Religion in Our Schools

How should the religious holidays be handled in school?

Brookline Tab, December 1999

My second grader at Lincoln caused me to ponder this a few days ago when he asked me if he could bring a dreidel into school to decorate the Christmas tree in the cafeteria. The kids had been told to bring in something symbolic of their own holiday celebrations (any religion) and it would be put on the tree.

Right away I was bothered about the tree. I have always believed that Christmas trees are not neutral pagan expressions of the winter season; they are decidedly for Christmas. Of course there is nothing wrong with Christmas symbolism in itself; it’s just that it is part of one specific religion, Christianity, and that’s the part that I feel makes it not for everybody. Religion is a choice, right? So having a school staff member set up a tree in the cafeteria, with the implication that the tree is a symbol that everybody embraces, is potentially confusing and upsetting to those who do not celebrate Christmas. Even the invitation to decorate the tree with one’s own cultural symbols does not correct the balance. There’s no context, no forum for discussion, just the assumption that it’s okay for everyone to decorate Christmas trees. So, the idea that my son’s cafeteria had a Christmas tree disturbed me — regardless of what was on its branches.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there were no displays of holiday symbols anywhere in the schools. Would they really be missed? With all of the wonderful school work and art generated in each classroom, we should never lack for beautiful hall and class decorations. Let the rest of the world go crazy with seasonal decorations, songs, stories, etc. The schools have enough to do without also covering religious holidays.

Now let’s take the other case, where the teacher sets aside a few days in December and even allows parents to present their version of the holidays. I think about how my son’s kindergarden teacher handled things. I remember Max’s teacher calling me and several other parents and asking how we felt about her proposed holiday presentations and would we care to be a part of one. During the Chanukah story, some kids started to raise big questions that had “the Lord” in them, but the teacher deftly steered things back to the story, the candles, the dreidel. She sent home recipes, summaries, and songs for the parents. It was handled with the utmost sensitivity and skill, in a non- threatening context, without one religion taking precedence.

Even done this carefully, there are those who feel that religious holiday discussion, being intensely personal and serious, should not be covered by another parent or secular school teacher. For one thing, it is potentially unconstitutional (separation of church and state, but I’m not going to go there). And from the religious perspective, the meaning of the holiday might be trivialized or watered-down, while perhaps in one’s Sunday School it would be handled as the family chose. Shouldn’t families be allowed to present such important items in their own homes, in their unique style and time frame?

It is up to each family to decide how and if they want to cover religion. Ideally, it should not be up to the schools. But if we must have some public holiday acknowledgement, let’s think hard about the power and weight of these religious symbols and not take them lightly. Sensitive public discussion ought to accompany any holiday presentations, ideally with parental input. The difference between Max’s kindergarden experience and the cafeteria experience is subtle, but that ambiguity is my responsibility as his parent to clarify — and perhaps the school’s as well. I believe it is up to all of us to think about the magnitude of holiday symbols and make intelligent, fair decisions about each and every one we publicly display.