Public schools confront the ‘December dilemma’

Sunday, November 30, 1997

Ringing fills the air here at the First Amendment Center, but the tune is not “Jingle Bells.” Angry parents and confused principals are on the other end of the phone line, calling about Christmas in the schools.

A parent in Pennsylvania complains about plans for an assembly program that sounds more like a worship service.

A Texas teacher is upset because she's been ordered not to put up a Christmas tree or any other “religious decorations.”

An Illinois principal asks if a classroom library can include a book about the Christmas story. “We don't teach about religion here,” she tells me, “and we don't allow Christmas decorations in the school.” Take a deep breath. Relax. Don't eliminate Christmas from the schools. But don't turn your school into a house of worship either.

There's a simple solution to the December dilemma, but it takes some work: Teach about the meaning of religious holidays.

Walk into a classroom in South Orangetown, N.Y., this December, and you're likely to hear students learning what Christians actually believe about Christmas. In the same classroom at other times of year, you'll hear about Passover or Ramadan. This school district makes sure that teachers are prepared to teach about these religions accurately and fairly. South Orangetown's approach to religious holidays is academic, not devotional.

Teaching about religious holidays doesn't solve the problem of what to do about the cultural Christmas—trees and Santas. Since most Supreme Court justices seem to view the Christmas tree as a secular symbol, this may not be a legal question. But it is a community issue that can spark conflict, because many non-Christians (and some Christians) see these decorations as religious. In other words, it may be legal to put up a tree in the school lobby, but is it the right or sensitive thing to do in your schools?

Smart school officials bring their parents and teachers together for a discussion about how to deal with both the religious and the cultural Christmas. More often than not, they agree on the importance of teaching about religion. And they usually agree to tone down the tinsel so that it doesn't overwhelm the school for weeks.

What does a school look like in December when it's trying to do the right thing? Kids are learning about the holidays celebrated at this time of year. Assembly programs include traditional Christmas music, but they have other kinds of music as well. Classrooms have religious symbols, including the crèche, as teaching aids for the lessons about the religion under discussion. Student art—some religious and some not—decorates the walls to express what students are doing at this time of year. Stories from the major religious traditions are in the class library, along with a wide variety of other stories. Nobody is afraid to say “Merry Christmas,” but teachers don't assume that everyone has a tree in their living room.

Getting all this right won't be easy. Many schools don't have religious holiday policies or guidelines. Teachers are often unsure just what is and isn't legal. And few schools offer in-service programs on how to teach about religion.

Small wonder we get so many calls every December.

If public schools want to end fights about the December dilemma, they need to begin taking religion and religious liberty seriously. That means creating sound policies and offering good teacher preparation. Maybe then “peace on earth” will include our public schools.