The email that landed in my inbox was exploding with excitement: “We will have our winter festival soon!” “Please support us!” “Your kids are doing a great job!!”
Typical of our son’s wonderful preschool teacher, I thought.
The next section, though, felt like a kick to the gut: The girls should come dressed in red and white and Santa hats. The boys, green and white and Santa hats. My Jewish 3-year-old was about to get a good soaking in his outsider status, I thought, all to a jingly beat.
I tried to access an ostensibly more reasonable version of myself, the longtime religion reporter who thrives on spiritual assortment, who understands that faith identity is formed by years of experiences, who has covered holiday culture wars for years and always thought: That will never be me.
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Within a few days, though, I’d become the sort of person I write about. I complained to the teacher as well as the PTA president. Why is one faith being held up as the “mainstream” one, I asked?
My objections, voiced two years ago during my family’s first holiday season in the D.C. school system, contributed to the annual cacophony of grievances from American parents of various faiths (or of no religious or spiritual affiliation) that comes in response to what schools dub “the December dilemma.” The dilemma has often involved legal challenges, but in recent years it has simmered at a low boil, mostly on school listservs and in missives to teachers and administrators.
And the complaints have become more diverse. Traditional Christians may object that Santa and Rudolph — secular characters — have replaced Jesus as the main figures of the season. Parents who see education as too guarded and testing-focused may consider December a barometer of whether children can still be children and be allowed to celebrate — somehow. Others still would love to hear secular holiday tunes such as Jingle Bells or Frosty the Snowman, and instead squirm in little chairs watching a concert about snowpants — or else feel livid if there’s no December event at all. In the mix are the classic complaints from parents who feel the celebrations at their schools are too Christmasy. December seems to have become a proxy for a range of our anxieties.
After decades of marking December with Christmas pageants, complete with devotion to God and Jesus Christ, public schools in the 1960s and 1970s began being forced by courts to reconsider those rituals. Legally, they must protect the free-speech rights of students while also taking care not to be seen as favoring any particular faith or holding anyone captive to non-instructional devotion.
But does respecting everyone mean having to eschew all tradition? Do you need to honor every faith? Or do you secularize the whole experience – and risk turning it into something that isn’t familiar to anyone? Is there any way to make parents happy?
Schools tend to take one of three broad approaches. The first is what you might call Modified Christmas, in which most or all activities are at least peripherally related to Christmas, be it performing a play about Santa or drawing wreaths during art. The second model could be called Christmaskwanzakkah, a multicultural mix that may or may not involve any teaching or acknowledgment of the divine. The third model is the No-Holidays Holiday: Schools avoid celebrating any holidays, though they may have an event or a song built around “shared religious values” such as “peace.”
One D.C. public-school parent told me that she was told she couldn’t talk to her child’s kindergarten class about Hanukkah because it violated the school’s no-holiday policy. (She asked that her name not be used so she wouldn’t be seen as criticizing her child’s school.) “Even if you don’t bring Christmas into your class, it’s everywhere,” she said. “The idea that a school can say, ‘No, we don’t celebrate this’ and that makes it go away — it doesn’t make it go away, it just means there’s no place [in school] for them to think about it the same way they think about math or science or history, and then it just becomes some fable and it’s awkward.”
Having covered religion in the United States for almost a decade, there are few things more obvious to me than the need for Americans to speak more authentically about their faith — and to listen well when others speak about theirs – throughout the year. But these holiday-winter-peace events matter intensely, too. As hokey and limited as they are, they’re one of the only times a big, diverse school like ours gathers for something that’s so personal to us all.
It took me a couple of days after the email from the preschool teacher to learn that I had misunderstood and that my son’s class just happened to be the one assigned to do the Christmas jingle. My jarred reaction made me realize that I wasn’t completely resolved about how to raise a universalist and yet Jewish child.
But my son wore a Santa hat that year, and the world didn’t end. And this past week, as I watched his kindergarten class sing Jingle Bells, I found myself getting misty-eyed in the packed school gym.
Michelle Boorstein is The Washington Post’s religion reporter.
© 2014, The Washington Post