In recent years, some concerned citizens have expressed outrage with public schools promoting the religious aspects of Christmas, claiming they turn the classroom into a church. Others have expressed outrage with public schools acknowledging only the secular aspect of that holiday, without touching on the underlying reasons that it exists in the first place, especially in communities that examine the origins of other winter religious and cultural holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
Based on high-profile fights over the past several years, many schools have taken an entirely hands-off approach to the winter holidays. But that is not necessarily the right way to solve the “December Dilemma.”
The bottom line: Schools should be proactive in developing policies on addressing religious holidays before an issue arises. Not only will it ensure that schools meeting their First Amendment obligations, it will lead to a much less stressful December.
The ultimate solution will look different for each community, as often occurs in educational issues. But the end result will be the same: A December holiday season that is inclusive and educational.
Striking the Right Balance
How can educators ensure they are not overstepping their First Amendment bounds in addressing religious holidays? Plan each activity only after answering the question, “What is our educational purpose?”
If a lesson, or an assembly (as is often the case around the winter holidays), has a good educational purpose, it is on the right track. But as the First Amendment Center’s Religious Holidays in the Public Schools points out, “teachers [and other educators] must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not.”
Look Beyond December
One way to relieve the pressure of December is to look beyond it, educating students about various religious holidays at various times of the year, where appropriate. For example, the first fasting of the Islamic celebration of Ramadan will fall in June or July for the next few years (this fasting occurs at the start of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is lunar). Diwali, celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains, falls in late October or early November. While many schools acknowledge Hanukkah around the same time as Christmas, the major Jewish holiday Yom Kippur falls in September or October.
Quick Tips for Planning Religious Holidays in Public Schools
Before planning a religious holiday activity in a public school, ask the following questions:
- Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?
- How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course, or the educational mission of the school?
- Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity?
- If in December: Do we plan activities to teach about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December?
- Are we prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students’ understanding of history and cultures?
Calendars of religious and ethnic holidays can be obtained from the following organizations:
National Conference for Community and Justice 71 5th Avenue New York, NY 10003
Educational Extension Systems P.O. Box 259 Clarks Summit, PA 18411
Teaching your students about different religions and their celebrations is ok, celebrating the holiday is not ok. Be inclusive of all religions and go beyond the holidays celebrated in December to ensure a successful year of religious and cultural education. With this approach to the holidays the December Dilemma will be resolved.