Issues in education – the December dilemma

Wow. What a holiday season this has been.

Seems that freedom of religion and freedom from religion have become intertwined in the United States, reflecting an uneasiness about appropriate celebrations. In Wisconsin, a winter program at featured a performance of “Silent Night” with words changed to a more secular “Cold is the night”. School districts in California and Florida have eliminated Christmas music from their holiday programs, including Jingle Bells and Santa. Some of these programs include songs about Chanukah and Kwanzaa, but Christmas is a “winter holiday”. Even the Christmas tree, long a staple of public school and public square holiday décor, is now a controversial symbol, in some districts renamed “holiday tree” “giving tree” or “magic tree”.

The renaming of trees and rewording of well known carols seems a bit ridiculous. You can name a Christmas tree anything you want, but in every shopping mall in the western world, it is still a Christmas tree and children know that. “Magic” tree? I checked with a friend of mine who is a modern pagan. Magic is a part of her religion, her personal spirituality. (And the tree in her apartment is a Christmas tree.) A “magic tree” may indeed invoke the magic of Christmas, and a Christmas tree may have its origins in pagan celebrations but calling it magic without acknowledging Christmas is not a secular action – in fact, it seems to endorse one religion at the expense of another.

Oh people please, can we all just get along? More importantly, what are we really teaching children with this nonsense?

Doing away with holiday celebrations in public schools doesn’t seem to be much of an answer either. According to the United States Department of Education Guidelines for Student Religious Expression in Public Schools: “…it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature and social studies. Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students.”

As I understand this, it is not inappropriate in a public school to mention Christmas, or feature its secular decorations. It is also not inappropriate to feature a religious selection such as “Silent Night” as part of a diverse holiday program. Learning about the birth of Jesus is ok, a Nativity pageant in which students are compelled to participate or witness is not. Displaying a menorah and cooking latkes, playing dreidel, and singing Chanukah songs are all fine if they are presented as learning about Chanukah. Compelling students to participate in a menorah lighting ceremony complete with blessings and prayers – well, I think the same principle applies as with the nativity pageant.

Public schools have a mandate to educate everyone. Some students are religious, some not. By making schools religion-free zones in the name of tolerance, we teach by implication that religious observation is not to be tolerated. Young children in particular will notice when the obvious cannot be mentioned, and pick up on the negative connotations that are implied. When we ignore or re arrange Christmas in a public school, while celebrating or ignoring other winter holidays we do not teach diversity. We teach division, and perpetuate ignorance. We miss terrific opportunities to learn about the many traditions of Christmas and other winter holidays we celebrate in the United States.

The director of education programs and senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, Charles C Haynes, says “A concert in December without any sacred music makes little sense. Much of Western music has its origins in religious practice and belief. Surely traditional Christmas carols and other Christmas music by composers such as Bach and Handel should have a place in any good public school music curriculum.” The co author of Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, Haynes is a well known expert on first amendment issues affecting schools. He recommends that in choosing material for holiday programs, school teachers and administrators make sure that selections have an educational purpose, that no student or parent will be made to feel like an outsider due to proselytizing, and that the overall presentation and curriculum should be balanced and fair. December is not the only time when it is appropriate to teach students about world religions. It is one opportunity during the school year for students to learn about traditions and religions the world over.

Do we really mean to teach children that Christmas is a bad thing? Are public schools supposed to show children that Santa Claus does not exist except in a commercial shopping mall? I doubt it. Is singing “Silent Night” a bad thing except in church? Not when it is presented as a lesson of how Christmas is celebrated. Are Chanukah and Kwanzaa just afterthoughts to spice up the holiday mix – or are they wonderful celebrations in their own right to learn about, and where appropriate, share in the enjoyment with some of the students?

The practice of not acknowledging the obvious as a means of honoring diversity is a mistake. We do not honor the gift of diversity in the United States by ignoring it, renaming it, commercializing it. We honor diversity by celebrating it, embracing it, naming it, and sharing all its gifts, not by making our celebrations taboo in the name of respecting all cultures.

To learn more about religious freedom in public schools, and resources for teaching about the first amendment, visit: www.freedomforum.org

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