Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom

How teachers can stay within First Amendment bounds and still address religious holidays.

November 25, 2011

Most people acknowledge that their stress level goes up around the winter holidays. Crowded shopping malls, financial pressures, and additional responsibilities at home, work and in the community can all contribute. Educators can also experience another level of stress: addressing the December holidays at a public school.

In recent years, some concerned citizens have expressed outrage with public schools promoting the religious aspects of Christmas, claiming they turn the classroom into a church. Others have expressed outrage with public schools acknowledging only the secular aspect of that holiday, without touching on the underlying reasons that it exists in the first place, especially in communities that examine the origins of other winter religious and cultural holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Based on high-profile fights over the past several years, many schools have taken an entirely hands-off approach to the winter holidays. But that is not necessarily the right way to solve the "December Dilemma."

A Teachable Moment

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, and one of the most religious of the developed nations in the world. As First Amendment Scholar Charles Haynes points out, Americans take it for granted that we can live together with those who have deep religious differences. But as is evident in conflicts around the world, that is not a given.

Yet we know that many of the problems associated with religious intolerance are rooted in ignorance and fear. Therefore, Haynes suggests public schools take the lead in teaching students about others, including about religious differences, to help us better live together in peace.

Striking the Right Balance

How can educators ensure they are not overstepping their First Amendment bounds in addressing religious holidays? Haynes offers a simple suggestion: Plan each activity only after answering the question, "What is our educational purpose?"

If a lesson, or an assembly (as is often the case around the winter holidays), has a good educational purpose, it is on the right track. But as the First Amendment Center's Religious Holidays in the Public Schools points out, "teachers [and other educators] must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not."

While celebrating should be left to families and faith communities, there is a lot of room for schools to accomplish their main purpose in any endeavor: Educating. As the National Education Association's Tim Walker has put it, "The idea is to help students develop respect for the differences in religious holidays and festivals while also drawing connections on how they are similar."

When approached in an objective way, the First Amendment Center guide makes clear that information including how and when religious holidays are celebrated, their origins, their histories, and generally agreed-upon meanings can be passed on to students. Religious symbols can be used as teaching aids and resources. Religious music can be included in the academic study of music (though concerts dominated by religious music, especially around a religious holiday, should be avoided). Religious art, drama and literature can also be included in courses for learning purposes (not to promote of religion). And Walker points out that educators can use a thematic framework -- peace, thankfulness, forgiveness, or compassion, for example -- to connect different religions and their traditions throughout the year.

The Christmas Conundrum

Such advice is well and good, but it does not really answer the question, "What should my school do about Christmas?"

Haynes points out that the legal system has recognized that certain aspects of Christmas are secular, including the tree and Santa. But while that might mitigate concerns over First Amendment issues, it does not detract from the sensitivity surrounding such imagery for both Christians and non-Christians. His advice? Engage the community in developing a winter holiday policy that satisfies all sides. Settle on the educational issues that need to be addressed, and then discuss decorations.

While a district can come up with a constitutionally sound strategy on its own, without community engagement, there can be backlash on a number of other grounds, so that engagement is essential. It has the added bonus of strengthening ties between schools and the communities they serve.

The ultimate solution will look different for each community, as often occurs in educational issues. But the end result will be the same: A December holiday season that is inclusive and educational.

Look Beyond December

Both Haynes and Walker also point out that one way to relieve the pressure of December is to look beyond it, educating students about various religious holidays at various times of the year, where appropriate. For example, the first fasting of the Islamic celebration of Ramadan will fall in June or July for the next few years (this fasting occurs at the start of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is lunar). Diwali, celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains, falls in late October or early November. While many schools acknowledge Hanukkah around the same time as Christmas, the major Jewish holiday Yom Kippur falls in September or October.

The bottom line: Schools should be proactive in developing policies on addressing religious holidays before an issue arises. Not only will it ensure that schools meeting their First Amendment obligations, it will lead to a much less stressful December...

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