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Teaching About ALL of the December Holidays

My students know I celebrate Chanukah, not Christmas. That’s all they know. I have never gone into greater detail about the Festival of Lights since I didn’t want to seem as though I was endorsing my own religion. However, after a child asked me, “Aren’t Chanukah and Christmas kind of the same thing?” this past week, I realized it was time for me to start teaching about ALL of the December Holidays so they could be more informed about what people celebrate and why during the month of December.

The notion of teaching about holidays got me nervous since I knew it would be walking on the church and state tightrope. I spoke with the heads of my school about it and they were fine with me teaching about all of the holidays, as long as they received equal time and there was no endorsement of one holiday over another. I agreed to a plan of read alouds and showing the symbols of all of the holidays that take place this month with them.

I’m sitting here getting ready to plan out how I’m going to use the books I purchased for instruction this week. I decided to go back and reread a paper I wrote for the School Law Institute I took at Columbia during the Summer of 2006 with Jay Heubert, an amazing and brilliant professor. I wrote a short paper, or brief, about holiday displays in public schools. There are a few parts of the paper I wrote that helped me wrap my head around how I’m going to move forward with my instruction about the December Holidays. There is a fine line between what we can and cannot teach in public schools. Here’s more information to help you if you’re planning to do something similar:

  • [T]he three-part Lemon Test [Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)] determines whether an action can be challenged under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. According to Underwood’s A School Law Primer, Part III, the test asks whether the government action:
  1. has a legitimate secular purpose;
  2. has a primary effect which neither advances nor inhibits religion
  3. does not create an excessive entanglement between church and state.

 

  • [A] modified test, which is the outgrowth of Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), focuses on young children’s susceptibility as to whether or not an activity or action appears to endorse religion. The modified test asks:
  1. whether the actual purpose is to endorse or disapprove of religion; and
  2. whether the actual effect creates a message of governmental endorsement or disapproval.

 

  • As stated in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District (1970), schools may recognize and observe religious holidays as long as there is no endorsement of a particular holiday. The Court stated, “Only holidays with both religious and secular bases may be observed; music, art, literature and drama may be included in the curriculum only if presented in a prudent and objective manner and only as a part of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday; and religious symbols may be used only as a teaching aid or resource and only if they are displayed as a part of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday and are temporary in nature.” However, Judge McMillan, who dissented in Florey, stated, “Moreover, I do not understand how the observance of particular religious holidays (i. e. Christian and Jewish holidays), but not others (i. e., Ramadan, North American Indian holidays, Hindu holidays) encourages student knowledge and appreciation of religious and cultural diversity.”

     

  • Clever v. Cherry Hill Township Board of Education (1993) ruled in favor of allowing holiday symbols in the public schools in order to celebrate the diversity of the student body.

     

  • Other types of December Holiday instruction, which would pass the original and modified Lemon Tests could include, but are not limited to:
    • Assembly Programs: To focus on the history of each of the December holidays. A musical program, which focused on an even balance of secularized songs about each of the holidays is an option.
    • Food Tastings: Students bring in holiday foods for their classmates to sample.
    • Read Alouds: Done in classrooms by teachers focusing on all of the December holidays. Discussions about each holiday would follow afterwards.

I feel confident I understand how to proceed in a sensitive way that teaches about the holidays without endorsing or disapproving of any one of the December holidays. Additionally, I will also discuss the fact that some people don’t celebrate any of the December Holidays… and that’s okay.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

One thought on “Teaching About ALL of the December Holidays Leave a comment

  1. What a good and fair post. Our children must know all holidays as a foundation for fairness and tolerance (not to mention cultural understanding). When you reflect on your own holiday tradition, in this context, it helps children look at their family tradition more deeply. Rich memoir material here! 🙂 Your children will want to know what holidays were like for you as a child. Children yearn to be around people who celebrate miracles, regardless of the religion. My homework last week was tied to this, and I loved the results.

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