Many educators want to teach about Christmas but are afraid to do so. Their fear usually stems from complaints they have had (or think they will have) from parents, administrators, or colleagues. The good news is, schools and teachers CAN teach about the religious aspects of holidays as an important part of learning about American culture.
Part of a Student's Education In the case of Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, upheld the constitutionality of the school's policy on religious holidays. The policy stated:
"Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday."
Reading the Christmas Story In Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court stated "The Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like."
Christmas Carols The Supreme Court assumes your school is having children sing Christmas carols. In Lynch v. Donnelly, dealing with the public display of a nativity scene, the Court commented:
"To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation's history and this Court's holdings." (Emphasis added)
The largest organization of public school music teachers, the Music Educators National Conference (MENC), states that "the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience."
Terminology It may be helpful to use the term "recognizing Christmas" rather than "celebrating Christmas." Using the word "celebrate" may cause some people to feel that you are promoting religious participation in the holiday. There is a difference between "participating" in the holiday in a devotional manner and "recognizing" the holiday in an engaging academic manner.
It is also best to teach about Christmas using words of attribution such as: "Christians believe...;" "The Bible says...;" "Christmas is special for Christians because...;" and so forth.
Nativity scenes can be used as teaching aids to illustrate the cultural lesson regarding the birth of Jesus. They are not to be permanent fixtures in the classroom.
Christmas carols can be sung as educational experiences for culture understanding; not religious experiences. In a musical program it is best to include non-religious songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman" along with traditional carols.Reading the story of the birth of Jesus to students is permissible to help students gain a basic academic familiarity with a person who has influenced so many people throughout history in government, art, literature, music, and social movements.
Presented with an eye toward education, not endorsement or devotion, recognizing the religious aspects of Christmas is a legitimate academic activity.
SHOP: Give "A Gift for Teacher" to educators you know. It is an eight-page booklet designed to look like a greeting card. It uses a humorous story where Santa explains what can legally be done at Christmas.
The card includes a model policy, quotes from court cases, and lesson plan ideas. An envelope is provided.