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Symbols and order. (Editor's Comments).

Holidays and their symbolism give order and meaning to our lives. People in communities all over the world gather to celebrate special occasions and events. Holidays are a part of our history and our identity. Through the language of symbolism and the ritual of commemoration, people around the globe honor the past, mark the present, and anticipate the future.

Our day-to-day lives are marked by many different celebrations. Some are religious or spiritual in nature. Others, we might call calendar or seasonal holidays. While some holidays have arisen from ancient rituals and folkloric roots, and have evolved or been transformed with the passage of time, others have been created more recently by the passage of laws.

For the most part, holidays are highly symbolic and carry with them images with layers of meaning. The scripts, gestures, and stylized images represent something more than just what you see. They serve as a means of communication that can be both timely and timeless. Common symbolic images have evolved--growing in meaning and complexity--over hundreds or thousands of years. Although the exact history and original meaning of these symbols may be lost to time, they continue to resonate in the present.

While the stylized images of cats, hearts, or holly leaves might be recognized as symbolic by different cultures, the symbolism or meaning of those images might vary considerably from place to place and from era to era. In some cultures, black cats are considered lucky, in others, they are said to bring bad luck. Some cultural groups see them as representations of good, while others associate them with evil. In ancient Egypt they were worshipped and mummified. And the evolution of the jack-o-lantern from the name of a natural phenomenon of spontaneous combustion of methane or marsh gas to a carved and illuminated pumpkin symbolic of death and the spirit world is a compelling story, incorporating a folktale about a doomed blacksmith, turnips, potatoes, and beets.

Oral traditions, such as that of Old Jack the evil blacksmith, evolved as immigrants from various parts of the world to North America intermingled their traditions and developed new ones. Somewhere along the way, Old Jack turned into a pumpkin, and jack-o-lanterns became standard window decorations for American classrooms.

In the history of American schooling and art education practice, there was a time, in another century, when folk traditions, ethnic holidays, and home crafts were intended to unite the different and sometimes divergent cultural elements in classrooms, and ultimately in society, into a harmonious whole. During the early decades of the twentieth century, art activities based on immigrant crafts, folk traditions and ethnic holidays flourished for all ages and all groups. School children adopted the ethnic symbols as their own. These various holiday symbols--turkeys, bats, reindeer, bunnies, black cats, holly, shamrocks, pumpkins, and hearts, to name a few--continue to be seen in holiday art projects today. They have become so commercialized and so stereotyped that few of us know anything about their original meanings.

Although children learn how to make these symbols, their cultural meanings are rarely, if ever, explored. And if their origins and traditions were explored in depth, some would most certainly be banned from the classroom. For example, there are probably few teachers who are aware that when young children dance about a maypole, they are paying tribute to the reproductive powers of males. Of course, this, like the origin of the Easter Bunny as an ancient fertility symbol, can be ignored. This is, as my kids often say to me about my dinner table stories, "TMI, Dad" (too much information).

Opportunities for art expressions associated with holidays can be significant learning experiences if they have meaningful objectives, inspiring art exemplars, contextual references, articulated criteria, and assessment of learning. For students of all ages and in all seasons of the year, the making of art of any kind is not just about how to use materials but, more importantly, why it is worth their time to do it. That's the message we try to put forth in every issue of SchoolArts. That's why the articles in this month's issue are "worth doing" models for teaching about meaning, symbols, and systems of order.
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Article Details
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Author:Katter, Eldon
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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