custom sounds like blackmail. Umm, in America, that how we do things??

Given the language barrier, I’m not sure how much the students understand.

cemetary

Photo from traditionscustoms.com

The students from Mexico and Central America see the connection between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which families visit cemeteries with food and mementoes, and they picnic at the gravesites. At best, the students from Africa and Asia look baffled by Halloween and Dia de Muertos, and at worst, they look repelled.

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar - originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar – originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights (Diwali)

I extend our discussion to describe Diwali (also called Deepavali). It’s a Hindu festival of lights that’s celebrated in late autumn in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and other countries in the region. People light candles and lamps, create intricate decorations called “rangoli” using colored powder, and families exchange small gifts to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

The Muslim Africans and Buddhists from Asia and begin to nod. They see that in countries across the world, celebrations take place in late autumn when the days grow shorter and darker. They understand that people need light, to gather together, and to celebrate with special food.

When we discuss Thanksgiving, I feel a different sort of disconnect.

The official story of Thanksgiving is that Native Americans selflessly rescued starving Pilgrims by teaching them about North American foods—how to grow corn and squash and how to hunt local game and fish. To show gratitude after the first harvest, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and shared it with the local tribe. That’s the version I learned years ago in school, and it’s still favored today in many public schools.

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving Historical postcard c. 1910 from Plimoth Plantation collection

But, I think, it’s only half of the story. European settlers also introduced smallpox and other diseases to Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Often the Pilgrims’ interactions with local Indian tribes were disrespectful. Native Americans were seen as “savages” who had no religion of their own. For a long while after the Pilgrims claimed New England for their own, the invading European settlers and Native Americans engaged in raids and massacres. Millions were killed.

How far do I delve into the historical details? After the trouble explaining Halloween customs, I decide to mention, but only summarize, the difficulties between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Perhaps it’s wrong to round off history’s sharp edges, but I decide to focus on what connects people of different cultures. I describe the current meaning of Thanksgiving—to be grateful for what you have and to share a good meal (of whatever cuisine) with family and friends. When put in the simplest terms, the students understand the point of Thanksgiving.

By focusing on the essence of these customs—remembering the dead, pushing back darkness, being grateful for a plentiful harvest, and sharing a good meal with family and friends—students who come from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam find common ground with each other and with Americans.

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5 thoughts on “Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

  1. Years ago I worked teaching English as a second language. It was so rewarding and your post brought that back for me. I remember an Iranian woman asking me what does “sink” mean. I started to describe the thing you wash dishes in, but she said no, what does it mean to “sink” into a chair. I learned so much from those students. Sounds like you did a good job explaining the best way you could.

  2. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of seeking common ground…especially this year. I know several people who have opted to spend the holidays alone rather than with their families in order to avoid post-election upset.

  3. What a great exchange you must experience in your classes, Ellen. I had to chuckle at your struggle to explain some of our nuttier customs. It’s funny when you imagine them through foreign eyes.

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