The Importance of Recognizing Deepavali (Diwali) in Schools

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New York City Public Schools recently decided to make Deepavali (Diwali) a holiday for students and teachers.  A simple decision to improve inclusivity has surprisingly become controversial.  There are those who claim that the decision takes us further away from the separation of church and state.  (I’m not going to honor this argument in my post until the same people argue that Christmas break, conveniently relabeled Winter break in many “antiracist” districts, should be canceled.)  Others argue that inclusivity would be better achieved by discussing the holiday in schools rather than giving students the day off.  In my attempt to promote social justice, I’d like to use today’s blog post to discuss this second argument.  Furthermore, at the end of this post, I will give five suggestions as to how to improve inclusivity through the celebration of Deepavali (Diwali).

First, what is Deepavali (Diwali)?  Deepavali is a festival of lights celebrated in October or November (depending upon the lunar calendar) throughout India and other countries in Asia.  For many communities, especially in North India, this festival marks New Years (thus a type of Lunar New Year). Particular stories behind the holiday vary across regions and religions; however, for all communities, the holiday represents the victory of light over darkness and good over evil.  

The Sanskrit term, Deepavali, means a row of lamps, referring to the oil lamps lit in the evenings by those celebrating.  Diwali is a shortened version of the same word and used more commonly in North India while Deepavali is the holiday name more commonly used in South India for the same holiday.  

Celebrations also vary amongst regions and religions.  Placing lit lamps on the stoop outside in the evenings, wearing new clothes, making kolams or paintings out of rice flour, playing with fire crackers, praying, and feasting with family are common ways to celebrate.

I do support Deepavali (Diwali) being a day off from school rather than a day when students are just taught about the holiday.  However, I also agree that the day off should not be in place of teaching about the holiday.  We should teach students about all holidays celebrated by communities across the country, regardless of whether there are students in the class/school who celebrate or not.  The third goal of Dual Language Education is sociocultural competence, which includes the ability to understand and work with cultures other than one’s own.  Therefore, rather than just learning about the culture(s) of those who speak the Language Other Than English (LOTE) taught in our programs, our DLE classes need to talk about all major subgroups and their holidays.  Even outside our DLE programs, our aim should be to teach our students sociocultural competence, which should include teaching about the holidays of our major communities.

That said, teaching about holidays does not substitute for allowing students the day off to celebrate their own holidays.  In most school districts, students from minority communities have to make the decision whether to stay home to celebrate their holidays and thereby miss instruction or to go to school and thereby miss celebrating their holidays.  When a student misses school, we know the consequences to their grades and learning, but what about when they miss celebrating their holidays?

Third Culture Kids (TCKs), or kids growing up in a culture other than that of their caregivers, who miss celebrating their holidays miss out on crucial opportunities to learn about their home cultures. Holidays are when students can authentically learn about their family’s traditions, their religions, and how things are done in their heritage countries.  They also get to learn their cultural crafts and skills.  For example, during Deepavali (Diwali), children get to learn how to light oil lamps, make paintings with rice flour (kolam), and cook traditional feasts.  Learning one’s own culture is part and parcel of students’ education.  Families should not have to choose between having their kids learn the three R’s and having them learn about their own background.

Furthermore, TCKs who grow up without their home holidays often also do not celebrate the holidays celebrated by the majority culture either because the values of the mainstream holidays conflict with their families’ beliefs or because the adults in the household simply have never celebrated the mainstream holidays and thus, do not know how.  Our TCK students should not have to grow up devoid of all holidays.

If your school does not give the day off for Deepavali (Diwali), consider the following: 

  1. Encourage decision makers at your school district to give the day off for all staff, especially if any of the students or staff members celebrate the holiday.
  2. Lobby for your town/city to give the day off to everyone.  It’s hard to get parents behind having a day off for their students if they need child care.  Furthermore, for students to celebrate their holidays, they need their adults at home.
  3. If you have students who celebrate, and you are in school, give students a homework-free night so that students who celebrate have a real opportunity to spend time with their families in the evening.
  4. Read a book about Deepavali (Diwali) to your students even if there are no students in your classroom who celebrate the holiday.  Learning about others builds sociocultural competence.
  5. Talk about how lights are used across religions and cultures to celebrate holidays and to represent good.  

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