Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Disco Balls: Christmas in a Secular School

Last week at my twin daughters' Grade 6 holiday party, one of the activities organized by the parent volunteers was an ornament-decorating craft. A parent brought in clear glass Christmas tree balls, along with decorating supplies such as paint and Q-tips. During the parent's explanation of the craft, she suggested that the kids paint snowmen on their balls or or a wintry scene or whatever they desired. I was one of the volunteers at the party, and while I was helping distribute the ornaments, a boy asked me: "Do I have to do this craft?" I knew why he was asking; my daughters had told me that this boy, who is Jewish, had complained on other occasions about the "holiday" celebrations at the school, which were actually mostly "Christmas" celebrations. I told the boy that he didn't have to do the craft; if he wanted, he could paint the ball just for fun and not take it home. I was going to suggest that he decorate his globe with dreidels or other Hanukkah designs, but I hesitated. It was clearly a Christmas tree ornament—what was the point of me trying to pretend it was religion-neutral?

At this point the woman who had organized the craft noticed what was going on and came over to speak to the boy. I moved away from the table, but I heard her tell him that he should think of the ornament as a disco ball to hang in his room, and that he could decorate it in any way he wanted. This seemed to satisfy him, and he proceeded to paint the ball with a Menorah, dreidels and some Hebrew words. I watched as he walked over to another Jewish child in the class, who was contentedly painting a winter scene on her ball, to confer with her over the Hebrew spelling. His finished ornament wound up being one of the most beautiful in the class. But of course, he knew, as did the rest of us (parents and children alike), that it was not a disco ball.

My own children celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. I am a product of what used to be called a "mixed" marriage so I grew up celebrating all of the major Jewish and Christian holidays. My husband is an atheist of Anglican and Presbyterian descent, who happily participates in whatever holidays happen to be going on at any particular time. In our household, we tend to celebrate religious holidays in a non-religious, cultural manner, which sometimes leads to confusion in my daughters' minds. When they were six years old, I overheard one of them explaining the meaning of Hanukkah to an older cousin: "There was supposed to be oil for one night," she said, "but it lasted for eight nights. And that was Jesus' first miracle." I decided then and there that since, as my old professor Northrop Frye argued, the Bible is integral to Western culture (or at least to Western culture's sense of itself), I would read the Bible to the girls, starting with the Old Testament and ending, if we got that far, with the New Testament. We didn't get that far. In fact, we barely made it past the flood. The girls pronounced the Bible too violent and not particularly believable. So I left it at that. (Although thankfully they do now understand that Jesus had nothing to do with the Hanukkah miracle!)

My daughters' religious education has certainly not been furthered at school. While some curricula, such as those at Waldorf and Global Knowledge schools, teach Bible stories, alongside ancient myths and legends as part of a broad-based humanist education, public schools in Ontario do not. Despite living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America, my girls haven't been taught about the origin or meaning of Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah or Christmas. Yet . . . year after year, their school's winter holiday celebrations take on a decidedly Christian cast. There are "secret Santa" gift exchanges, carol-singing assemblies (with a Hanukkah song thrown into the Christmas mix, for good measure), Christmas toy drives, etc. The school seems to be saying, we're not Christian—but in December, deck those halls, we're all about Christmas! To be fair, it could be that the school is simply reflecting its particular demographic: we happen to live in an enclave that is less religiously and ethnically diverse than most communities in the city. Nonetheless, in my daughters' class of 27, there are four Jewish children and several more who, like my twins, participate in both Christian and Jewish traditions; there are also two Muslim children and one Zoroastrian child.

I have to admit that my girls enjoy the emphasis on Christmas at school, just as I did as a child. They like the songs, the gift exchanges, the excitement. It makes sense for them to enjoy it: they celebrate Christmas at home. I often wonder about the boy who asked me if he had to decorate the ornament. I try to imagine how he feels in that classroom during the month of December. But I'm even more concerned about the kids who don't have the wherewithal to speak up. The Muslim kid in this or any other classroom who silently absorbs the message that Christianity—even in a public school in a nominally secular country like Canada—is the norm. I believe we should all think—even worry a little—about such a child during this "holiday" season.


  1. northTOmom, can I repost this to Kid-Friendly Schools? Thanks!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. FedUpMom: Sure, go ahead and post it on KFS--thanks for reading!

  4. This is a great post. Really great. (I am linking it my blog post tomorrow).

    I so wonder about this too. I totally understand that Santa, ect. at school is fun for kids who celebrate Christmas; but what about all the other kids? If the public system is suppose to be secular, shouldn't it be secular? Hmmmm.

  5. I really love this post, and would have loved to have seen the final product -- it sounded beautiful.

    Perhaps your point about schools reflecting the surrounding demographics could be correct. Even 20 years ago in my high school, we were pretty much nearing 50% immigrant population and they emphasized other celebrations just as much as Christmas.

  6. This is an interesting and complicated matter, and one that I've thought a lot about, since my kids are being raised by a atheist who was raised Jewish-lite (my husband) and an atheist who was raised Anglican (me).

    I could talk about this for hours, but I specifically want to address the matter of Christmas as it's celebrated in Canada. It's becoming increasingly obvious that Christmas, notwithstanding the name, is part of Canadian secular culture. Christians celebrate it, but so do atheists, Jews, Muslims, and others. Most of Christmas as celebrated by Canadians is not overtly Christian. (Whether this is right or good is a matter for discussion. I'm firmly in the "pro-Christmas for everyone" camp and am frankly annoyed at the atheists who try to insist "we atheists" shouldn't celebrate it.)

    So, clearly, I'm not bothered about all the Christmas content at public school, although I feel a bit bad for poor little Hanukkah getting caught up in the mix.

    Incidentally, Michael Chabon captured how I feel about Christmas and Hanukkah beautifully in a chapter of his book, "Manhood for Amateurs". It's worth checking out for that chapter alone.

  7. Hi Amy. I will check out the chapter of the Chabon book you mention. (My husband is a big fan of his fiction.)

    I mostly agree with you that Christmas is part of Canadian secular culture and, although we are a non-believing family, we do celebrate it fully. But I have Jewish friends who feel uncomfortable with the ubiquitousness of Christmas in December, and who bristle at the notion that it's a secular holiday for everyone to enjoy. What do you say to them? I don't have a problem with carols that refer to "baby Jesus" or the "son of God" (in fact, I love all the traditional Christmas carols), but I think for a Jewish or Muslim kid, it might feel weird to sing these words. I realize that most of the overtly religious carols are no longer sung in public schools, but some popular ones, like Silent Night, have been included in carol assemblies that I have attended.

    I don't know the answer to the question of how to handle Christmas in secular schools. I'm not advocating less Christmas, perhaps just a little more attention to other celebrations as well. I also think the schools should be explaining Christian and non-Christian traditions and holidays more fully. As it stands, the symbols are there (mostly Christian, but some others as well), but nothing is explained to kids. As I commented on Kathleen's (amoment2think) blog, with respect to the issue of secularization of education in Quebec:

    "I would rather kids learn about *all* the religions that surround them and make up our world, than that they remain ignorant of them all. Why allow creches or menorahs to be displayed in schools or daycare centres, but not allow teachers to explain their meaning? Explaining something is not tantamount to teaching it as the gospel truth. As parents, most of us have said to our children at one point or another, “some people believe . . . .” I don’t see why schools couldn’t do this as well, providing kids with a multicultural religious education befitting the multicultural society that we have become."

  8. woodturtle: Thanks for your comment. I think you're right that the particular demographic of our neighbourhood has a big influence on what does or does not get celebrated at the school. Interestingly, one of the mothers who organized the Christmas party is Muslim, and she has no patience for people who object to Christmas being celebrated in school. She whispered to me while the discussion about the "disco ball" was going on: "My daughter's happily doing the craft, and she's not Christian." She and I have actually discussed this issue on several occasions. Her attitude is: you're living in a culturally Christian culture—deal with it! I sort of admire her take on it, and it certainly seems to work for her and her family. I just don't think it's that easy for every non-Christian. (And I'm not sure I would say that Canada is by definition culturally Christian—but historically, I agree that it is, for the most part.)

  9. Hey North (can I call you Heather? Or Sandra? Or Katherine? - most of the moms around here are one of those),

    Lots of people of every background are uncomfortable with the ubiquitousness of Christmas in December (and November - thank goodness for Hallowe'en or it would probably creep into October). I'm not sure any of them are owed an explanation. As the Muslim mom pointed out, Canada is historically culturally Christian, and that history informs a lot of our celebrations and traditions. I guess everyone has a choice whether to get annoyed with Christmas or just go along with it. Admittedly it's pretty hard to avoid, but so are mosquitos and blizzards and other delights of Canadian life.

    I suppose it might be weird to sing songs about sweet baby Jesus. At our school everyone has to sing about lighting the Menorah to remind us of years long ago, so we have equal opportunity irrelevance. As an atheist and classical chorister I get lots of practice singing about things I don't believe in, so maybe I'm more used to it than most people. It hasn't done me any harm and it certainly hasn't converted me.

    I don't know what your kids' school is like, but at Cody (yes, not only am I using my real name and my kids' real names on the Internet, I also name their school. I'm clearly insane) we are quite earnest about including lots of Jewish content. There's a Hanukkiah in every classroom, I bet, and as I mentioned we sing Hanukkah songs, even days after Hanukkah is over and it's become pretty ridiculous. The school also nods to Eid and Kwanzaa and whatever Hindus have going on this time of year. (Obviously I'm not paying attention.)

    You might know: is religion covered in the curriculum? (All the religions, as you say.) As far as I know, specific holidays are discussed at our school when they come up, and possibly only when parents offer to come in talk about "their" holiday. (My oldest is only in Grade Two so I don't know what happens in the higher grades.) I'm with you in thinking that it should be part of the curriculum. (Actually, learning about all the other gods was what sealed my atheism - one god further and all that.)

  10. Boy, I don't even know where to start with this one. I really think public schools shouldn't do anything that would even subtly promote one religion over another, or religion itself over nonbelief. To me, that's not just a question of the separation of church and state, but of the difference between education and indoctrination.

    When it comes to questions of values (in which I would include philosophy, theology, and ethics, as well as aesthetics), I think schools should be asking questions, not providing answers. The school's role should be to expose the kids to the many ways that people around the world have tried to answer those questions, and then get the kids thinking and talking about them.

    But I have real doubts about whether our schools could teach "about" religion without proselytizing for one religion over another. A lot of teachers would do fine with it, but I think a significant number would have difficulty (if they even wanted to do it at all).

    So I guess I'm not crazy about the schools having the kids celebrate religious holidays, even if it's done in an ecumenical way. There are a lot of ways families can involve their kids in religious holiday celebrations, but to me, that's just not what schools are for. For that matter, I don't even like the idea of having them celebrate non-religious holidays -- Arbor Day? Earth Day? Presidents' Day? Having the kids celebrate something seems like just a form of telling them what to think about it. I'd rather they just be exposed to different perspectives about any given idea, and left to reach their own conclusions.

    I don't mean to sound like such a killjoy, but I've always been a little put off by the school concerts where all the kids sing in unison the songs that have been chosen for them by the teacher. There are a lot of fun things that schools can have the kids do that don't involve putting words in their mouths. Last year I watched my kindergartner sing a song called "I Love to Eat My Veggies" -- even though I don't think she has ever knowingly eaten a vegetable. I just wonder what she made of that experience.

    And yet -- these choral concerts and holiday celebrations at least bring some shred of the humanities into the classroom, and are a welcome break from the ever-increasing test prep. I think there are much better ways to bring the spirit of the humanities into school, but the last thing I'd want to do is have these activities cut and replaced by more math and reading drills.

  11. Amy — I'm not sure I agree with the analogy to blizzards and mosquitoes, because it's not possible to get rid of these, but it would be possible not to celebrate Christmas (or any other religious holiday) in schools. As for your question regarding the curriculum, the answer is: no, world religion is not taught in any mandatory course in public schools in Ontario. Quebec has introduced a new course called Ethics and Religious Culture that is mandatory and quite controversial. It replaces the old Catholic and Protestant religion courses which were in fact religious in nature. Personally, I wouldn't have a problem with the Quebec course being taught in Ontario, because I feel knowledge about world religions is part of any well-rounded education. (Ironically, kids in the publicly-funded Catholic schools in Ontario must take a mandatory world religion course, alongside the traditional Catholic religion courses.)

    But. . . Chris — I understand your discomfort with such a course and with the presence of religion in schools in any form. (I do think Americans tend to be a little more distrustful than Canadians when it comes to these issues, perhaps because of the huge influence of religion in the public sphere in the US.) The literature on the Quebec ministry of education website acknowledges that the teaching of the course places certain demands on teachers:

    "Since this subject matter touches upon complex and sometimes delicate personal and family dynamics, teachers have an additional obligation to be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view."

    I'm sure your question would be, can we trust teachers to actually do this? I don't know the answer, but we already trust them with an awful lot. Teachers are instilling values all the time. At least this course attempts to instill an agreed-upon core value: that of respect for all religions.

    I'm also not sure I agree with you about song-singing (although the one your daughter had to sing sounds particularly bad!). Song is deeply connected to specific cultures—it's hard to get away from that without eliminating music altogether, or only allowing music that kids have composed or made up themselves. I'm pretty sure my frazzled nerves could not handle that type of school concert!

  12. I love this line: "I'm not advocating less Christmas, perhaps just a little more attention to other celebrations as well." I think that is it, exactly. I've taught at international schools in Bahrain and Thailand; at the latter, our student body was diverse and we tried to celebrate most major holidays. My favourite day was International Day, which included a parade of nations organized alphabetically - I loved how often Israel and Kuwait lined up nearly side by side.

  13. Oh, right, I drifted a little with my analogy to blizzards and mozzies - I was thinking of avoiding Christmas in Canada in general, rather than specifically in schools.

    World religion should be taught in school - in elementary school. I can't believe it isn't! Guess I'll add that to the list of things I need to teach my kids. (Along with sex ed and typing...)

  14. ironicmom — Thanks for your comment. International Day sounds fun, and totally non-religious so no-one could possibly object! I know you teach in Alberta; how do schools there handle Christmas and other holidays?

    Amy: By grade 4 teachers will be asking for assignments to be handed in printed (typed), but they will not have taught your child to keyboard properly or efficiently. So yeah, I'd advise getting started with the typing programs ASAP. (I blogged about this very issue here.) As for sex ed, in grade 5 students are introduced to "puberty," but really it's too little too late (see my take here).