Christmas, the Schools and the Constitution
When I was a child in the 1950s, my parents didn't have much money to spend at Christmastime. I remember one Christmas when I wanted a cowboy gun and holster from Santa Claus. I got the toy pistol, but Santa, it seems, couldn't afford a holster. So my dad made one for me out of one of my mother's old leather purses. It didn't look like the ones on TV, but it worked pretty well. And it made me feel good that my dad cared enough to do what he could to make a little boy's Christmas dream come true.
Being poor didn't really matter all that much because there was magic in the air. And the magic of Christmas was promoted in the schools. We sang Christmas carols in the classroom. There were cutouts of the Nativity scene on the bulletin board, along with the smiling, chubby face of Santa and Rudolph. We were all acutely aware that Christmas was more than a season to receive ‹ it was a special time to give as well.
But times have changed. Violence and turmoil surround our schools. Police officers walk the hallways, and embattled teachers act more like wardens than instructors. Sadly, the timeless celebration of Christmas seems to have been lost in the mix as well. Schools across the country avoid anything that alludes to the true meaning of Christmas ‹ such as angels, the baby Jesus, stables and shepherds.
For example, a member of a parent/teacher organization at a Connecticut elementary school was in charge of decorating a large display case in the school's entrance. For the upcoming December holidays, she was planning to put up a display called "Festival of Lights" and feature a display with a créche for Christmas and a Menorah and Star of David for Hanukkah, along with a document that explains the histories of both events. However, she was told by school officials that no religious objects could be used in the display.
A kindergarten teacher in a Texas public school was informed that he could not mention the word "Christmas" or tell the historical Nativity story because someone in the district might sue. All other secular customs of the "winter holiday" were deemed to be OK, just not the religious symbols of Christianity. According to the school principal: "We cannot tie candy canes, trees, wreaths, Santa Claus, etc, as a religious symbol. What we can teach is the secular side of holidays. We can have the tree, candy cane, wreath, Santa Claus, etc, anything that is secular. No religious words can be attached. We cannot read aloud to the students any book pertaining to religious beliefs or happenings brought by you [the teacher] or the students. The student who brings a book can read/look at the book silently."
Another incident that highlights this extreme Christmas phobia involves a Michigan elementary school, where the principal issued a directive specifically forbidding references to God, Christianity or the birth of Jesus Christ. This is censorship, pure and simple.
I have yet to understand how anyone can discuss the true ‹ or even historical ‹ meaning of Christmas without at least a reference to Christ. Surely something has gone wrong when America's children are encouraged to celebrate the fictional Rudolph but are refused the opportunity to even mention Jesus, who was an actual, historical person. To claim that Christmas is something other than it is ‹ a holiday with a religious foundation ‹ is both dishonest and historically unsound.
Indeed, Christmas (Old English Cristes Moesse, "the Mass of Christ") was instituted, and for centuries kept, as a religious holiday (as in "holy day"). Originally, Christmas included festivities, but its primary purpose was to provide a time for spiritual renewal.
Unfortunately, far too many parents, students and teachers erroneously believe they cannot celebrate the religious nature of Christmas in the public schools. Whether through ignorance or fear, Americans are painfully misguided about the recognition of religious holidays. Ironically, the most targeted religious holiday for exclusion is Christmas ‹ also the most popular in American culture. Are our schoolchildren to be forbidden from learning about one of the most culturally significant events because it has religious overtones?
There are constitutional ways to celebrate Christmas in the public schools without violating the United States Constitution. These are succinctly set forth in The Rutherford Institute's "Twelve Rules of Christmas." While it is true that public school teachers, as agents of the state, may not advance religion, they are allowed to discuss the role of religion in all aspects of American culture and its history. And this includes the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday.
Indeed, teachers can use Christmas art, music, literature and drama in their classrooms, as long as they illustrate the cultural heritage from which the holiday has developed. Religious symbols, such as a Nativity scene, can be used in this context as well. Of course, any holiday observance should occur in an educational setting, rather than in a devotional atmosphere. Teachers should also remember to offer students and their parents the school district's opt-out policy as an alternative to the teaching about any particular religion.
While our Constitution does not give carte blanche to promote religion in the public schools, neither does it dictate a cleansing of Christmas from the classroom. Students may enjoy the same freedom of religious expression that is allowed any other time of the year ‹ in or out of the classroom. This means that students can freely distribute Christmas or Hanukkah cards to their friends and teachers, just as they would a birthday card. Such cards can even mention the words God and Jesus Christ.
The trend toward erasing traditional Christmas practices from our daily life is discouraging and disheartening. In a society already known for its selfishness and consumerism, it seems that a religious holiday would be an opportunity to celebrate something more essential, something wholesome and good and also something that would remind us of our nation's history ‹ one that is dominated with a spiritual and religious heritage.
In fact, rather than making Christmas the height of the selling season, why can't the focus be on celebrating family and friendship, camaraderie and memories? Why can't it be a time to reflect and celebrate our freedoms? Why can't it be a season of extending a helping hand to the less fortunate? Why can't it be a time to step back and meditate on the original meaning behind the Christmas holiday? And why can't these important traditions be taught in our schools?
It has been 40 years since Charlie Brown, as he puzzled over the glitz and commercialism of the modern age, asked, "Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?" Linus responded by telling the story of Jesus Christ's birth, as recounted in Luke 2:7-14, to his friends and classmates. What Charles Schulz' beloved 1965 cartoon did not capture, however, was the growing aversion on the part of many school officials and public figures to anything remotely related to the true Christmas story. Hopefully, as our children ponder what Christmas is all about ‹ a subject that almost certainly arises in the classroom ‹ our teachers at least will realize that they have the right to truthfully answer the question. If so, our children will have the opportunity to experience the richness of our traditions and culture.
And what better time than Christmas?
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.