Holly Jolly Decolonization

By Lori Cohen

To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself. 

– bell hooks

A Rude Christmas Awakening

In second grade right before winter break, my teacher gave everyone in our class little treat-filled Christmas stockings to take home. After emptying my stocking of all the spoils, I scotch-taped it to the fireplace in hopes that Santa Claus might add some more goodies while I was sleeping. 

I woke early Christmas morning to find the stocking barely hanging onto the fireplace, as empty as it was when I taped it there a few days prior. 

While I was raised in a Jewish household and celebrated Jewish holidays exclusively, I had been conditioned to believe I had as much access to Christmas as my peers. After all, I received gifts in school on Christmas; my public school calendar was built around Christian-focused holidays; and when I celebrated Christmas at my friends’ houses, I always received a small gift of some sort. So when I awoke to an empty stocking, I was genuinely surprised. 

I made a lot of assumptions about what I should expect on Christmas, and I was too embarrassed to mention it to my parents, who also never acknowledged a stocking was sitting there, a singular object affixed clumsily to an otherwise barren fireplace (I’m sure they were confused, too). I swallowed that embarrassment for the rest of the day and in the ensuing years, feeling needles of shame for my presumptuousness.

Decolonizing Learning Spaces

While I’ve long recovered from my second-grade embarrassment, I have thought a lot about how the systems in our country were not built with all people in mind. And at Christmas time, when those of us who don’t celebrate are surrounded by symbols of the holiday, it can be a little alienating—no matter how beautiful lights and trees are, or how much the season calls for greater connection among people. 

I have integrated this wisdom into my practices as an educator, and whether teaching or leading, I strive to be more intentional about how to co-create learning spaces that are inclusive of different backgrounds, values, and practices—and rather than relegating this ethos to the holiday season, I make it an ongoing habit. In short, I work to engage in practices that decolonize learning spaces: practices that work to dismantle the dominant culture in favor of recognizing and valuing who is in the room and what they’re bringing to the learning environment. While there are myriad approaches we can take to decolonization year-round, the holiday season is a good place to start.

Decolonizing in the Holiday Season

As our nation and world become increasingly diverse, and as our schools and classrooms contain markers of difference that span race, religion, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientations, and so on, we need to be increasingly cognizant of the messages we send (and don’t send) to our community members around the holidays. While many schools have shifted to more non-denominational forms of celebration, there is so much this time of year can evoke. The following are a few tips for decolonizing your learning space, for ensuring all school stakeholders feel fully affirmed in who they are this holiday season: 

  • Work to avoid the “balance trap” at the holidays
    • December tends to be the month that receives the most emphasis in our school-year calendars, and/or the additional holidays celebrated within and beyond December tend to get surface-level treatment or othered as “exotic” or unique. This Teaching Tolerance webinar on the December Dilemma is a good place to begin rethinking our approach to holidays.
  • Engage in sustainability practices:
    • Teach about the impacts of consumerism and its environmental consequences.
    • Offer lessons about climate justice and support students in creating sustainable practices that heal the planet and build community.
    • #OptOutside: teach about ways to more fully connect with the natural world as an antidote to consumer culture.
  • Build year-round habits:
    • Practice cultural responsiveness beyond the superficial. In addition to ensuring students see themselves represented in classrooms and curricula, embrace practices that honor multiple histories and stories, inviting inclusivity and belonging year-round rather than the often reductive “heroes and holidays” approaches many schools can take.
    • Create new and unique rituals and celebrations that span the entire school year. Consider the ways your site can leverage its mission and values to offer opportunities for community gathering year-round in ways that celebrate what it means to be a member of your organization. Or design your own classroom-based holidays that acknowledge the variety of backgrounds and identities represented among your students.
    • Decorate your classroom/school every month or season with a different theme, de-emphasizing the fall months and emphasizing the natural seasonal shifts that happen over the course of the school year.

As you plan for your upcoming winter, whether this year or beyond, even using one of these tools will allow you to support a more sustainable, inclusive, and decolonized holiday season. You never know which second-grader, seventh-grader, twelfth-grader, or staff member may appreciate it.