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.

Religious symbols, whether they are menorahs or crèches, have no place as mere decorations in our public schools. To display religious symbols in classrooms in order to combat secular materialism or to comfort children who've outgrown writing letters to Santa encourages the practice of religion and is offensive to non-Christian students. That is the reason, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) points out unequivocally in its report "The December Dilemma: Guidelines for Public Schools," "[t]he court has indicated that the public schools may not display religious symbols as decorations."

But to simply tack up "secular" symbols like Santa, candy canes, Christmas trees, or dreidels onto classroom bulletin boards because they are "seasonal" encourages the trivialization of religion. I don't think students should have to spend their day in classrooms decorated with the so-called secular decorations of another faith and pretend they have no meaning.

Do religious symbols have any rightful place in the public schools? Yes, in the context of education. An object that might cause some students to feel uncomfortable when used as a decoration--whether it's a candy cane, a Nativity scene, or a menorah--can prove fascinating when used in the context of a class discussion. Learning about other people's symbols, stories, and rituals helps children growing up in an increasingly pluralistic society to gain the capacity to accept and understand differences. Examining the role of religion in the development of civilization and in current world affairs is an essential part of any child's education, and symbols and holiday rituals help bring alive for students the stories, history, and beliefs of the faith traditions they represent. "Religious symbols such as crosses, crèches and menorahs may be used as teaching aids in the classroom provided that the symbols are displayed as examples of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday," says the ADL in another report, "Religion in the Public Schools."

These lessons in diverse beliefs need to introduce not only the Christian and Jewish December holidays but also those of other faith traditions, from Kwanzaa to the Buddhist festival Rohatsu. The holidays are best discussed in the context of the beliefs and traditions of each faith tradition as a whole, not as a one-for-one swap, "We have Christmas and they have Hanukkah." Care must be taken to present holidays authentically; putting up candy canes and Santa decorations and calling them Christmas symbols is just as disrespectful of Christianity as it would be to portray Native American spirituality with pictures of Tonto or Pocahontas.

That doesn't mean Santa has to go. He just needs to be seen in context--not as a commercial symbol but as a cultural expression of the Christmas spirit that has been long associated with St. Nicholas of Myra in Christmas celebrations in parts of northern Europe, where toy soldiers, elves, and nutcrackers also originated. People around the globe celebrate Christmas, as they do other religious holidays, in astonishingly diverse ways--through symbols depicted in art, music, words, clothing, ritual, and special foods that are part of their cultural heritage. To introduce children to these in the classroom is to help them develop an awareness and understanding of the varieties of human religious expression. In a world where communication about religious topics so quickly sparks misunderstanding--and where more sensitivity to the concerns of others is desperately needed--our children's future depends on their learning these crucial lessons.

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