The December dilemma: Santa in school


The original 1939 book, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written when Montgomery Ward asked one of its copywriters to create a Christmas story that shoppers would like. It is in National Museum of American History.

Every December the debate about religion and public schools is revived. Here Jill Davidson, the mom of three kids in the Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, takes a personal look at what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to bringing religion in the classroom. She is the director of publications and communications at Educators for Social Responsibility.  This was published at the East Side Monthly.

 By Jill Davidson

In first grade, our oldest son came home with “Olive, the Other Reindeer,” borrowed from the school library. As we read it together, me giggling at the title, he said, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it.” “It’s a joke, honey, a pun,” I explained. “You know, ‘all of the other reindeer’ from ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’.”

Nope, he didn’t know. He didn’t know about the renowned nasal exceptionalism which initially prompted Rudolph’s cruel treatment at the hooves of the other reindeer and then prompted eventual top deer status. Nor did my kid have any notion that the other reindeer were not a nameless herd but storied individuals critical to the success of Saint Nicholas’ annual nocturnal rooftop journey. We went down the chimney a bit further. Do you know who Saint Nicholas is? Nope. Santa Claus? Um, some old guy, maybe?

This made sense. We are happy flag-wavers on the Fourth. We love Thanksgiving. Give us a big non-religious holiday and we are all in (with awareness that the relative inclusivity of such celebrations needs to account for the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans). We also are Jews raising our kids with an emphasis on our religious tradition and associated holidays. We don’t have Christmas carols on our iPods (the main source of our kids’ exposure to music), though now that the kids are older, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah songs and The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” have pride of place on our holiday playlists. The annual showing of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” that was a broadcast staple of my generation’s childhood Decembers is no longer regularly viewed, its ubiquity thrown over in favor of what the DVR is serving up. So my first-grader wasn’t going to get a grip on the Rudolph situation at home.

Nor, as it turned out, would he find such exposure in school, where many of my generation who were religiously and culturally inclined away from the mainstream picked up a whole lot of Christian-themed cultural literacy. My children and their peers in the Providence Public Schools learn together in schools that are far more diverse than those in the ‘burbs that I attended in the 1970s. In recognition of that diversity, kids aren’t singing many of the old standards that clearly refer to religious holidays.

Depending on the teacher, my children have learned about Chanukah and Kwanzaa in their early elementary years. Ideally, when the teachers were of different faiths, they invited parents to share their December celebrations. I have fond memories of accompanying one of my children to his second grade class with dreidels and gelt for all. My son — often the only Jewish kid in his class — was delighted. He felt recognized in a way that made me want to make sure that all kids have the opportunity to feel similarly. This approach also conforms to the guidelines that the ACLU recommends. Handled carefully, religion in public schools is fair game as part of curriculum. Prayer is not. Singing a religiously-themed song as part of a larger presentation of holiday music and celebration is okay. Creating associations between such a song and the school itself is not.

So it’s tricky. We don’t want a particular religion to dominate public settings. Neither would we wish religion and its strong ties to identity to be sanitized completely from our kids’ educational experiences. Teachers note similar conflict. Many discuss the desire to teach about the religious and cultural celebrations that connect their students to their identities and that help widen the students’ awareness of diversity beyond their communities. Those same teachers also express profound discomfort with the threat of misrepresenting another person’s history or experience.

This is a particular challenge in Providence, where most of the teachers do not share their students’ ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Some teachers, such as my friend Daryl Lynn, a preschool teacher, suggest steering clear of religious holidays entirely. She asks, “Is it possible to not even acknowledge holidays? Is there a reason to not do that?” Other educators believe passionately that cultural identity is linked with successful engagement in a school community, because all kids want to be known and acknowledged in ways that my second grader experienced on dreidel day. What I know is this: wrestling with the December Dilemma is a price we pay for the gift of school diversity, and we are going to need to set the DVR to catch Rudolph the next time he flies into town.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 6, 2012