Public school teachers, particularly those in elementary classrooms, face the same challenge every December. Do they pay homage to Christmas and maybe Hanukkah in a class party or activity? Or do they ignore the holidays altogether?
Public school educators often look at the “December dilemma” as a question about how to recognize the holidays the majority of families in their communities celebrate. They miss a more important question. How can schools teach students of all ages about different world religions, reduce religious ignorance and ideally, make a dent in religious bigotry, too?
Schools do not belong in the business of holiday celebrations. When educators celebrate holidays in the classroom, they promote a religion and step over the line that separates church and state. Instead, teachers, even in the earliest grades, should view religion as a topic to teach as part of social studies and geography.
Children can and should learn about religions’ different holidays, but not in isolation and not necessarily at Christmastime. Having children do math worksheets with dreidels and Christmas trees does not teach them anything about Hanukkah or Christmas. Nor does handing them pictures of Christmas or Hanukkah items to color when December rolls around. That veers into celebration, not education. But reading the Christmas story as part of a broader lesson on Christianity and world religions is okay. In that same unit, teach them about Easter and other Christian holidays. Teach them, too, about how Christianity grew out of Judaism, a religion that has numerous holidays. Teach them that Hanukkah, while celebrated around Christmas time, is not equal in importance to the major Christian holiday. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, which happen in the fall, are the holiest days for Jews. Ramadan, too, does not fall in December, but it is the holiest month for Muslims. Don’t try to make December a catch-all for religious holidays when the month simply does not carry the same weight for different religions.
Often, elementary teachers ask parents to come in and share family cultural traditions in December as a way of showing students that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Typically, depending on a school system’s makeup, Jewish parents will come in with menorah and dreidels and talk about Hanukkah. Sometimes, Hindu parents will share something about Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Rarely do Christian parents feel that the invitation includes them and their Christmas traditions. The problem is the word ‘cultural.’ While Hanukkah and Diwali are part of families’ cultures, they are also a part of religions, too. So is Christmas.
There is no easy solution. But as teachers sort out how they are or are not going to handle the holiday period in the classroom this December, they can find plenty of resources. Here are some links to articles and resources:
- Guidelines from the First Amendment Center, based at the Newseum.
- An article with numerous resources from The California Three Rs Project, which provides training to teachers on handling religion in the schools.
- A webinar on navigating the December Dilemma, produced by the Anti-Defamation League.
- Harvard University’s Pluralism Project has numerous resources on different religions.
- The American Academy of Religion’s Guidelines on Teaching for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Schools includes ideas as well as dos and don’ts.
- Browse Harvard University’s Religious Literacy Project website as well for more resources.
- My book, Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance, and an accompanying free downloadable teacher’s guide, also can help teachers think about how they can teach about religion and religious holidays with an emphasis on education over celebration.
- I also include more fodder for teachers in an article I wrote last year about why I was no longer volunteering as a Hanukkah parent.
- For those who are social media-oriented, check out weekly live Twitter chats such as #sschat and #globaledchat that often touch on these issues. Follow a set of world religions teachers offering training on this handle; check out posts by Benjamin Marcus, a religious literacy specialist at Newseum Religion; videos and posts by Andrew Mark Henry, a budding religion scholar; and the Tanenbaum Center.
I appreciate schools which take a hands-off approach to Christmas and Hanukkah in December and instead try to educate children throughout the school year on different religions, countries and cultures. It’s more inclusive, and it educates children better in the long run.
Note: Author Linda K. Wertheimer provides talks and workshops for teachers on teaching about the world’s religions and ways to avoid controversy. To book her, contact her directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the award-winning author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance. During her nearly thirty-year journalism career, she was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and The Orlando Sentinel as well as for other publications. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, USA Today, Time, and many other publications. Faith Ed in 2016 won a national book award—second place in the Religion News Association nonfiction religion book contest. She has also won awards for her writing from the Education Writers Association and other organizations. She was a 2014 finalist in the Massachusetts Cultural Council artist fellowship awards. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she lives in the Boston area with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter at @Lindakwert and visit her website.