It seems like a simple thing-cookies, kids, shoes. But really, this holiday lesson is symbolic, fraught, even potentially controversial. Was my friend teaching "about" religion? Or was she instructing the kids to practice Christianity? Those distinctions matter all year round in public schools, but they are especially potent during December.
In my friend's son's class, there was one little girl who didn't want to participate, a Muslim girl. She kept her shoes firmly on her feet. That was fine with my friend, who gave the girl marzipan anyway.
I have some small sense of how this Muslim student felt. When I was in elementary school, I looked around my classroom at all the Christian students, felt both special and left out at the same time as they proceeded with their just-sanitized-enough-to-make-it-into-a-Virginia-public-school celebrations of all things Christmas. I was one of about three Jewish kids in my class, and I never knew quite what to think or feel about the way holidays--Jewish, Christian, or any other stripe--were treated in my classrooms. On one hand, I occasionally felt jealous that someone else's holiday was getting all this attention. On the other hand--and bear in mind that I was a Religious Studies nerd in the making--it ticked me off that Hanukkah, which in the grand scheme of things is not a very important Jewish holiday (in fact, it doesn't even have the Sabbath-like holiday standing of major Jewish holy days like Passover and Rosh Hashanah), was somehow the synecdoche for all things Jewish, just because it happened to fall in December. But I delighted in getting to explain Hanukkah to my classmates. I usually knew more about its origins and customs than my teachers.
I left Virginia to go to college in New York-and I have no doubt that my experience as A Lone Jew in school year after year shaped my decision to go to a college where a large portion of the student body was Jewish. I remember the first year I saw the lighting of a giant Hanukkah menorah in the center of the Columbia campus. It was, simply, extraordinary. I didn't need to be Christian to feel like I was part of the public, part of the real America. I just needed public space to be open to my traditions, too.
Life is interesting, though, and within a few years, I had converted from Judaism to Christianity. (The conversion is another day's story; I don't think my conversion was prompted by feelings of wanting to be on the inner circle of all those grammar school Christmas parties, though it's possible my shrink would tell you otherwise.)
But I sort of freaked out last week when I walked into my bank and it was filled with Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and a nativity scene. A bank, of course, is not a public school, and I suppose if someone felt uncomfortable, they could choose to do their banking elsewhere. But the decorations still freaked me out-and ticked me off. I imagined all my Jewish relatives and the Muslim girl in my friend's class, having to trudge, December after December, into all those banks and hotel lobbies and grocery stores filled with Christmas. I'm not saying we need to be neurotically politically correct. Nor should we police greenery like latter-day Scrooges. We needn't make our public squares empty. But we should be aware of the way our decisions affect our brothers and sisters in other faiths.
The irony is that public Christmas celebrations-in schools, town squares, or banks-only became a big deal fairly recently. The Puritans who settled colonial New England, for example, shunned Christmas celebrations altogether, and their Anglican counterparts in the Southern colonies didn't do much on December 25 itself, but saved their real holiday energy for a raucous carnivals on Twelfth Night. Alabama was the first state to legally recognize Christmas, in 1836, and it wasn't until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday.
As best historians can tell, it was the 1830s before the first American family put up a Christmas tree-the earliest one we know about for sure was in Pennsylvania. And the earliest record of an American Christmas tree in public also comes from 1830 - it was displayed in the front room of the Dorcas Society house in York, Pennsylvania (the Dorcases were named for the biblical Dorcas, a wealthy woman who did charitable work, and the Society was a band of women who did served the Pennsylvania poor). They held a bazaar in the front room, there by the tree, and charged admissions-proceeds went to charity. The most famous public Christmas tree came half a century later, when the organizers of the 1885 New Orleans Exposition set up a 45-foot tree for everyone to enjoy.