The Best Holiday Lessons

Tacking up menorahs and Santa is, well, tacky. But religious symbols can find a meaningful place in public-school classrooms.

BY: Jean G. Fitzpatrick


What's better to display in a public-school classroom, a picture of Santa Claus or a Nativity scene?

In my town, a group of Christian ministers have sparked an uproar by sending a letter to our school board asking that the public schools stop displaying commercial Christmas symbols--pictures of Santa Claus, candy canes, wrapped packages, and toy soldiers--and show Nativity scenes instead. Every December, the schools display menorahs as symbols of Hanukkah and talk about how Muslims fast and feast for Ramadan, they reason, so Christmas ought to be represented by its primary religious symbols--a baby, shepherds, a dove, star, and manger. Candy canes and Christmas trees are not Christian, they argue, and these objects only encourage secular materialism, greed, and debt. One of the ministers was quoted in the local paper saying that it was important to let Christian children know that when they no longer believed in Santa Claus they still have Jesus.

Not surprisingly, many parents were alarmed. One Jewish woman wrote a letter to the paper saying that the holiday season is already hard enough for her children and those of other Jewish families. If the menorah can't be displayed in classrooms without the Nativity scene, she said, then it's time to take down the menorah.

A holiday symbol in the classroom--whether it is a picture of Santa, or a Nativity scene, or a menorah--can be offensive or educational. It all depends on the context in which the symbol is introduced.

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