Is Christmas a Bad Word? December 02 2009

[caption id="attachment_3961" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Photo by Shadfan"]Photo by Shadfan[/caption]

Christmas is an exceptionally difficult time for me personally, as it is for many people. There are a few traditions that provide joy and comfort through this difficult time, especially when shared with the kids in my classroom.

Each year at about this time, I pull out The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It's only about 8 chapters long, so as a read-aloud it's easy to finish before Christmas Break begins.

You might remember the 1983 TV movie, starring Loretta Swit and accompanying cast in what is now an incredibly grainy film. The movie does not compare to the book, however - the book is far superior.

This tale of the nefarious Herdman clan in the church Christmas pageant is hilarious, but it is also unflinchingly, unapologetically CHRISTMAS. And every year when I pull it off the shelf to read out loud, I feel a little butterfly in my stomach and I wonder, is this the year someone will complain?

This paranoia makes me sad, and I've noticed with increasing discomfort how Christmas has become a bit of a bad word in school. Like when, in our school, the what was a clearly a Christmas tree by the front office was called instead a "Holiday Tree." Or when the term "Christmas Break" was changed to "Winter Break." Or how people with authority have suggested that traditional Christmas carols be removed from the school's "Holiday" - not Christmas - program.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Christian. I hesitate to say that because of what the term "Christian" may mean to others in a political or social sense, and I don't want to be aligned with people who use religion to hurt and otherwise alienate others. I consider myself a liberal Christian, but a Christian none the less. I believe in Jesus Christ, and that he was born on Christmas day. Which brings me to the foundational meaning of the celebration of Christmas - the day that Jesus was born in a stable in essentially the middle of nowhere.

So why have we became so afraid of Christmas? What's the root of the fear?

Christmas Is Not Only About Christians

Are we afraid because Christmas is essentially a religious holiday? Even if you take out Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the three kings and decide to stick with Santa, it still carries religious undertones. Santa Claus - otherwise known as St. Niklaus - was a saint of the church, giving to the poor. Christmas, like many of the other holidays we celebrate, is chock full of traditions that date back thousands of years from places like Scandanavia, Ancient Rome, and Mesopotamia. Some Christmas traditions considered "christian" even have a root or two planted in Solstice celebrations hundreds of years old, considered "pagan rituals" by the early Church.

These traditions brought together from different times and places have woven into the celebratory traditions that we now call "Christmas." And as an American school teacher, this seems appropriate to celebrate. What is America if not a huge tree of cultural and foundational world beliefs and traditions, branching out in a variety of directions, but indelibly rooted together?

The Social Context

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for Separation of Church and State. I have kids of my own at home, and I cherish the freedom we have in this country to worship as we choose. However, the time and place of that worship shouldn't occur in a classroom. If I can impose my beliefs onto others, than others will be able to impose their beliefs on me. Where would the boundaries be then? Who would get to decide which beliefs are "Right," or "Most Important"? Sounds like a nightmarish mess.

We are, however, involved in the larger social context, with our classrooms as microcosms of our communities and our world. To a certain extent, I believe most of us buy in to what are known as American Christmas Traditions - including the stories, films, commercials, consumerism, decorations, food, and the spirit of giving - to name a few.

So when I share A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Linus takes the stage and quotes scripture because it's the foundation of Christmas (christian) celebrations, I don't feel the need to mute the television. Conversely, I don't have a problem teaching my students Hanukkah songs or the meaning of Kwanzaa. Charlie Brown and the "church" Christmas story is part of our larger social experience, and can be taught in the context of other December holidays.

Avoidance Does Not Encourage Diversity

One year in my classroom I had students from Russia, Romania, El Salvador, Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka; there was also a Caucasian population, and one student who didn't celebrate any holidays at all.

Intimidating? A little. I could have thrown out my December playbook, but I didn't - instead, I turned our reality into a dialogue. I opened the week after Thanksgiving with a discussion about what my students believed about Christmas. To my surprise, those students - except the one who didn't celebrate any holidays during the year - celebrated Christmas in some form. They were able to talk about their similarities and differences, and have a forum to learn to respect other people's ideas and lifestyles.  

Take a look around your classroom; how many cultures are represented? Do they celebrate Christmas? My guess is that most, if not all, of your children celebrate Christmas in some form or another. And if one or two don't, I don't think that gives us more of an excuse to be afraid of Christmas. Wouldn't that instead enrich the dialogue we could have in our classrooms about respect for others and their beliefs? Wouldn't we be fostering teachable moments, instructing kids how to get along in the world as they grow and develop?

Avoiding Christmas - giving into our fear of celebrating this national holiday in our classrooms - takes more away from kids than it protects us as teachers. If we refuse to discuss it or share Christmas experiences, then we are disregarding our shared social context and missing opportunities to truly celebrate the diversity in our classrooms.