Teaching Faith-Based Holidays
Revised December 2019
In March 2017 Concord Community Schools in Elkhart, Indiana, learned that a federal judge had ruled “that the live Nativity scene presented for 45 years at Concord High School with deeply religious imagery and content created an impermissible message of religious endorsement.” (16 WNDU)
Then in March 2018 a federal appeals court ruled that using mannequins rather than human beings for the Nativity scene kept the school’s Christmas Spectacular from being unconstitutional. (Details) In 2019 the event is on the high school’s calendar.
This has followed litigation, begun in 2015, that included a student and his parents, working with the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, who sued because the young man objected to the directly religious content being included in the public school performance.
What happens in public schools as the winter holidays approach can also be the focus of community and legal concerns. For an in-depth look at civic and constitutional issues, you can read most chapters of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes at ASCD.
In 2011, Edutopia blogger and Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance Anne O’Brien posted The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom. She points out the major conclusions of Dr. Haynes and the National Education Association’s Tim Walker: Educate, don’t celebrate. They recommend that districts develop clear policies: just because courts have ruled Santa and Christmas trees are secular does not mean members of the community will always find them appropriate for the classroom. Also: Incorporate a range of holidays throughout the year into the curriculum, to broaden children’s understanding of cultures beyond their own.
Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center offers a 2013 webinar, Addressing the December Dilemma in Schools, which is helpful to teachers who want to encourage students to be tolerant of the variety of faiths present in their classrooms. Additional resources – particularly Unit Four and the Resource Listing – can be used with the webinar or on their own, for example, “The School Holiday Calendar” lesson plan.
O’Brien’s post links to several resources, including “Curriculum Resources Covering Holidays & Observances from Around the World” from the NEA which is now found here. Retired middle school teacher and freelance writer Phil Nast divides resources into two sections, K-5 and 6-12. (The breakdown is particularly helpful because holiday resources tend to focus on the elementary grades.)
Don’t miss Nast’s recommendation from Pulse of the Planet, When the Sun Stands Still: Celebrating December, which captures brief sounds of the season and includes some traditions – like fires on the Mississippi levees and St. Nicholas being chased in Switzerland – not found elsewhere.
Music teacher Peter Siegel offers ways to “avoid controversial topics and still honor a diversity of holiday stories, characters, and rituals as symbols of positive values” in this Edutopia article. Included: seeing light as a motif present in multiple holidays and noting a variety of holidays throughout the year.
Scholastic provides a page full of teachers’ ideas to involve 6-8 graders in holiday learning. From create-a-holiday to an open house hosted by English Language Learners, this collection intertwines curriculum with a range of holidays in December. To bring the Mexican tradition of ‘las posadas’ into the classroom, read about Scholastic blogger Ruth Manna’s project with her fifth graders.
Unfortunately Edsitement from the National Endowment for the Humanities no longer hosts its excellent “The Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas” nor its “Poinsettias, Posadas, Piñatas, Pathways of Light! Holiday Traditions from Mexico.” : [Update: now here.] Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” resources remain. [December 20, 2019 update: Edsitement’s “The Gift of Holiday Traditions” is available here.] At History.com find videos and descriptions of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas. Some History.com content may not be appropriate for middle graders.
A Multi-faceted Season
America’s cultures from North America and around the world have enriched December with many commemorations that may be shared by some of your students. A starting place for students to learn about the variations in Christmas followed by peoples who have immigrated to America is a series of posts, Christmas Traditions Around the World, by Sarah Toast.
Larry Ferlazzo shares holiday learning suggestions with a special focus on English Language Learners in a NYT Learning Network post: ideas include writing about holiday objects, working with hands-on origami, understanding the New Year across cultures, and more. More ideas are here. Over at Ferlazzo’s popular Websites of the Day blog Christmas, his collection of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa resources is epic in size and includes lots of interesting infographics.
You may have Hindu students who celebrate the festival of Pancha Ganapati. In 1985, feeling a need for an alternative to Christmas that emphasized the values of Hindus, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya swami, an American who helped lead a world-wide Hindu renaissance, created the late-December family festival honoring Ganesha, the elephant-headed god as an adjunct to an ancient month-long celebration.
The Longest Night
Cultures around the world have celebrated the two annual solstices. The winter solstice falls in the period December 21-22 each year. Indian Country Today Media Network provides a visual of the earth’s travel around the sun and a brief history of human beings’ understanding of the solstice. After reviewing British traditions, the post explains the solstice-detecting structures built by indigenous peoples in the Americas. Native Americans continue their age-old celebrations of the winter solstice.
For example, near the beginning of December the Zuni of New Mexico hold the sacred ceremony of Shalako with its long hours of dancing by men in 8-9 foot costumes representing the Kachina, nature spirits. Following tests of physical endurance, the community continues the religious dancing for several days and ends with the Teshkwi, a ten day fast. Since 1990 the Shalako Dance has been closed to non-Indians. Students can learn more about Zuni culture at the Zuni Fact Sheet from the website Native Languages of the Americas, which collects information on hundreds of Amerindian languages and on Native Americans. The site is a non-profit project of Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis.
New Year’s Celebrations around the World
Before leaving for the winter holidays, students can learn about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Scholastic offers a listing of celebrations of the new year from around the world. With cultures celebrating at various times throughout the year, children can see beyond January 1 to others’ views of the calendar, often but not always linked to religion.
The Joy and the Sorrow of “Watch Night”
In the United States, observing December 31 as Watch Night began as an idea imported by Methodist leader John Wesley and grew into a Protestant and particularly an African American tradition. The gathering at churches for prayer, singing, and community is often linked to the December 31, 1862 wait for midnight when the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate States was to take effect.
But Watch Night has even deeper roots in the African American experience. Slaves waited through the last night of the year to learn the next day how their families would be affected by plantation owners’ book-balancing – deciding which, if any, slaves to sell to settle debts in the New Year. Slaves contracted by owners to work at other locations often left their plantations on January 1, as well. According to a San Francisco Chronicle writer, New Year’s Day was known as Heartbreak Day among the slaves.
Fictional TV Celebrations
Students may be curious about recent December holidays created by TV writers and other purveyors of mass culture. In brief, Chrismukkah originated in a 2003 episode of the Fox series, The O.C., to bring together a Protestant/Jewish family.
Festivus, ‘the holiday for the rest of us,’ was a December 23 alternative to Christmas which a Seinfeld writer brought from his own family to the TV screen in 1997. An unadorned aluminum pole replaced the Christmas tree. (For a Seinfeld clip and a TV report on separation of church and state, visit this Christian Science Monitor story.)