Or, How To Really Pronounce Reading Festival

Some blog articles fit in during particular times of the year. Some are more universal. However, a better word might be ‘global’, because some things happen all year round, all over the world. Festivals and celebrations are events ubiquitous throughout humanity.

People have been celebrating for many thousands of years.  For example, Neolithic people gathered at sites in Briton bound by a common cause (people gathering bound by a common cause being a loose definition for a festival). The introduction of farming built larger communities, and societies began to develop. Even before farming, there’s evidence of Palaeolithic people of 30,000 – 10,000 BCE celebrating various rites and the gathering of food.

The words ‘festival’ and ‘celebration’ come up a lot, so we should probably clarify the difference between the two. Although people celebrate at a festival, a celebration is something you can have privately, whereas a festival is more public or an encompassing term for a special event/day/week, etc.

Although some people choose not to participate for personal or religious reasons, most do. Ultimately, celebrations unite people – strangers, friends, family – because of a shared belief or cultural connection. If you don’t share this link, then a festival might seem strange or confusing or possibly might even cause offence. Therefore, writers, publishers and educators have a responsibility to know what might be considered sensitive.

As I’ve been reading the following texts, I’ve been asking myself the questions we should be asking children, ourselves and just about anyone else. Questions which open the world and bring about more understanding. About our own lives, and those of others. What does this festival mean to me? What does it mean to others? – to those who celebrate it, and to those who don’t.

There are some wonderful and joyous books on festivals and celebrations. Open them and the events come to you. Illustrators and designers really do earn their money in the representations of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that are key to showing readers different experiences from around the world. Many of which might be completely new to them. 

Celebrate With Us (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2023) is quite different. It shows readers how specific countries celebrate festivals. It’s important to note that festivals and celebrations, especially religious ones, have very culturally specific variations. Easter in Greece, for example, has its own customs and food. Most Greeks are Orthodox Christians, although the book doesn’t mention this. And then the different Orthodox countries will have their own variations, too. It does highlight how important this festival is to Greeks, and is entirely about the religious aspect. The picture of a ‘typical’ family sitting around the table shows exactly what it means for them and would open discussion about whether it means the same for others.

The page on Lunar New Year also caught my eye, and not just for the illustrations. Korea is the country featured (note that Koreans see the North and South as two sides to one country, rather than two separate countries). It seems politically correct to use the term Lunar New Year, but it does depend on location. This page shows readers that many other countries have their own “unique traditions”. Calling it that in China might raise eyebrows, just as calling it Chinese New Year in other countries would too.

A Year Full of Celebrations and Festivals (Frances Lincoln, 2020) has a whopping 55 events, including a page on Chinese New Year specific to Chinese traditions. It’s this awareness we need to model to children. Easter gets a mention, of course, too. It is probably the most important date in the Christian calendar as the basis of their faith, the resurrection. But, for some, it’s not necessarily about this. The pagan connections with the Anglo-Saxons are explained alongside the religious ones. For some, Easter celebrations may have lost their way. However, I think spring and new life, are always something to celebrate, whether it’s a resurrection or not. What something means for one group of people can be different for others.

How people celebrate is the hook for Festivals! (Usborne, 2023). This is aimed at younger readers who are perhaps more curious about what happens during a celebration than ‘why’ or ‘what’ it means. Sections are titled ‘Splat!’, ‘Boo!’, ‘Feast!’ and eight other catchy exclamations. It’s a great way to learn about different cultures and find similarities between them. It seems obvious, but dancing is an important feature in so many festivals. It amazes me how different moving your body can be in various cultures. I wonder whether dancing means the same thing to all these groups, or if it means something different to each of them.

Unique to the UK, although also picked up in some commonwealth countries, is Guy Fawkes Night. For some, this night might be to liven up a dark autumn evening with family, friends, hot chocolate and fireworks. For others, it might feel uncomfortable setting the effigies (the guy) of a catholic on fire. However, as Know it All: Festivals (BookLife, 2021) says, for many, it is a secular festival. And many children’s books will omit the Catholic connection unless it’s a history text.

For better or for worse, some traditions, like making Guys and stacking them on a bonfire, do tend to die out. Drones are replacing fireworks in some cases due to distress caused to people and animals. Environmental changes to other festivals are happening too to reduce air and water pollution. It’s something else to consider when learning about festivals and how they change with the times. The popularity of Pride (mentioned in A Year Full of Celebrations and Festivals) over the years has increased over recent years, and to be included in books for young readers shows that we’re progressing. What these celebrations mean to LGBTQ communities can be acceptance after experiencing hostility, Though sadly, many still do.

There was much more I could have included here. Independence Days and National Holidays, Saints’ Days, Carnivals… We All Celebrate (Tiny Owl, 2021) has a wonderful page on carnivals. Especially how important they are to South American and Caribbean communities, and how the Notting Hill Carnival developed. What this celebration means to people links recent generations together to relatively recent events. It shows how much of a diverse range of celebrations go on. And how important they are!

In a vast subject, there are bound to be omissions in texts. It’s not up to me to say what should be included – if it were, every festival and celebration would have its own page or book. Everyone would have their moment. Bringing as much of the world into the classroom as possible is important, but you then have to do something with it once it is. I’ve been asking myself what festivals mean to me and what they might mean to others. Once you ask these questions and get some answers, you might actually enjoy celebrations even more than before. Looking through these books, I don’t just feel more connected to my beliefs, I feel more connected with humanity.