There’s a right way to do holidays in school

Sunday, December 13, 1998

In many public schools, the holiday season has become the silly season.

A parent calls to tell us that her daughter's school puts menorahs on the bulletin board and has an assembly program about Hanukkah, but doesn't allow Christmas symbols or programs.

From another school we get reports of celebrations of Christmas, complete with parents coming in to read the Christmas story to elementary students.

Still another school puts a Christmas tree in the lobby — and then places a menorah next to it for “balance.” A creche is ruled out as “too religious.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. All of these solutions fail to live up to what is required under the First Amendment.

So, what should public schools be doing about holidays in December, if anything? What's constitutional? What's right?

Before beginning to answer these questions, schools should consider this advice (learned on the front lines of the December wars):

  • First, don't tackle these questions in December when emotions run too high for finding common ground. Have your Christmas debate in July.
  • Second, consider how to address religious holidays and religion throughout the year, not just in December.
  • Third, make sure that parents and others in the community are fully represented in the process of deciding how to handle holidays.
  • And fourth, have a clear understanding of how the law requires religious holidays to be treated in public schools under the First Amendment.

School districts that go through this process and successfully resolve the “December dilemma” discover that the core of the solution is to treat religious holidays as opportunities for educating students. The academic approach is consistent with the purpose of schools — and it appeals to people on both sides of the debate.

Most parents who don't want their children proselytized in public school will agree that learning about various religious holidays is an important part of a good education, especially if it means that a number of faiths will be studied during the year. And most Christian parents who want their faith represented in the schools will agree that teaching about what Christians actually believe is much better than the “shopping-mall Christmas” that is usually celebrated in classrooms.

How would this approach have changed things in the three schools mentioned at the beginning of this column?

In the first instance, religious symbols could have been temporarily posted on bulletin boards or used in the classroom as teaching tools. Assembly programs could have included religious music or educational presentations about various cultures and traditions, but they would not have been devotional exercises.

In the second situation, students could have learned about Christmas in December, just as they would learn about Passover or Ramadan or other holidays at other times of the year. Guest speakers could help teachers present the appropriate information, but only if they understood their role as informational, not devotional in nature.

And in the third case, religious symbols such as menorahs and creches would be used as teaching aids in the classroom, not as displays in the lobby. Religious symbols might also appear in student artwork used to decorate the halls or in displays showcasing what students are learning.

So far so good. But what about Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and other Christmas trappings? Do we ban them all as religious? Do we allow them because they are cultural and not religious?

Some parents who remember the classroom trees, the tinsel and Santa from their own school years, and who want them for their children, are angered when these are removed from the schools. Santa and the Christmas trees are probably not legal issues (since the courts now tend to view these things as secular symbols). But they are sensitivity issues. Many non-Christians perceive the tree as a religious symbol, even though many practicing Christians don't feel the tree — much less Santa — represents their faith.

The best way to settle fights about the cultural Christmas is to first reach agreement on teaching about religious holidays in general, including Christmas. Then the community will be better positioned to decide how to decorate the schools in December and at other times of year. Reasonable people should be able to come up with all kinds of ways to liven up the hallways — with student art, for example — without pulling the greenery out of the closet every year. And classroom parties can be festive without making some kids feel like they are outsiders in their own school.

We don't need to fight about Christmas in the schools. We can resolve the conflicts in a way that both treats religion authentically and is fair to people on all sides of the debate. What we really need in December is more goodwill — and a little common sense.