Sacred or Secular?

Leslie Carroll had seen enough.

When his 8-year old son starting singing “holiday carols” learned at school Leslie knew he had to get involved. In calling the school he was told that Christmas was “equalized” with other cultural events during December. Along with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, Christmas was “observed” in a teaching unit titled “celebrating diversity”.

For Leslie, a born-again Christian, the offense was almost too much to bear. To him, Christmas is held sacred. The Carrolls celebrate Christmas in their home with a tree and “a few presents”, Leslie notes. But central to their Christmas observance is a season of worship.

“The school was making every effort to be politically correct,” Leslie admits. “And in the process they represented just about everything wrong about Christmas. They didn’t touch on a single religious theme. At no point did they even approach mentioning Jesus Christ. In fact, they portrayed Christmas in such a way that it caused a conflict within my son – who learns at home that Christmas is a holy day, while the school tells him it is merely a holiday. If they are going to teach Christmas at all, why can’t they also cover how Christmas is observed religiously in our society? Why just represent the secular view of Christmas? That’s not balanced teaching. That’s not fair. And it is not really politically correct either.”

According to a 2005 study more than 85% of all Americans celebrate Christmas. You would think that overwhelming majority would mean relative peace about Christmas in the public discourse. But the devil is in the details.

Of that 85%, more than half consider Christmas to be a religious observance. Less than half view Christmas as a purely secular holiday. That clear division is what muddies the merry waters of the “war on Christmas”.

Complicating matters, of the majority who view Christmas as sacred, 77% say not enough spiritual emphasis is placed on the holiday. Popular cultural influences such as movies and music, teaching of Christmas in the schools, and the portrayal of Christmas in the media detract from the spiritual significance of the season, according to study participants.

From where Diane Knoffler is sitting, the view is a little bit different.

Diane’s family background is Jewish but they celebrate Christmas every year with a tree and a Menorah. “Christmas is just as much an American holiday as it is a religious observance for some,” Diane says. “We don’t believe in Jesus and we don’t celebrate his birth, as great a story as that is. We don’t believe in Saint Nick but we do love Santa Claus. We keep Christmas in this way because it is an American thing to do. In July we light firecrackers, in October we carve pumpkins, in the spring we hide Easter eggs and every December we celebrate Christmas. We love it.”

Diane says she takes no offense of Christmas taught in the schools.

“I don’t really care,” Diane admits. “My kids can learn about Jesus at school. Obviously he is a significant historical figure that affects many people. So was Mohammed. So was Moses. If non-Jewish kids learn about the Menorah at school it seems to me that exposure is good for the Jews. Likewise the same can be said of what Christmas represents for Christians. I’m fine with it. Just teach it, don’t preach it.”

Not every one has Diane’s open mind. Of the nearly 1300 respondents to the Christmas study, more than 93% admit that teaching religious history relative to Christmas at school is a bad idea.

“We’ll never do it right,” admits Charlene Heald, an elementary school teacher in Roy, Utah. “Christians cannot agree on the very nature of Jesus and God, let alone which version Christmas history to use. We’d offend more than we do now. Secular representation of Christmas is much safer than trying to satisfy all the viewpoints that exist about Christmas. Besides, it’s December and curriculum needs are far beyond giving that much time and that many resources to holidays.”

Ironically, just who is “offended” by Christmas in public schools might surprise you. “I’d rather they just take Christmas out of the schools,” Leslie Carroll says. “If they cannot represent it completely they shouldn’t
represent it at all. We don’t teach the American Revolution and keep George Washington out of it, do we? Neither should we short-change Christmas in the classroom.”

This Christmas, as we see every Christmas, the debate will continue. Somewhere someone will be offended at Christmas in public. A school will come under fire, a parent will be outraged, politicians will preach
tolerance and television pundits will raise warning flags of the demise of Christmas.

But for the Carolls and the Knofflers, Christmas will come. The Carrolls will pray. The Knofflers may not. But both will open their presents together by the tree and wish each other a Merry Christmas.

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