I get this question every year. As a teacher, invariably, someone says, “When I was a child, public schools did Christmas pageants and wrote letters to Santa and sang Christmas carols, and we all turned out fine. Why don’t they do that anymore?”
People did a lot of things and turned out fine, but frequently, new knowledge ends old tradition. There’s a very simple reason why schools don’t “do” Christmas, and instead do “winter celebration.” The population has shifted dramatically in the past twenty years, and education has to change to keep up with it.
When I was little, in the 80s, we still did the Christmas music program. I was in a school where I never met a minority student until I was in the third grade. I remember being introduced vaguely to Hanukkah as well, but it was a perfunctory one day lesson. Everything else hinged on Christmas, and celebrate it or not, the kids got dragged along. Did it hurt them? I don’t know. It didn’t hurt me. It also did not do what so many religious activists hoped it would: I’m not Christian. I still like Christmas music and the holiday, but I have no spiritual tie to it. Forcing children to do something at school does not, in fact, change what their family has taught them, no matter how much you wish it would.
Now, as a teacher, my classes have a broad spectrum of races, backgrounds and beliefs. The demographics are completely different; I always have a multiracial class, and a wide variety of religions. My first class in America had five Christian students, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Jewish students, two Atheists, a Buddhist, a Jehovah’s Witness, and the rest scattered in between. My cooperating teacher warned me to stay away from Christmas stuff (the school didn’t celebrate it at all officially) She told me about how, as a young teacher, she had the students write letters to Santa. It was a fun, laid back writing activity, and the kids went home happy. After the break, one of the children returned in tears. “Santa didn’t come,” he wept. “I must be a very bad boy, but I don’t know what I’ve done! You said he’d visit the good children! Why didn’t he like me?” It turned out his family was non-Christian. She was at a loss about what to tell this sweet, heartbroken child.
Children believe their teachers. Even something as seemingly innocent as Santa Claus can cause disruption if the parents and teacher are not on the same page. And I refuse, as an educator, to injure the feelings of my students over something like this. I am not allowed, either by official contract or my own moral compass, to teach any religion or lack thereof as fact. That’s the family’s job, not mine. I can teach history of religion, and do, but I do not in any way endorse a religion. Like it or not, hosting a Christmas pageant holds one religion up over the others. Unless you are willing to do the same for every other religion, it simply doesn’t work.
I did teach about Christmas. I taught the history and the meaning behind the symbols, useful for any person who lives in a country with Christmas trees and candy canes, or reading symbolic literature. We spent an equal amount of time on Hanukkah, and other students were invited to present about their own holidays. They put together amazing presentations with their own holiday clothes, food and symbols. All the kids loved every piece of it, and I learned a tremendous amount. At the end, we studied winter–the science behind seasonal change and snowflakes, wrote about sledding, drank hot chocolate, and fun was had by all.
As for Santa, one day in my first grade, we had an eruption of tears. One of the students was telling the other kids there was no Santa, and at the same time, one of the Christian children informed one of the Atheists that she was going to Hell. I sat them all down and informed them on no uncertain terms that everyone was free to believe or not believe whatever they pleased, and no one had the right to make them feel bad about it, because that’s what civilized people do. Apologies were offered all around and it stopped. But even in that short time, I could see how easily things would get out of hand.
The fact is, everyone thinks they’re right. If it’s vital to you that your child receive religious acknowledgment, send them to a religious school. You have that option. But in public education, we honor the beliefs of everyone, and no child should be uncomfortable, even if that comes at the price of “tradition.” And that is why schools don’t do Christmas anymore.