Separating education, celebration

Sunday, December 8, 1996

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what to
do about Christmas in the public schools. Some people argue that
schools should be allowed to celebrate the religious meaning of
Christmas. Other people want to ban the singing of Christmas
carols and even saying “Merry Christmas.” What should
schools do during the Christmas season?
Olive Mayberry,
Nashville, Tenn.

Both approaches you mention are unjust and unfair. Under the
First Amendment, public schools may not sponsor religious celebrations.
At the same time, school officials should not remove references
to religion from the curriculum or the school.

A third approach that upholds the First Amendment, and is fair
to all, is for public schools to teach about religious
holidays. There is a legal distinction between teaching about
religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious
holidays, which is not. Teaching about the meaning of religious
holidays is not only constitutional; it is an important part of
a complete education.

This month, in Williamsville, N.Y., elementary teachers will
bring crèches into the classroom during the lesson that
teaches students how Christians understand the Nativity story
in the New Testament. They will be careful to teach in a way
that is objective and respectful. In the spring, these same teachers
will bring in Jewish symbols to teach about the meaning of the
Seder meal during Passover. The Williamsville school district,
and many other districts like it, have developed an academic program
that includes these and other religious traditions in the curriculum
without using the schools to promote religion.

Even when religion is treated properly in the classroom during
December, schools still have conflicts over school-wide assembly
programs. The best solution is to include Christmas carols but
avoid turning the program into a devotional event. Sacred music
is an important part of any study of music, and to leave carols
out of a December program would be odd and unfair. At the same
time, holiday programs in a public school should have an educational
purpose for all students. The schools in Ramona, Calif., for
example, have a new policy calling for assembly programs that
include “music from religious and non-religious holidays
from various nations and faiths.”

What about Nativity pageants? According to guidelines issued
by 18 religious and educational groups – from the National Association
of Evangelicals to the National School Boards Association – “Nativity
pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate
in the public school setting. In short, while recognizing the
holiday season, none of the school activities in December should
have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.”

Those parents who want a Nativity pageant should organize it as
a community-sponsored event. It could even be held at the school
in the evening or on a weekend if the school allows other community
groups to use school facilities. Then the pageant can be a genuinely
religious event, attended by those who wish to participate.

There are some questions that the law can't answer. For example,
since a majority of Supreme Court justices have indicated that
they see the Christmas tree as a secular symbol, it might be legal
to put up a Christmas tree in a public school. But it may not
be the right thing to do, since many non-Christians (and some
Christians) see it as a religious symbol. Consequently, each local
school district will have to struggle with how to handle the “cultural
Christmas,” i.e., Santa, tinsel, and trees. At the very
least, schools should consider toning down the cultural Christmas.

The “December Dilemma” doesn't have to be a perennial
source of conflict and division. Properly done, learning about
Christmas and other holidays can foster understanding and mutual
respect in our public schools.