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Honor Seminar Explores Holiday Rituals

December 21, 2018
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Lupita Torres, who every year sets up the Day of the Dead exhibit at New Rochelle Public LIbrary, visited the class to speak about the tradition.

“In the United States, holidays dot the calendar from Halloween to New Years, with school breaks, large feasts, and various modes of gift giving taking center stage for many. A few years ago, I thought, how might we use holiday rituals as a window into the fabric of America?” says Dr. Amy Bass, Director of the Honors Program and Professor of History.

The result was the Honors seminar December in America that explores holidays and family rituals through a sociological, historical, and political lens.

“Holidays are a cherished time for many, but often their roots are lost in their own evolutions. The U.S. includes many holidays on its calendars, some of which are shared globally, such as solstice and Armistice, and others like the Fourth of July that are uniquely American,” says Bass.

In the seminar, students focus on December, when most Americans celebrate something. According to Bass, “Understanding what happens in America in December is to understand much about U.S. society.”

Cynthia Valencia was among the students enrolled in the course this fall. “December in America has been one of my favorite classes at CNR. One of the most interesting aspects of the class is learning the origins of the different holidays and traditions we celebrate. The class has provided me with the understanding of the significance behind different holiday rituals that I had not previously known about or thought to dig into deeper,” says Valencia.

As part of the course, students investigate how the holiday season came to be, and learn what it demonstrates about who we are. Topics discussed range from the history of the Pilgrims in Plymouth setting the first Thanksgiving table to films such as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and students engage in multi-layered research, analysis, and writing to better grasp the roles of immigration, popular culture, food, decorative arts, and consumerism in how American celebrates.

“My final project is about the misinterpretation of Mexican holidays and traditions,” says Valencia. “The project really allows us to be creative and use the knowledge that we have gained over the course of the semester and put it towards a topic we are really passionate about.”

One of the highlights of the semester has been having local artists come in to talk about Day of the Dead traditions in both New Rochelle and Mexico.

“Our guest speakers have been incredible. The guest speaker that stood out the most was Lupita Torres, who every year sets up a Day of the Dead display at the New Rochelle Public Library,” says Valencia.

“Growing up in New Rochelle, I would go every year to see the display. I was awed by the all the work that went into creating the beautiful and grand displays. I was also very happy to see the various decorations used for the Day of the Dead celebration, including the sugar skulls and papel picado and learning how the altars (used to honor those who have passed away) are created using various items the person liked, such as their favorite foods.

“Overall, the class has been an enlightening experience that allowed me to better understand the significance of holiday traditions and rituals across different cultures.”