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What Can I Do About Christmas? Answers to the Question Teachers Often Ask Themselves
posted by: Ruthie | December 18, 2012, 03:16 PM   

This article originally appeared in Education Matters. It has been reprinted with permission from author Eric Buehrer

As the holidays approach, many educators assume it is illegal to teach the religious aspects of Christmas. Many want to teach about Christmas but are afraid to do so. Their fear usually stems from complaints they have had (or think they will have) from parents, administrators, or colleagues.

However, schools and teachers can teach about the religious aspects of holidays as an important part of learning about American culture.

Part of a Student's Education
In the case of Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, upheld the constitutionality of the school's policy on religious holidays. The policy, in part, stated:

Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.

The Court of Appeals held that:

We view the thrust of these rules to be the advancement of the students' knowledge of society's cultural and re¬ligious heritage, as well as the provision of an oppor¬tunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience.... School administrators should, of course, be sensitive to the religious beliefs or disbeliefs of their constituents and should attempt to avoid conflict, but they need not and should not sacrifice the quality of the students' education.

Recognizing Christmas in the Classroom

In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court stated:

The concept of a 'wall' of separation between church and state is a useful metaphor but is not an accurate description of the practi¬cal aspects of the relationship that in fact exists. The Constitu¬tion does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require the 'callous indifference,' (Zorach v. Clauson) that was never intended by the Establishment Clause.

By prohibiting or even discouraging teachers from recognizing the religious aspects of Christmas, schools are engaging in the hostility and callous indifference that the Supreme Court opposes.

Reading the Christmas Story
In Stone v. Graham (1980), the Supreme Court stated "The Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like."

Christmas Carols

The Supreme Court assumes your school is having children sing Christmas carols. In Lynch v. Donnelly, dealing with the public display of a nativity scene, the Court commented:

To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation's history and this Court's holdings.

The largest organization of public school music teachers, the Music Educators National Conference (MENC), states the following regarding the use of music with religious themes:

It is the position of Music Educators National Conference (MENC): The National Association for Music Education that the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience.

Is Equal Time Necessary?
The truth is, no court has said equal time must be given to all the religious holidays. You can find a reasonable guideline for deciding which holidays to emphasize and how much time to devote to them by answering two questions:

1. Which religion or religions have had the most influence in shaping American culture?
2. Which religions have a prominent influence in the local community?

How much time is spent on each holiday should be determined by its relevance and influence in American culture and the local community. While avoiding slighting any religion, teachers should not leave students with the impression that all religions have had an equal impact on American culture.

The issue is one of proportionality. Fair does not always mean equal. For instance, a first-year teacher has the same number of students and has the same workload as a 25-year veteran. However, the rookie will not receive equal pay for equal work. She will receive compensation proportional to her years of service. Yet, by most teachers, this is considered fair.

Teaching about or Instruction in?
There is a difference between "teaching about" and "instruction in" religion. The California Department of Education offers this distinction that is instructive for educators everywhere:

To teach about religion is not to instruct in religion. Teaching about religion embraces the study of various religions; appreciation of the nature and variety of religious experience historically and currently; information on past and present sources, views, and behavior of religious persons or groups; and the influence of religion on cultures and civilizations. Instruction in religion, by contrast, is to seek acceptance of and commitment to a particular religion, including a non-religion, such as secularism.

It may be helpful to use the term "recognizing Christmas" rather than "celebrating Christmas." Using the word "celebrate" may cause some people to feel that you are promoting religious participation in the holiday. There is a difference between "participating" in the holiday in a devotional manner and "recognizing" the holiday in an engaging and enjoyable academic manner.

It is also best to teach about Christmas using words of attribution such as: "Christians believe...;" "The Bible says...;" "Christmas is special for Christians because...;" and so forth.

Here are other examples of how to talk about recognizing Christmas:
Nativity scenes are teaching aids to illustrate the cultural lesson regarding the birth of Jesus. They are not permanent fixtures in the classroom.
Students sing Christmas carols as an educational experience, not a devotional experience.
Teachers read the story of the birth of Jesus to students so they become familiar with the story of the birth and life of Jesus and gain a basic academic familiarity with a person who has influenced so many people throughout history in government, art, literature, music, and social movements.

Presented with an eye toward education, not endorsement or devotion, recognizing the religious aspects of Christmas is a legitimate academic activity.

What do you do about Christmas in your classroom?
Comment below.

Comments (2)Add Comment
Senior operations
written by L Howell ks, December 03, 2014

Wow! Read your Bible. You said " The Bible says Christmas is special to Christians "....Do some research; Dec 25 is of pagan origins and is NOT the date Jesus was born. Jesus taught his followers to commentate his death NOT his birth. The Christmas tree is of pagan origins. And there are so many unchristian. aspects! This article is a joke!
written by Arne Conrad, Modesto, CA, December 18, 2012

We sing sacred and secular Christmas songs. We have a cresche in the classroom. We discuss the story of Christmas and what the students do for Christmas Day.

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