In a few weeks, we will once again land on the shortest day of the year. My kids are already wondering why it’s dark all the time. It’s dark in the morning when they get up in for school, and it’s dark in the evening by the time we get dinner on the table. My daughter now walks our dog wearing a headlamp, and we all feel the urge to snuggle down for the winter. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that this is often our busiest time of year. Many of us are caught up in the rush of winter holidays, the Christmas madness found in so many parts of the world.
For better or worse, my kids are not particularly original. Ancient peoples throughout the northern hemisphere recognized the lingering darkness at this time of year. That annual rhythm was celebrated by honoring the earth and welcoming in other sources of illumination. It is surely no accident that this time of the year is full of winter holidays and holy days that focus on light – both literally and metaphorically.
We all know how important it is to teach our kids about other cultures, but this is also a great time of the year to learn, more specifically, about other faith traditions. All of the winter holidays offer great opportunities to share books, videos, foods, and crafts with your young ones. Amongst those activities are real lessons about living in harmony with the earth and with one another.
Winter Holidays: Solstice, Diwali and Hanukkah
In the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, also known as the winter solstice, falls around December 21. It marks the beginning of winter and the coming of cold, harsh days, but it also marks the beginning of the sun’s return as the days begin gradually to lengthen. Since many so-called Christmas traditions really emerged from pagan practices, teaching your kids about the winter solstice provides lessons about history and culture with very little effort!
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Only a few kid-friendly solstice books have been published, especially when compared to the other holidays in this post (Diwali and Hanukkah). The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson and Jan Davey Ellis and The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer and Jesse Reisch are somewhat similar. Both have colorful illustrations, can be read in a single sitting, and offer insight into how the shortest day of the year has been recognized across time and place. The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren is also an interesting book. It tells the tale of the tomtenisse, a mythological Santa-like precursor found in Scandinavian folklore. He was a farmer-sprite who rewarded those who were respectful and hard-working and inflicted mischief on the lazy or naughty.
When it comes to crafts, the easiest way to celebrate the coming of light is with a sun! It will make you wonder why more people aren’t making sun crafts in the middle of winter. Here are a few easy favorites:
Bringing a bit of life into the home with evergreen boughs is an ancient Solstice tradition, which means tree cookies are a great option. I like these snowy evergreen cookies by A Homemade Living. They aren’t Christmas-y, which helps kids to keep the two winter holidays separate. They also highlight the pure beauty of nature, even in the absence of shiny, glittering decorations.
This is also the time of the year when animals finish storing food that will last them through the winter. My family loves this Yule recipe for Sugar and Spice Nuts (with peanuts added in) from My Moonlit Path.
The ancient Hindu holiday of Diwali fell on November 11 this year, but it’s not too late to make it part of your winter holidays and celebration-of-light festivities. Diwali is the earliest of the light-themed holidays and generally falls between mid-October and mid-November. It’s actually a five-day festival, but most people focus on day 3 which is the main holy day. Millions of lamps shine brightly throughout the world on the new moon night as everyone celebrates the victory of good over evil and of light over darkness. For many Hindus, it is also a time to remember the joyous return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana after 14 years in exile. If you’re into fireworks, this is a great time to use up any sparklers leftover from last summer. If not, here are a few of our favorite non-pyrotechnic ideas.
The growing list of published books about Diwali means there is now something suitable for every age group. For the youngest age groups, consider Lighting a Lamp: A Diwali Story by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger or the Rookie Read-About Holidays book Diwali.
The legend of Rama and Siti is great reading for slightly older children. Rama and Sita: Folk Tales of the World by Govinder Ram could be read in a single session. The Story of Divaali by Jatinder Verma and Nilesh Mistry would probably require multiple sessions.
New books are being published all the time. Rama and Sita – a Story of Diwali by Alison Mott and Joanna Faulks came out last month, and Let’s Celebrate Diwali by Anjali Joshi was just released last week. I haven’t had a chance to read either yet, so let me know what you think.
Informative videos like the 3-minute Diwali Festival of Lights by National Geographic or Diwali — the Festival of Lights (13-minutes) by Wild Films India are great for school-aged children. But for a purely visual extravaganza, check out these 8-minute videos of recent Diwali celebrations in Atlanta and Chicago.
Diwali is widely celebrated throughout India, so Indian food of any sort is good match. Pakoras, tandoori chicken, and samosas are favorites for kids, but sweet treats are sure to please. Here’s a delicious recipe for rice kheer you can make with your kids. (Remember: you can always substitute olive oil for ghee.) Chocolate burfi is also a big hit. It’s also called “barfi,” and even my rather culturally-astute offspring find it hilarious that kids in other parts of the world eat something with that name.
The two most obvious crafts for Diwali are lamps, also called diyas, and rangolis.
Diyas literally put the light in this holiday of lights. Traditionally, they are made of clay and filled with oil. A cotton wick is immersed in the oil and lit. To make your own diya, simply mold some clay and add a small tea candle or tea light. Our favorite version of this craft comes from Little Passports.
Rangolis are beautiful patterns, often made on an entryway floor or in a courtyard, and filled in with color. Traditional designs include flowers, birds, faces of Hindu deities, foliage, and geometric shapes. Died rice, colored powders, and flowers are used to fill in the patterns. Because those materials are widely available, everyone, regardless of class or status, can create a rangoli. Modern-day kids’ crafts often make use of rangoli coloring pages found on line. They can be filled in using colored sand, beans of various types, glitter, or died rice. (Click here or here for tips on dyeing rice.)
No bring-in-the-light season, or article about winter holidays, would be complete without mentioning Hanukkah. There are so many resources for Hannukah, it’s almost impossible to sort through them all, but I will share a few links we have found helpful over the years.
Heidi Rabinowitz Estrin does a fantastic job of reviewing various Hanukkah books in her Diverse Dozen post. I especially like her inclusion of three Christmas-Hanukkah interfaith books.
If you’re looking for infant/toddler board books, I would recommend My First Chanukah by Tomie dePaola, who is simply masterful when it comes to writing about faith-based holidays and stories for kids. Hanukkah, a Bright Baby Touch and Feel book by Roger Priddy, is another great option.
There are also two books with flaps/tabs which give your kids a way to interact with the book as you read to them. The first is Hanukkah Lights by Ben Lakner. The second is Light the Menorah, published by Price Stern Sloan and illustrated by Jannie Ho.
As you might expect, many Hanukkah crafts center on menorahs. Moms and Crafters recently posted some great examples here. At Jubilee! Community church, where we have developed a Bible-based interfaith curriculum, we enjoy making menorahs out of beans and pasta. Here’s our version of the macaroni menorah from She Knows.
Making dreidels is another favorite Hanukkah craft. Check out these edible dreidels from Celebrations or this popsicle stick dreidel from Holidays Helper. You can also find on-line templates for making a 3-D paper dreidels. Here’s one from Enchanted Learning.
What could be more fun than crafting menorahs and making dreidels? Lighting a menorah and playing dreidel! Inexpensive menorahs, menorah candles, dreidels and chocolate coins can be found at many retail outlets (like Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart or Target). Check out these videos for easy-to-follow instructions.
One of the nice things about shorter days, longer nights, falling temperatures, and hibernation instincts is that all those things lend themselves to spending a bit more time at home with family. They also beckon us to remember the light — the sun of the bygone summer and the springtime sun that will melt the snow soon enough. Sharing the light-offering winter holidays and traditions of various faiths is a perfect match for this celebration-filled time of the year. So what are you waiting for? The summer solstice will be here before you know it!by