Teaching Culture: Festivals of Light Around the World

The diversity in many classrooms provides a starting point for children to begin to understand and value the many distinct cultures of the world. What better way to do that than to feature a unit on light festivals from around the world? When ELLs see their home cultures  being studied in the classroom, they feel their culture has been validated.  Here are some suggestions for studying festivals of light around the world, including classroom activities.

St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden

According to folk tradition, December 13th follows the longest night of the year in Sweden.  St. Lucia is honored this day with her wreath of candles.  On this day, the oldest girl in a family dresses up wearing a white robe and a wreath with candles on her head.  Schools have a celebration with a St. Lucia choir. All the girls dress up as St. Lucia, and the boys are “Star Boys.”

Student Activities

  • Have students make a St. Lucia wreath by cutting a hole in the center of a paper plate so that a child’s head will fit in it. Cut out leaves from green construction paper and have students glue them to the paper plate. Make seven paper candles stand up around the inside rim of the plate.
  • Have boys dress as Star Boys by wearing white hats made from construction paper and carrying a star. To make the hat, roll a piece of construction paper so that it has a point on the end and staple it in place. For the wand, cut an 18-inch wand from cardboard and cover it with construction paper, and then attach a white paper star to the end of it.

Christmas in France

The Christian tradition of light during the Christmas season is demonstrated in France by the Advent Candles, which are lit each of four consecutive Sundays before Christmas Day. Explain to your students that French children put their shoes by the fireplace on Christmas Eve in hopes that “Pere Noel” (Father Christmas) will bring them some toys. They leave a snack and a glass of wine for Pere Noel and beet greens for the donkey that travels with him. Pere Noel brings toys to children in a sack. As he comes, he calls out “tralala, tralala, bouli, bouli, boulah.”

Student Activities

  • Teach your students how to say Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) and Bonne Annee (Happy New Year) to each other.
  • Have students learn to sing French Christmas carols.

Traditions of Light: Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrated in countries all over the world. In 165 BC there was a great battle between the Maccabees and the Syrians. The Jews won the battle and, when they went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. They only had oil for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted 8 days until a messenger could return with more. There are nine candles in the menorah to commemorate these 8 miracle days, with the ninth used to light the others.

Student Activities

  • Let students play a game with a spinning top called a dreidl. This game can be played online at Torah Tots.
  • On Hanukkah, it is traditional for parents to give their children money or gelt. This tradition can be replicated in the classroom by distributing small bags of chocolate gelt which is wrapped in foil to look like money.

Loi Krathong Festival in Thailand

This holiday is celebrated in Thailand in November each year. “Loy” means “to float,” and a “Krathong” is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves. The Krathong usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks, some flowers, and coins. The festival starts at night when there is a full moon in the sky. People carry their Krathongs to the nearby rivers. After lighting candles and making a wish, they place the Krathongs on the water and let them drift away. People are offering thanks to the Goddess of Water. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away bad luck, and that the wishes that people make for the new year will come true if the candle stays lit until the Krathong passes out of sight. It is the time to be joyful and happy as the sufferings are floated away.

Student Activities

  • Have students view Krathongs on the Internet.
  • Make a paper boat with students to launch. Boats in Thailand have flowers and candles on them. Have them write what bad feelings they would like to put on the boat.

Diwali in India

Diwali, meaning “array of lights” symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness. It is one of the most important celebrations in India. Although it was originally a Hindu celebration, Diwali is now enjoyed by people of every religion in India. It is a family celebration that takes place in October or November and lasts for 5 days.

Student Activities

  • During Dawali, Indians buy puffed rice to offer to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. Have students put one cup of puffed rice in small squares of plastic wrap. Tell them to hand the rice out to friends
  • In India, a design using rice flour is made on the floor in front of the family’s shrine. Have students make their own Rangoli design in your classroom. Use white chalk to draw a design on black construction paper. Have students color in the design with colored chalk. You can find a pattern here.

Christmas in the Philippines

The festival of light in the Philippines is marked by the sight of “parols,” or star lanterns. Nine days before Christmas, a special mass is celebrated where the story of the birth of Jesus in reenacted. Parols are displayed and fireworks heard over the next 9 days. On Christmas Eve, a procession is held, and Mary and Joseph’s search of shelter is reenacted. Members of the procession carry parols to light their way. Strolling musicians play handmade banjos in the streets. This is an important feature in the celebration of Christmas in the Philippines.

Student Activity

  • Have students make their own lantern to decorate your classroom. Show them examples of parols from the Internet.

NOTE: A version of this blog originally appeared on everythingesl.com.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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6 Responses to Teaching Culture: Festivals of Light Around the World

  1. meweheb says:

    thanks for sharing

  2. Fatma Tamimi says:

    So interesting!

  3. english teacher. 56 senior high school,west jakarta Indonesia says:

    It’s very helpful for me to know to broaden my knowledge

  4. Katrina says:

    Interesting piece Judie. It’s always nice to know how different cultures celebrate their special days. I visited Thailand once and it was a wonderful experience to learn and be part of their Loi festival. I have always wanted to go to India to check out Diwalii, it really looks interesting.

    Thanks for sharing this Judie.


  5. Lee Regal says:

    Hi Judie, this is a lovely way to open up holiday festivities across cultures. It has always been a topic that my intermediate and advanced students choose and enjoy. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Nahida El Assi says:

    A very interesting topic. Thanks for sharing, Judie.

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