Christmas Myths & Realities in Schools

• Christians have not done a very good job of telling non-Christians why Christmas is such a big deal to us. This goes for parent-to-parent communication as well as parent-to-staff. Non-Christians don’t see what goes on in church; all they see are the secular signs of the season out in the public marketplace, which are mostly materialistic, sometimes hypocritical, and unfortunately and ironically, rather off-putting. It is likely that non-Christians have never been to a Christian religious worship service, so they may not be able to analyze whether certain activities at school exceed the secular / cultural bounds or not. It might be worthwhile to take your district’s ad hoc holiday policy committee or a non-Christian with concerns to a worship service to show them what worship is like, and how different it is from the party and school decorations you’d like to restore in your school, to avoid this misunderstanding.

• Try hard to make the Christmas party in your child’s classroom planned by a broad base of parents. Send a note to all parents inviting them to a planning meeting. You may want to personally invite a non-Christian parent to come to a planning meeting and make them feel valued and welcome, and make sure to give them a job. Briefly go over the legal basis for marking Christmas in public schools so that everyone is confident that you’re doing the right thing under the law. Meeting personally in advance of a classroom Christmas party can go a long way toward teaching non-Christian parents what it’s all about – a happy time, not a scary or threatening one — so that they and their children can feel comfortable there. For example, if there are one or more children in the class of a different faith, be sure to have some feature of the party – a song, a treat, an activity, a game – that relates to their holiday, too. Dreidel games and the retelling of the menorah story from Hanukkah are perfect for this.

• If there is conflict over Christmas at your school, accept the responsibility for making peace about that conflict. Bad feelings and misunderstandings are a sign of inadequate communications among the families at that school. You need to tell your fellow parents that Jesus Christ means everything to you, but you respect other people’s sincerely-held religious beliefs and rights as well. That’ll help them put the Christmas holiday into sharper focus, that you’re not just throwing your own weight around, but truly want something good for kids – all kids. You’re not trying to squelch anybody else’s “big day,” just to keep your own from being squelched out of nothing but Political Correctness.

• Christmas carols with a religious theme may be sung in public schools by individual students or groups in classrooms, assemblies or programs. As a matter of course, students who don’t celebrate Christmas may opt out with no repercussions whatsoever. It is wise and adds to the enjoyment to include a song or poem from a minority religion if possible. Everyone is enriched if students and families who don’t celebrate Christmas, but enjoy other holidays around the same time of year, can present information about them and, hopefully, traditional snacks and treats from their culture!

• It’s constitutional to refer to the winter break as “Christmas Vacation” in official calendars and school documents. A Christmas tree and candy cane are fine to use as symbols in the school newsletter, for example. It’s wise, if your school has a newsletter or poster that says “Merry Christmas” and you know you have Jewish or Muslim students, or kids who celebrate Kwanzaa, to include greetings about their key seasonal holidays as well.

• Schools may not ban the saying of “Merry Christmas” by students and teachers alike. It’s fine to call it a “Christmas” tree, not an “evergreen” tree or a “caring” tree. It’s fine to call them “Christmas” carols, not “holiday” carols or “winter” carols. Words have meaning; if you don’t allow the use of the word “Christmas,” kids will think there’s something shameful or “wrong” about Christmas.

• Schools don’t have to mark every holiday of every religion in the same way they mark Christmas. The concept of “equal time” doesn’t apply to First Amendment matters or we’d go crazy in this country trying to minutely balance everybody’s favorite “day.” Devout Christians have been quietly opting their children out of Halloween parties for religious reasons, and asking teachers and principals to tone down Halloween decorations and preparations in school, without going all out and demanding an end to Halloween parties for all children. Keep things in perspective, but don’t feel as though you have to be silent about the most major holiday of the country’s most major religion.

• Of course, it is wise to be sensitive to diverse religious backgrounds and manage school time and activities with other people’s feelings in mind as much as possible. For instance, it would not be wise to schedule parent-teacher conferences on Rosh Hashanah, or serve pork at a PTA fund-raising dinner during Ramadan. But if there are children from other continents whose families practice minority religions with 100 special “days,” that doesn’t mean your district has to note each and every one of them. And be aware that you can err too far on the side of inclusiveness and offend Christian parents: making children pretend to pray in the manner of Islam, for example, is offensive, as are art projects such as Native American mandalas used for religious meditation and therefore as religiously-oriented as a cross, and the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebration contains anti-Christian content such as necromancy that educators should be aware of, and avoid.

• It’s OK for students to distribute Christmas cards in school with Bible quotes or other religious content. The key is to make sure the practice of religious expression does not disrupt the school day. So it’s OK if school officials set reasonable time, place and manner regulations on practices like this. School officials might want to counsel parents to talk with their children about how to do this without hurting other children’s feelings.

• The religious origins of Christmas may be objectively studied in the classroom, including reading the pertinent Bible passages and studying them in an age-appropriate historical context. As long as the activity could not be construed as an endorsement of the Christian religion, or a worship experience, it’s fine. Every day in every school, topics are taught with no complaint that the school is “endorsing” that topic above all others. So there’s room for learning in Christmas, too.

• A manger scene is OK to be displayed at school if there is a clear educational reason for doing so, such as to celebrate the holiday or depict the origin of the holiday. It’s helpful to pass constitutional muster if you follow the “Three Reindeer Rule” – have secular Christmas symbols, and those of other seasonal religious holidays, too, so that the overall effect is more secular and inclusive than religious and exclusive. And use common sense: go low-key and tone down your Christmas’ing in school; if you want Christmas to be the main event at school for those few days before Christmas, put your child in a Christian school (and take it from me – it’s wonderful!). But if you’re in a mixed setting like a public school, send a note home a few weeks before your classroom Christmas party notifying all parents of the upcoming party; with courtesy and tact, urging non-celebrators to join the party planning committee to negotiate a more enjoyable party for the non-Christmas student as well and iron out any concerns and misunderstandings in advance. If they don’t show up to help out, they can’t squawk.

(Appears courtesy of GoBigEd.com)

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