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The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom

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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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Allison's picture

Your article was informative and timely, but was off on one fact. Having taught at a largely Middle Eastern school, I know Eid (particularly Eid al-Filtr, the celebration after Ramadan) moves like Easter. This year, it was in August, but three years ago was in October.

I do applaud you on Yom Kippur/Hanaukkah, though.

Terry's picture
Middle School teacher

Your article does make one think about the different ways our students observe the holidays. As Christmas approaches in our middle school, we work as a team of teachers to incorporate all students. We have developed an interdisciplinary unit on culture. During the month, all students will research and present how their culture impacts the holiday season. We end the unit with a big food festival. Each student brings in a dish related to their culture/heritage. This allows all students to learn from each other.

Mrs. H's picture
Mrs. H
7/8 band teacher, Minnesota

As a music teacher, I have dealt with this issue from day one in the classroom. My first job was in a small community - and they had a yearly Christmas concert. There were certain students who could never participate in that concert due to their own religion. It certainly was not in the best educational interest of the students to do a Christmas concert. I didn't make any friends when we cut the Christmas concert, and the teacher who took my place after I left reinstated it - she had to, it was a condition of her employment.

It continues to amaze me that people don't realize that singing about "the reason for the season" is, in my opinion, a form of discrimination. Students who don't celebrate that religion can't identify with what they are performing, and are never allowed to share their culture with their peers in school. This can lead to very real problems for students.

My husband works in an affluent suburban school, and they still have a Christmas concert - not just "Jingle Bells", but Silent Night, etc. I have always wondered what would happen if he programmed ONLY music that was not of the majority. Maybe it would help some people see the world from someone else's point of view.

zbeans_r's picture

I'm a parent and came across this article because of the problems we are having in our public school.
Our elementary school REALLY pushes the Christmas spirit. Last year it was unauthorized photos with santa, watching the Polar Express, Christmas tree and ornament crafts and songs about how everyone celebrates Christmas - how they celebrate and say "Merry Christmas" in China, Japan, Russia, Germany, England... For a full month.

We are Jewish and marginalized (at least there is a token small menorah in the lobby). Who I really feel for are the Hindu/Muslim/Other Religion children in our school. They are completely ignored.

I did try to speak to our teacher last year and asked that she please include some of the other children's traditions (Jewish and Hindu) along with the Christmas celebrations. She didn't realize (or maybe care) that there were students who didn't celebrate Christmas. After an uncomfortable discussion about the fact that 25% of her class didn't celebrate Christmas, she allowed the children to sit down and talk about what holiday they celebrated. It was an awkward 15 minutes of "raise your hand if you don't celebrate Christmas and talk about your tradition". That was that and back to everybody celebrates Christmas. I did try to speak to and email the parents about discussing their (Hindu) traditions with the teacher and to the class so all of the children's traditions were included. Every one of them was uncomfortable about speaking up about their celebrations and said their child understood if their holidays aren't discussed or included.

I'm dreading a repeat of last year. The problem is that everyone from the principal to the teachers are really nice, they are wonderful at their jobs and love the kids. They just aren't very open-minded and can't seem to see how the school culture as a whole is very excluding to non-Christmas, non-Easter celebrating students.

If anybody has any ideas about how I can speak to our current teacher about being "culturally aware" this season in a nonconfrontational way, I'd appreciate it.

MissD's picture
Student teacher from Seattle, WA

I absolutely agree that religious holidays can and should be viewed as teachable moments. Keeping in mind the educational purposes behind what we teach and do in both our classrooms and schools are paramount. Religion and the holidays that are a part of religious practices should be no different from anything else that we teach our students. There has to be an educational purpose behind everything we teach. Also keeping in mind that celebrating a holiday and learning about a holiday are two very different things. Having a Christmas party in the classroom on the last day of school before winter break does not have an educational purpose. It also will likely exclude many students and that should never happen. Teaching and learning about different holidays is such a wonderful opportunity to celebrate diversity. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post on the subject!

Delma Martinez's picture

Although the children are the most important to consider in the "December Dilemma," one of my former college professors once confided in me that the college and public schools have academic calendars planned with time off for major Christian holidays, for both students and teachers. He, however, is Jewish and the most important holiday for him is Yom Kippur and if he wanted to take time off, his pay would be docked. That's when I checked the calendar and found that he is correct. I do understand that Christians, may be the majority in most communities and it time is not given off, there would be many absences. Still, it most certainly is not fair to him and those who do not celebrate Christian holidays.

Amanda Cox's picture
Amanda Cox
K-3 music teacher in central IL

As a music teacher, this topic is always in the front of my mind while I am planning. Many classroom teacher's curricula revolve around major holidays, and my text series does as well. I do have a "winter concert" yearly, but work strongly to avoid the term "Christmas concert" at all costs. I do have families of many faiths within our building, so I am very careful and mindful to include and not exclude. We keep ALL of our music secular as to avoid any argument, and on occasion I even have to go further. Currently, we have a family who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Those students are not permitted to sing songs with "santa" or "christmas tree" in them, although as mentioned in the article these are acknowledged to be secular symbols of the holiday. I carefully plan around their needs, while listening to other educators complain about having to re-work the plans they have used for 22 years to accommodate this new family. This saddens me greatly, and I hope they will soon adjust their approach!

Amy's picture
Pre-K teacher from Pontiac, Illinois

My school district is not incredibly diverse, but does have several families who are Jehovah's witness and do not celebrate any holidays. Although it was at first difficult to accept, I have now changed my thoughts on incorporating holidays into our school days. Being a pre-kindergarten teacher, holiday crafts are a large part of our curriuculm. I found that many of my students were unable to complete these projects due to their religious beliefs. Many holidays that we do celebrate do have a religious background behind it. Not wanting to exclude any student because of their beliefs, I have taken the approach that I can teach about seasonal changes rather than holidays such as Christmas or Easter. At this time of year, we learn about winter, snow, and artic animals rather than focusing on Christmas.

sagajagds's picture

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.


Edutopian's picture

There is no dilemma when it comes to public schools really.
- Yes, it should be a teachable moment. Communication should always be opened and knowledge helps to do this.
- No, celebrations should not be followed at a public school. These should be part of the "home" culture instead of the school curriculum. The rule is: if you find a card for it at Walgreens then it should be left for home.

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