Holiday Activities

November 1998

The holiday season ahead often brings up some interesting questions about what to do with religious holidays in a secular public school system. Last year I worked with one school district that had not sung any of the Christmas carols in any of it's programs for seven years. The music coordinator thought it would be a violation of the separation of church and state, even though they used seasonal music from Jewish and native American cultures.

Another district last year utilized sacred music in eleven of twelve song selections in one high school program. Parents in both communities for very different reasons had valid complaints. Such extremes signal a lack of understanding about religious holidays and public schools.

Rather than holding your breath through the holiday season hoping a religious war doesn't break out, see it as an opportunity to train your staff and the community about the role of religious faith in American culture and how it is addressed in public schools.

Many assume the lines are fuzzy here when the opposite is true. Creating district policy that conforms to current law can help your district avoid the miscommunication and insensitivities that can quickly divide a community. Where changes are needed, don't just implement them to a misunderstanding public. Invite community members to be part of the dialogue that leads to change, so that everyone can understand and appreciate the value of religious neutrality in public education. Here are some guidelines to help you:

  • Religious holidays provide a wonderful opportunity to teach about religion, which is a valid educational goal. Celebrating a religious holiday, on the other hand, is not.
  • Religious symbols can be used as teaching aids of our cultural heritage and can be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic program, but not as a way to advance one religious faith over another.
  • Sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic program when used with a variety of other selections as well.
  • Be sensitive to those who have religious objections to participating in seasonal activities and provide an easy way for them to opt out and meaningful substitute activities.

The important thing here is that the use of any religious music, art, drama or literature have a sound educational goal and is not being used to promote a religious belief. With a little training and sound district policies in place, the holiday season doesn't have to be a negative experience in any district.

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