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With Thanksgiving just behind us, the Christmas season seems already in full swing. Did you know that in New Hampshire, only 60% of adults identify as Christian? About 5-10% identify specifically with a non-Christian religion. Of course, many people celebrate Christmas in some way whether or not they are religious, or even whether or not they are Christian. Still, in your classroom or in your school there may well be students for whom Christmas is not a part of their lives or their home. Or for whom there is a parent who does celebrate Christmas and a parent who does not, or who celebrate from each other.
I am a religious Jew, a parent of children in the public schools, and the rabbi of a synagogue. I can tell you that Jewish students, whether they are particularly religious or not, often feel uncomfortable at this time of year. Often they don’t express that until they are at home or in a Jewish group. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real.
So how should public educators approach Christmas?
Here are some ideas from my own point of view. I believe in public education as a proud graduate myself. I write from my own experience as a Jew and an educator,
The Big Picture
The simplest big picture: Sometimes, being in the minority feels good, because you are unique. Sometimes, being in the minority feels terrible, because you are left out. It can be the same student who has both feelings – at different times, or even the same time.
America is a majority Christian society in which many people are not Christian. This is one of any number of majority-minority dynamics that students experience in public school. Religion, culture, personality, political beliefs, talents, academic profiles – these are all differences can become salient at one time or another. Sometimes, a student feels like part of the majority some of the time and a minority at other times. Some students feel like part of a minority all of the time, or part of a majority all of the time.
Public schools exist to help every student learn how to navigate the different dynamics of majority-minority, in order to become the citizens who create and sustain a pluralistic and democratic society. Public school is where you learn how to be part of a group, how to be unique, and how to be an equal citizen with everyone else.
At your best, the schools that you run or teach in do this in a number of ways:
- You help students learn how to be part of an America that is bigger than our differences.
- You help students learn to be proud of their own backgrounds.
- You help students learn about each other’s backgrounds.
- You help students learn critical thinking skills, which they may one day apply to their own backgrounds and identities.
- You help students navigate questions and issues of power and fairness that come with difference, and the realities and feelings that arise from who is the majority and who is the minority in a particular situation.
Keep this big picture in mind, as you think about decorations you create, music you sing, movies you show, stories you read, and assignments in every discipline.
Tip #1: Know Your Students and Draw on Their Families
Do you know who celebrates Christmas and who doesn’t? If you intend to do anything related to Christmas and the winter holidays, find out who your students are.
Are you planning to read stories related to the season? Do you have art or music projects in mind? Are you planning a party? The parents of your students who have other winter holidays can be a great resource. Maybe they can recommend or bring in a story, or a special food. They might be able to recommend someone from the community who can do that if they themselves aren’t available.
It’s not about strict proportionality; there isn’t a formula for how to balance Chrismas and other holidays. If you are devoting some time to Christmas-themed learning, and you know that’s not part of the background of even a single student, make sure to devote time to learning about other religious cultures.
When in doubt, reach out. If one of your students looks uncomfortable, or just seems confused about something you assume everyone knows, ask the child and contact a parent. Everyone will appreciate that you care.
Tip #2: Make Sure Your Christmas Content Has a Purpose
As a Jew, I want my children to know things about Christmas. I want them to know that it is an important part of the religion of many of the people around them. While I don’t want them to feel bad or be put in an uncomfortable in school because of religious beliefs, I want them to know and appreciate the deep meaning that others get from Christmas and Christianity. I chose after all to live in a place where Jews are a small minority.
At the same time, I don’t want my children or any children to feel that for a whole month everything in school is about Christmas. So, by all means read stories that have interesting messages or convey history. Explain symbols that are common around us.
Do not reward children for good behavior with notes from Santa’s elves. There are plenty of other ways that are just as good.
Don’t make them color or draw Christmas images, unless that is crucial to something you are teaching and you are also including something from another religious culture.
Don’t make a math assignment out of reindeer delivering Christmas gifts -- whether it’s a bar graph, an exercise about ratios, a word problem about speed and distance.
Tip #3: Look for Content That Models America Amid Difference
I wish I could recommend the perfect book or story for every level specifically about this time of year. One of my own favorite examples of this kind of approach is a book about Thankgiving called Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen. Molly is a third-grade student whose family recently emigrated from Russia, and she is the only Jewish child in her class. An assignment to make a Pilgrim doll at home leads first to embarrassment for Molly on a few levels, but eventually she and her classmates see that the Pilgrim story encompasses Molly’s own.
Depending on the grade and the group, you might look up material about 1992-1994 in Billings, Montana, when an outbreak of violent anti-Semitism was met by churches and the local newspaper encouraging everyone in town to cut out Chanukkah menorahs (the traditional festival candle-holder) and put them in their windows.
Ask your school librarian, or Social Studies or Literature curriculum directors, what resources they know about!
Tip #4: Respect the Student Who Wants to Opt Out
There may be an assignment or project that because of Christmas, a particular student does not want to do. There may be a song for the chorus or the band that is too Christian for a particular student’s comfort.
Respect this. It’s a teachable moment, probably an issue of religious liberty, and for sure a chance to get to know your student.
Ask the student what she is thinking about. Find out what he is feeling. Applaud their willingness to stand up in a difficult situation that risks calling forth unwelcoming attention or negative consequences.
If there is an easy, non-punitive workaround or alternative, that’s great. But if there is not, no student should be penalized in the gradebook or the group for not being willing to do something that violates a boundary of right and wrong in the student’s eyes.
Tip #5: Pay Attention to What Happens Among Students
Listen in during group time, during unstructured time, during lunch and recess times. Look for teachable moments. If you hear someone say something insulting to another student about what that family does or does not do at this time of year, step in.
If you hear someone ask a curious question of another student, find a way to praise that later on. If you hear a lot of talk around any particular theme – from “What are you getting for presents?” to “What is Chanukkah anyway?” – find a way to plan a learning activity about generosity and giving, or about another culture’s winter festival.
Tip #6: If You Are Trying, Don’t Worry About Making a Mistake
There are no formulas here. Do your best! If say “Merry Christmas” to the Jewish student on the last day before vacation, don’t beat yourself up.
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This season can be one of the most important for the mission of public schools. Feel free to reach out to me personally or any other local rabbi or synagogue if you are looking for a speaker or a story, or the answer to a question, or if you want to bounce something off of me. I can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by phone at (603) 883-8184 ext. 104.
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n.b. For some explanations about Chanukkah (including why it’s spelled so many different ways!), go to https://www.rabbijon.net/rabbijon/chanukkah.html.