December dilemma: What should schools do about Christmas?

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Somewhere it must be etched in stone that schools are required to have “holiday concerts” in December. As soon as Santa appears in the store windows, hand-wringing begins about how to “celebrate the season” at the school assembly.

Pity the poor choral directors. Since the December program is a traditional flash point for conflict in many communities, every year they have the unenviable task of selecting “seasonal music” that offends no one.

An increasingly popular option is to follow popular culture. Now that commercial interests have transformed Christmas into a generic, secular holiday, many educators seize on the nonreligious Christmas as the way out for school programs.

But celebrating the shopping-mall Christmas in school assemblies is a doomed strategy. Some parents may like it, but many Christians will be offended by the removal of Christ from Christmas. And many non-Christians will still feel like outsiders in an auditorium bedecked with Christmas trees while kids sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Courts may view Rudolph and trees as secular, but try explaining that to people who don’t celebrate Christmas.

Reverting to what some religious parents fondly recall as the “good old days” won’t work, either. That’s when school auditoriums were transformed into local churches with Nativity pageants, sacred songs and candlelight processions. But the lawsuits and conflicts provoked by the “good old days” weren’t so good for schools – or for the nation. The devotional approach still goes on in some places, but by now all public schools should know that promoting religious holidays in schools is unjust and unconstitutional.

What are the beleaguered chorus director and principal to do? The short answer is to plan holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students – programs that make no students feel excluded or forcibly identified with a religion not their own.

Does this mean ignoring religion? Of course not. 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.

Timing is part of the problem. A performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in September is likely to be accepted by students and parents as educational. But hold the same concert in December and a conflict is bound to erupt.

The solution is for the school to plan programs in December that include sacred music, but aren’t dominated by it. Let the performers (and the audience) know that the choral selections were made for aesthetic and educational reasons, not to promote religion. And make sure that a variety of traditions and cultures are represented – not just in December, but throughout the school year.

Before planning December holiday concerts or other activities in a public school, choral directors and administrators should ask themselves three simple questions:

  1. Do we have a clear educational purpose? Under the First Amendment, learning about religious holidays is an appropriate educational goal – celebrating or observing religious holidays is not.
  2. Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider by the concert or activity? Most parents and students are fine with learning about religious traditions – as long as the school’s approach is academic, not devotional. It is never appropriate for public schools to proselytize.
  3. Is our overall curriculum balanced and fair? December shouldn’t be the only time sacred music pops up in the curriculum. Students should learn about religious music from various traditions at other times of the year.

Music educators understand what constitutes a good music education. But they also need to act on what is constitutional, sensitive and fair for all students and parents. When that happens, December will be a dilemma no more.