We are right in the middle of the holiday season in the United States. I grew up in a family with very strong cultural traditions around Christmas: from the Christian religious (celebrating advent, singing in the Christmas concert, participating in a living pageant, attending services on Christmas Eve, decorating the house with manger scenes, playing traditional carols) to the secular (an annual visit to Santa Claus, cookie baking, choosing a tree, hanging stockings, exchanging gifts, eating certain foods, having relatives over). It is a time I associate with specific sights and smells, feelings of magic and wonder, happy times with family and friends, new pjs and always a new book to read.
I have spent some wonderful Christmases away from home as well, and traditions have evolved over the years as I got married and we had children of our own. A memorable time in Germany and then London (where I remember thinking: “they REALLY know how to do Christmas!), an extended family Christmas in Hawaii, another in Peru, all those years in Maryland developing our own traditions, and then back in Seattle with most of my siblings and their families here as well. Now our children are grown, though they still like coming home for Christmas whenever possible, and many of the traditions I grew up with live on.
Being steeped in the season makes me realize not only that this time of year is complicated for most people, but that many people on the planet do not celebrate Christmas. When I travel, I always make a point of learning about different cultural traditions, religious and spiritual rituals, and I am fascinated by the way that people celebrate life, place, community, spirit and family. Attending services at places of worship, whether churches, mosques, temples, beaches or tops of mountains, has helped me understand different cultures in very significant ways. When I travel with students I encourage their observations and questions about these kinds of experiences and the ensuing discussions provide rich context for individual and group cultural comparisons. When students and their host families learn from each other by sharing both different and similar traditions, their preconceived notions fall away and perspectives begin to change. Students often come to a realization about the individualistic nature of United States culture and vow to incorporate more of the communal values of certain other cultures into their lives.
When we are aware of difference, we know borders, separations, boundaries which can seem insurmountable. This outlook is called international – “existing, occurring, or carried on between two or more nations.” When we feel our connection, what unifies us as human beings, all the issues we share because we inhabit the same planet and belong to the same human race, we call that perspective global – “relating to the whole world.”
Educators in K-12 schools have been moving strongly toward a preference for the word global. In addition to the negative impact of globalization, we chose to focus on the positive aspects that transcend borders due to technology and have made it possible for people all over the globe to connect to each other. We know that most of the problems facing our world today must be solved collaboratively. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with students from two different graduate schools, the SIT Graduate Institute and the Monterey Institute for International Studies. I noticed both schools use international rather than global. I am curious about this contrast where does it come from? Is it consistent across graduate schools? What about colleges and universities? Does it matter? I wonder if we ask younger students to see people as more similar than different, but then require older students to focus on difference.
This Christmas, while I focus on traditions that mean a lot to me individually, I maintain an awareness that celebrations vary greatly from region to region, country to country, culture to culture. We are international. At the same time, I hold the essential perspective that ALL people have rituals that bind them to their communities. We are global. I hope that wherever you are, you are celebrating both your individuality and your connection to others.