Christmas in the Schools: Can Conflicts Be Avoided?
Menendez, Albert J., Phi Delta Kappan
Most public school districts in the U.S. lack written policies to guide educators in the matter of religious holidays. This is unfortunate, Mr. Menendez points out, because conflicts are more likely to arise in settings where ambiguity abides.
MOST OF the students at an elementary school near Annapolis, Maryland, were looking forward eagerly to the impending Christmas holidays last year. They busied themselves in planning musical programs and in decorating their classrooms.
But not all parents and students were so enthusiastic. Many did not share the religious convictions that underpin the season. Some complained about the inordinate amount of classroom time that was being devoted to planning the festivities and wondered openly about the educational merit of it all. Others found too much specifically religious music in the school pageant. In short, some people felt that they did not belong, that they and their traditions were being left out. The celebration of the holiday season did not achieve the objectives often ascribed to it: peace, harmony, good will, and joy.
This experience of a rather typical community in a rapidly changing nation points to a major and recurring problem in American education. How should public schools celebrate holidays that, however secular they may appear, have significant religious overtones or foundations? Should these holidays be avoided altogether, at the risk of angering those who want some acknowledgment of a revered and cherished event? Should they be celebrated with all the trimmings, at the risk of alienating some children and their families? Should there be written guidelines, worked out by educators, community leaders, members of the clergy, and parents? Should as many different religions as possible be included in the educational and extracurricular activities of schools? Should celebrating events be carefully linked to educational goals and objectives? These are just some of the questions frequently asked -- and occasionally answered in responsible ways -- by those who must grapple with ongoing disputes regarding religion and education.
The dilemmas we face today are largely the result of a combination of increased sensitivity toward religious minorities, the undeniable pluralism of U.S. society, and the greater scrutiny of the courts in enforcing constitutional provisions for church/state separation. It was not always so difficult a task.
In the past America's public schools generally reflected local religious conditions. That is, they were usually Protestant in tone, despite the presence of substantial numbers of Catholic and Jewish students. Christmas in the schools tended to follow the increasing legal, commercial, and religious acceptability of the holiday.
Before the Civil War ended, Ohio and California enacted laws that made Christmas a public school holiday. Many states followed suit in the 1890s, so that, by 1931, 41 states had laws requiring that school be closed on December 25. In the other seven states it was customary to do so. Generally, a period of one or two weeks' vacation became the norm.
Disputes soon arose over the nature and the degree of religiousness of any school celebrations. In mostly Christian areas, a description that covers most of the country, the public schools celebrated Christmas with the full panoply of music and festivities, usually with strong religious content. Jews and other religious minorities, including those Christians who do not recognize the holiday, were left out.
One of the least-known incidents in American history took place in New York City in 1906, when thousands of Jewish pupils boycotted the public schools to protest obligatory Christian religious assemblies at Christmas time. The boycott was successful, and the following year school authorities removed all explicitly religious activities.
Attempts to accommodate Jewish students have usually included hesitant …
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Publication information: Article title: Christmas in the Schools: Can Conflicts Be Avoided?. Contributors: Menendez, Albert J. - Author. Journal title: Phi Delta Kappan. Volume: 76. Issue: 3 Publication date: November 1994. Page number: 239+. © 1999 Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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