My younger daughter, Zoe, attends a secular preschool, as did her older sister Ella. We chose the school for many reasons and have never regretted the decision (except, perhaps, for the time they fed Ella a treif hot dog. But I digress.) Saturday night, we participated in an event sponsored by the school billed as “A Festival of Lights” – a celebration of the diverse family traditions of the school community. The event began with a variety of arts and crafts activities led by parents – I brought paper cut out in the shape of dreidels and Hebrew letter rubber stamps; another parent taught children to make cut-out snowflakes; another organized painting clay pots reminiscent of Diwali lamps; another bought christmas cookies to decorate. (Can you guess which table was the most popular?) We came together for a few songs and books about the three holidays, and enjoyed a potluck supper with foods from a variety of family cultures, including noodle kugel, sev thin, Turkish rice, mashed potatoes, latkes, arroz con pollo, and cannolis.
The event represented the overall approach that the preschool takes towards religious holidays. Any family is welcome to come in and teach or share something about its own traditions, but the school itself does not teach about or celebrate religious holidays. Consequently, my daughters have learned about St. Nicholas and the Easter eggs, as well as solstice, and Ramadan (and Rosh Hashanah and Passover) without my ever feeling threatened or uncomfortable as a Jewish parent.
I recognize that this approach is probably not tenable in the public schools for a myriad of reasons. I don’t really know what public schools should do. But I have some strong opinions about what they should not do. They should not display Christmas trees. Or hold Christmas parties. Or sponsor Christmas anything.
My good friend, Michelle Zundel recently became the principal of an elementary school in southern Oregon that had a tradition of a “Holiday giving tree” to organize donations for families in need. After receiving complaints from a Jewish family, Michelle reconsidered the display and replaced the tree with two snowmen. She also issued new guidelines for school decorations which disallow Christmas trees and Santa Claus. I think that anyone who knows Michelle will tell you that she is as caring, generous, intelligent and thoughtful as they come. Yet, many people in the community are, if you will pardon the expression, ripping her a new one. (She described the emails she has received as “talk radio-esque.”)
As a member of a minority, I’ve never expected to see my religious symbols in public schools, government buildings, or shopping malls, nor do I want to. Who needs the secular world to co-opt, or try to make money from, the things I hold sacred? So, I don’t really get why having Christmas everywhere seems to important to some Christians.
But what I find even more mystifying is how angry some people get about X-mas. It always seems so joyful on the tv specials. Go figure.