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Honors Students Take an Academic Approach to the Holidays

December 6, 2012

A new honors seminar at The College of New Rochelle is bringing some intellectual rigor to the holiday season, with a dozen students learning how  holidays, from Halloween through New Year's, originated and how they have been shaped by immigration, pop culture, consumerism, and numerous other factors.

Dr. Amy Bass developed the seminar from an exercise in another Honors course she teaches, called Race & Ethnicity, where students share what is on their table during Thanksgiving, if they celebrate it, as a way of beginning the process of tracing who they are. "Soon I put all of it together, thinking a class on family and community rituals from Halloween to New Year's would be a lot of fun, but also would have a lot of content."

In addition to numerous readings and constant discussion, the class welcomed guests from various traditions: Sister Martha Counihan discussed Christmas at The College of New Rochelle and Rabbi Scott Weiner of Temple Israel discussed American Judaism during the holiday season.

Students also learned outside the classroom: They visited Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown; viewed the College's collection of cr�ches from around the world; and took part in a reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." That combination of classroom and experiential learning is a hallmark of Honors classes, Dr. Bass says. The difference in this case is that the class is doing it in real time. "This will never be taught in the spring semester!"

"I've watched them go through an evolution that I'm familiar with: the breaking of a lot of the 'truths' they thought were forever," Dr. Bass says. One thing students have learned is that Christmas has been a "battleground holiday" from the beginning. "The Puritans made it illegal in the 17th century and closed all churches on Christmas Day: that's a battleground for beliefs."

As with all Honors classes, Dr. Bass says, the students understand that they are contributors every step of the way. "A few students did really interesting research on their family's traditions abroad for St. Nicholas Day," she said. "Excellent contributions to our conversations."

(Photo: Students learn about life at Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, during a field trip to Tarrytown.)