A while back I was thinking about whether I should write a post about Christmas. I didn’t know what I would say, or if it was relevant. So, I started thinking about the impact of celebrating Christmas in public schools. Then, I saw an Instagram post from @teachandtransform about de-centering Christmas. De-centering Christmas? What’s that? That question led me into a wormhole. So here we are.
As I thought about it, it became obvious that this is a social justice issue
When I was a kid, I went to a high school that was about ⅓ Jewish. I was in choir and while we sang both Christmas and Jewish songs at the Holiday Concert. For a long time, I considered my high school “woke” (We didn’t use that term back then). But now I’m realizing that singing a few songs at a Holiday concert isn’t enough.
I’ve taught in the Northeast most of my career. And it has shaped my views on celebrating Christmas in public schools. I first taught in NYC and holidays weren’t allowed at all. No Halloween, No Christmas. And guess what? Everyone survived and went along with their day.
Then, I moved to Tennessee. I taught in a suburb of Nashville. The school was part of Metro Nashville Public Schools district. (They do school districts by county down there). One day in December, I walked into the cafeteria, and there it was:
A Christmas tree.
I was shocked. But, then I remembered I was in the Bible Belt. So I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Teachers even had Christmas trees in their classrooms.
At first, I was conflicted. If the majority of people think celebrating Christmas in public schools is ok, then what’s the big deal?
Then, I had to check myself.
As a social justice educator, I had to look at this through a social justice lens. I also had to consider equity, cultural responsiveness, diversity, and inclusion.
That’s when I decided:
Christmas has no place in public schools.
I know. You’re freaking out because I said that. Maybe your blood is tingling a little. Maybe you have an incredulous look on your face.
I’m going to ask you to take a breath and think about why that was your initial reaction.
- Was it because you remember enjoying celebrating Christmas at school when you were a kid?
- Are you upset about changing traditions?
- Do you think celebrating Christmas in school isn’t a big deal?
- Are you tired of political correctness?
- Do you have emotions tied to Christmas? Are they influencing your thoughts about celebrating Christmas in public school?
That’s all fine. You’re entitled to your opinion.
All I ask is that you hear me out.
Here are 7 reasons why Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated in public schools:
1. Many students face challenges this time of year
For many of us, Christmas conjures up images of hot chocolate, snow, and Christmas trees. It also makes us think of family, friends, and togetherness. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for many of our students.
Holidays in general can be challenging for our students, but imagine what it’s like in December. Everywhere they look, they are reminded of loss and financial instability. Many students are living in poverty and Santa won’t be visiting them this year. Often, students rely on gifts from charities or their schools. Every year my school runs a Giving Tree.
Celebrating Christmas in public school overlooks these challenges
While I love the intention and I donate every year, it should make us pause. We need to consider that Christmas isn’t the happiest time of the year for many of our students.
2. It may be legal to celebrate Christmas in public school. That doesn’t mean we should.
One argument that I came across in several articles is that it’s legal to celebrate Christmas at school. So there’s no reason not to celebrate.
So what? Because something is legal doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that we should continue doing it.
One article states,
“Ironically, the most targeted religious holiday for exclusion is also the most popular in American culture. Are American schoolchildren to be forbidden from learning about one of the most culturally significant events because it has spiritual overtones?”
This is fearmongering at it’s finest. Children are not forbidden from learning about Christmas. What shouldn’t happen is spending a whole month celebrating Christmas in public schools. If parents want their children to learn the ins and outs of Christmas, they can teach them that at home. Or send them to parochial school. That’s not the role of a public school.
This article goes on to explain when it’s appropriate to discuss religion. I agree that art, music, and drama classes are appropriate places for this. As long as what is being taught isn’t used for proselytizing purposes. I read the Bible in AP Literature my senior year of high school and it was fine. Teachers used it to teach literary concepts and a letter was sent to parents to let them know.
The real problem comes when we only study Christianity. Or when it gets more time than other religions.
3. Celebrating Christmas in public schools promotes Christian privilege
This one shook me. I talk about privilege a lot in my classes, but I’ve overlooked Christian privilege. That could be for a few reasons:
- I never considered it
- I’m nervous to discuss religion in my classes. Not because of the students, but because of their parents. (I’m sure you can relate).
So what is Christian privilege? According to Ellen Kate of everydayfeminism.com,
“Christian privilege is the idea that Christians are afforded unearned benefits in our society that other religious groups and atheists do not receive”.
The assumption that it’s ok to celebrate Christmas in a public school is Christian privilege.
Even if we discuss other holidays. Let’s be real. Other holidays are taught while superficially or not at all.
Another example of Christian privilege is crying politically correctness. People who say we can’t say “Merry Christmas” anymore, is an example of privilege. The people who claim every year that there’s a “War on Christmas,” are showing their privilege.
Let’s be real. You know who says that things are politically correct? People with privilege. In this case, Christian privilege.
No one’s taking Christmas away from you or your students. There’s a place celebrating holidays, and school isn’t that place.
But again, who cares. I bet if we take a poll, a large percentage of Americans would want us to teach a Eurocentric version of history. We know at least 70 million people probably would. That doesn’t make it right. This is an example of tyranny of the majority.
Celebrating Christmas in public schools isn’t only supporting Christian privilege. It’s also teaching students ethnocentrism.
4. Teaching about world religions isn’t a valid argument for celebrating Christmas in public schools
People argue that it’s important to teach about holidays because Americans are uneducated about world religions. While this sentiment is true, December is not the right time to do it.
Teaching about World Religions isn’t an excuse for celebrating Christmas in your classroom.
First of all, Christmas is the main High Holiday celebrated in December. Jewish people celebrate their most important holidays at different times of the year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are in the fall, while Passover is in the spring. (No one’s taking a month to teach and celebrate these holidays in school).
Hanukkah isn’t an important holiday in Judaism. And equating it with Christmas is wrong and inappropriate. Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.”
Second, Muslims also don’t have a High Holiday in December. The most important time in Islam is Ramadan. And Ramadan changes every year.
It is much more appropriate to teach about World Religions throughout the school year or in its own unit. Most high school social studies curricula include a unit on World Religions. That’s when there should be a discussion about Christianity and Christmas. Not in December with a superficial attempt to include other holidays and religions.
5. You can’t celebrate Christmas in public school if you care about Social Justice, cultural responsiveness, and inclusiveness.
I Googled about Christmas and social justice. All I found were sources discussing how Christmas represents social justice. Ughhh. That’s not what I mean. Maybe I used bad keywords. In reality, most people don’t consider celebrating Christmas in public school a social justice issue. It is.
Talking about Christmas’s relationship to social justice centers Christianity. Celebrating Christmas in public schools is a social justice education issue. It’s inequitable.
Celebrating Christmas in public schools, it’s not culturally responsive or inclusive. Making it a social justice issue. It also continues to favor one religion over others.
When I searched “Christmas in social studies class,” I was disappointed. Links lesson plans on Teacherspayteachers and Teachervision were the top results. The resources for including Christmas far outnumbered articles and resources about excluding it.
Back to the statistic that 70.6% of Americans identify as Christian. That’s all well and good, but what about the other 30%? Many of those kids will be in your classes. It is inequitable to exclude them from activities. Let’s be real. Alternative assignments/experiences are never as good as the original.
This also begs the question. Are we ok with creating activities knowing some students can’t participate? This is exclusive when the goal is, equity, inclusiveness, and cultural responsiveness.
I wrote a similar sentiment in my post about teaching Black history all year. Teaching certain topics only at specific times creates otherness. And it trivializes the issues. Making it seem as though they are less important than other more mainstream subjects.
6. It’s impossible to meaningfully include all holidays
We all know that not all our students celebrate Christmas. Yet, we continue to overlook that factor and make it about us. Often teachers decorate their classrooms for Christmas because they want to. Not for the benefit of their students. As Captian Awesome from We Are Teachers puts it,
“Sure, I know it won’t hurt your Muslim or Jewish or atheist kids to look at a lovely evergreen tree. But those kids are already bombarded with Christmas decorations and advertising. They’re constantly reminded that their beliefs are not the culturally dominant ones in this country.”
Oh and displaying one menorah for Hanukkah or a kinara for Kwanzaa ain’t gonna cut it. Doing that is another instance of tokenism. Plus the kids will pick up that you’re doing that out of a feeling of obligation.
Also, what about the kids who don’t celebrate anything? Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, don’t celebrate holidays that are not mentioned in the Bible. So Christmas is a no-go.
It’s impossible to effectively teach all the holidays that happen in December. (Even though we like to pretend it is). Also, that would mean that you’d need to teach about holidays all year round. I’m not sure that holidays should be the main focus of any public school curriculum.
Again, there is a time and place to discuss religion. December isn’t that time. Plus, it’s impossible to give equal weight to all holidays. So don’t celebrate at all.
I read the @teachandtransform post about de-centering Christmas in the classroom. Then, I checked out the comments section. It was filled with non-Christian people recounting negative experiences at school in December.
As trivial as we might think decorating our classrooms for Christmas it’s not. Neither is having alternative activities for students is. The impact follows people well into adulthood.
7. Secular aspects of Christmas are still religious
Another argument is the idea that there are secular aspects of Christmas. There aren’t.
“Despite its nonreligious trappings, Christmas remains a religious holiday that is not usually celebrated by those of other faiths.”
People say that things like Christmas Trees are not religious. That they’re secular symbols. So, it’s ok to decorate their classroom with them. Yeah, but Christians are the ones who put up Christmas Trees. Also, Christmas trees are used on a Christian holiday. So, no matter how much people want to argue that it’s a secular symbol. It’s not. It’s a CHRISTMAS tree, a Christian symbol.
Let’s not forget, it’s not only non-Christians who don’t celebrate the commercial aspects of Christmas. Many Christian denominations either don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Or only celebrate the religious aspects of the holiday.
Assuming that all students alike, celebrate Christmas is another example of Christian privilege. And it’s problematic.
An article from Teaching Tolerance brings up another questionable assumption. It’s the idea that Christmas is the most important event of childhood. It’s not. Most of the world’s children don’t celebrate Christmas. And even if you’re American, many children don’t celebrate it or it’s not a happy time for them.
Ok, so you might have read this entire post and still disagree with me. That’s fine. I’m not going to win ‘em all.
If you are dead-set on talking about Christmas in your social studies classes, here are some ideas. Note: all these still center Christmas.
1. Discuss the history of the holiday
- Talk about Christianity in Rome and how the Roman Empire became Christian.
- Discuss the ways Christians adopted and adapted Pagan traditions. Be sure to consider why.
- Talk about how the Church gained power in the Middle Ages.
2. Compare and contrast Christmas to High Holidays in other religions
- As stated before, this will be challenging, but it is much more feasible if this is your only focus. It’s a way that you can give equal weight to other traditions.
3. Analyze the Christmas song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Bandaid
- This is an activity that I actually do. In normal school years, we are teaching about imperialism right before December Break. (It’s not going to happen this year, we’re a unit behind in World History because of our hybrid schedule, thanks COVID).
- An English teacher at my school turned me onto this activity. I had no idea how horrible this song is. I guess I never paid attention to the lyrics. It’s the ultimate white savior song. It also negates the fact that Christianity isn’t the only religion in Africa. I cringe every time I hear now. But, it’s a great song to analyze.
- Click here to grab a copy of the lesson.
4. Have the students debate whether public schools should be allowed to celebrate Christmas.
- This will teach them debate skills and different perspectives on this issue.
5. Analyze the school holiday calendar
- My current school has done a good job scheduling days off for holidays that impact all our students.
- Check out this lesson from Teaching Tolerance about analyzing the school holiday calendar.
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What do you think? Should Christmas be celebrated in public schools?