Michelle Boorstein is The Washington Post’s religion reporter.
The e-mail 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 jingley 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.
Within a few days, though, I’d become the sort of person I’d written 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) responding 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.”
Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar who has spent decades mediating on religion-in-school issues, said the most common model is a multicultural melange. But among Washington-area schools, there’s a good amount of holiday avoidance, too.
Maryland’s Montgomery County drew attention to itself this fall when it removed all references to religious holidays from its official school calendar, after Muslim leaders asked that the major holiday of Eid al-Adha be listed.
In the District, Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Kalorama is among the schools that have shied away from celebrating religious holidays. Its students perform a “Peace Concert” each December.
Sara Rhein, who works at a nonprofit in the District and is a former Washington Post reporter, said she couldn’t help herself after attending with her son in 2010. “I imagine that the choice of ‘Marlo Thomas and Friends’ may have been made out of concern from non-religious parents,” she wrote to then-Principal Monica Liang-Aguirre. “But I worry if we are moving in a direction that is afraid to celebrate this time of year.”
To which Liang-Aguirre responded: “The performance of ‘Free to Be’ was in no way a deliberate attempt to ignore the holidays. I think it was definitely an attempt to do something different and at the same time celebrate a message of inclusiveness and diversity.”
Liang-Aguirre, who left Oyster this year, told me she inaugurated the Peace Concert in 2008 in response to complaints that the school had been putting on what was essentially a Christmas pageant each December. There was no solution that would avoid tensions, she said.
Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill recently upset some parents when it changed its policy to limit celebration of holidays — including Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Halloween — to teachers’ discretion, “as they pertain to class goals and grade-level standards.” This month, one class hosted a play about various holidays while another held a “peace party” for which children were asked to draw “what peace looks like to you.”
“There are things the school is good at doing,” Brent PTA President Kevin Moore said, “and the burden of things like religious elements should fall upon the parents.”
Michael Filippello, an IMF employee and father of 5-year-old twins, dressed up as the singer Pink, whose brand is rebellion, to protest the change. “You get one chance at childhood, and we’re going to throw it all away because it might offend someone?” Filippello asked. He blamed the obsession with standardized tests and other forms of measurable achievement: “The drive for results starts in pre-k3, and we can’t afford any time away from that.”
Filippello and his husband met with the principal, joined a working group on the topic and urged other parents to send their children to a Halloween-day field trip dressed in costume, despite being told not to. Few people responded to his call for open rebellion, he said, though those who did were passionate. Janet J. McIntosh, a commercial real estate lawyer, wrote on the Brent listserv citing lyrics from “Once in a Lifetime,” an ’80s Talking Heads hit about the oppression of following social norms. “Soon our children will ask: What is Halloween? What is Valentine’s Day? What is the Pledge of Allegiance? . . . Who were the Redcoats? What is Hanukkah? What is Christmas? . . . AND you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”
Haynes, the mediator, says he’s been getting fewer calls as the parameters of what’s legal have become clearer. At the same time, he’s troubled about where things stand. “I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve helped wrought,” he said. “I had really hoped we’d move from so many schools imposing a particular religion to a genuine effort to educate about religions all year long. I’d hoped this would change the curriculum. That’s the point of schooling, not to put on a pageant. . . . I tell people: ‘You’ll never get a solution if you keep focusing on December.’ It’s ridiculous.”
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. (Like many parents I spoke to for this piece, 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.”
Washington Latin Public Charter School is among the schools in this area that try to incorporate some teaching on religion but don’t do religious celebrations. Head of School Martha Cutts told me that the school sees discussion of religious or ethical topics, such as morality and “understanding the good and the beautiful,” as part of the “classical education” it offers.
The school also hosts a fundraising dinner, where songs Wednesday evening included the Christmas classic “The Carol of the Bells” and the nonreligious seasonal “Winter Moon.” But during school hours, there aren’t any expressly religious celebrations or assemblies in December. “It’s not a conscious ban,” Cutts said.
Could a kid pass out candy canes in class? “No, no, no. We collect things to donate to others. We don’t focus on Christmas,” she said. “But I do wish them happy holidays and good health in the new year.”
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 e-mail 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.