How to navigate the holidays inclusively

Schools can teach about religion, but can't show preference for any holiday customs
By: | November 1, 2019
Celebrating holidays in the classroom inclusively is an opportunity for educators to teach students about different belief systems, including atheism. ( Discan/softluka)Celebrating holidays in the classroom inclusively is an opportunity for educators to teach students about different belief systems, including atheism. ( Discan/softluka)

Having elementary school students write letters to Santa may meet school guidelines, but such an assignment isn’t celebrating holidays inclusively.

While schools are allowed to acknowledge Christmas, teachers must also ensure they are celebrating holidays inclusively by embracing diversity and create inclusive environments during the holiday season, says David Barkey, national religious freedom counsel at the Anti-Defamation League.

“Asking a group of first-graders to write a card to Santa telling him what they want for Christmas is probably legal, but it’s also incredibly exclusionary,” Barkey says. “The better practice is writing a letter to somebody who’s important to them. Students can write to Santa or they could write to their grandparents.”

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Most educators realize they cannot show a preference for one religion or for any religion over, for example, atheism. Celebrating holidays inclusively means educators can’t put up overtly religious displays, such as Nativity scenes, but courts have given schools more leeway with Christmas trees and Hanukkah dreidels.

“You could have an assembly with ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and other Christmas songs,” Barkey says. “It’s constitutional, but very exclusionary for kids who don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Celebrating holidays inclusively with music

Music, of course, is central to many religious observances, particularly around Christmas. Teachers should arrange balanced programs that include music from different religions and cultures, says Mike Blakeslee, executive director and CEO of the National Association for Music Education.

“If you choose music that is going to make some kids feel excluded, you’re not achieving the goal of a good music education program or of any good education program,” Blakeslee says.

Striking a balance

The following resources provide guidance for teaching about religion during the holidays.

But his organization doesn’t advocate for a blanket prohibition against all religious music. Certain classical pieces, for instance, offer great educational value despite having roots in religious expression, he says.

“Suppose you have a school choir and you’re doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor; it’s universally acknowledged as a great piece,” he says. “But if you choose the latest little pop ditty, maybe the musical quality isn’t as good.”

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Celebrating holidays inclusively means teachers should look to certain music publishers, such as Hal Leonard, and music education providers, including QuaverMusic, to find music from a broad range of cultures. Teachers should also reach out to members of various ethnic groups in the community for guidance.

“We’re teaching, through music, the values and ways of thinking that kids need to survive and thrive in the world, such as how do you interpret and celebrate and decode culture,” Blakeslee says.

Should we let Mom be the expert?

The Supreme Court has ruled that schools can teach about religion. Celebrating holidays inclusively, in fact, presents an opportunity to instruct students on different belief systems, says Benjamin Marcus, a religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, which promotes First Amendment education initiatives.

“What’s critical is that those holidays are not used as an excuse to proselytize,” Marcus says. “No student should be made to feel that they are not a full member of the academic community because they don’t celebrate those holidays.”

But Barkey at the ADL warns teachers against having students or parents serve as experts in class presentations about religious customs. For one, a student or parent may be more likely to proselytize and make others in the class uncomfortable, he says.

“Also, if a teacher says, ‘We’re going to have Mark or Mark’s mother come up and talk about Hanukkah,’ the teacher is sending a message to students that this religion is too foreign and exotic for me to teach it,” Barkey says.

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