As a society, we need to make a clear distinction between holidays that are secular and religious celebrations. Read: Santa should be allowed at school.
Brooklyn school PS 169 made news this week when Principal Eujin Jaela Kim banned the word “Christmas.” Other disallowed terms include “Thanksgiving” and the entirety of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Kim has yet to publicly comment on her decision to swap out “Thanksgiving” for “harvest celebrations.” Hopefully she will do so soon.
But I got to thinking about this choice, and I believe we need to make a distinction as a society between secular, national holidays and religious ones.
Because though it may seem counterintuitive, those hurt the most by inclusion of religious symbols in public settings are believers themselves. Those hurt by the exclusion of secular holidays? Everyone.
Twelve years ago, I lived for a semester in London , one more bright-eyed American 20-year-old with way too much energy on The Tube.
The year was 2003, and it happened to be the winter Love, Actually premiered in theatres. If you haven’t seen England’s toast to the true spirit of Christmas, get thee to Netflix immediately. I’ve yet to encounter a movie that is so unabashedly loved by just about everyone – young, old, male, female, serious, flighty. You name it, they love Love, Actually.
I went to see it with some friends, and except for the rather dismal portrayal of Americans (we were in the heyday of George W Bush hatred, and there were times I felt all us Yanks were all on the receiving end of some of that projected disdain), I loved the film.
But there was one scene that really stood out as markedly distinct from America: the brazenness of the film’s local public school having a Nativity play for their end-of-year Christmas show. Everyone in the movie was just fine with it.
In fact, I had already heard much about this British tradition on various news channels. Many journalists apparently understood that such a thing would never be possible in America. One particular show took to the streets, and asked locals of different faith backgrounds what they thought about their Muslim or Jewish children performing as animals or shepherds at the birth of Jesus.
They were fine with it. They liked it. It was a tradition. It brought the community together.
The Brits’ answers astounded me. I had grown up long after the Ten Commandments had been removed from schools. I had grown up on atheists suing state governments for religious paraphernalia on public property. I had a belief in separation of church and state burrowed deep into the very marrow of my consciousness.
How could Muslims and Jews find it acceptable to participate in a wholly Christian program?
The answer is no doubt complex, but a part of it probably lies in this statistic: only 800,000 Brits regularly attend Church of England services. England alone has 51 million citizens.
Not quite 2% of the population. That’s a pretty low percentage for a supposedly Christian country. Contrast that with the United States, where even by conservative estimates, nearly 20% of Americans go to church on a regular basis.
The difference is extraordinary, and it explains why there is much less allowance for Christianity in American public spaces. Though it is often atheists and others who are not robustly tied to Christianity who fight against Christian symbols and culture in public spaces, they are really doing believers a huge favor.
In recognizing the real belief of many millions of Christians, the removal of explicitly Christian symbols from public spaces actually stops these sacred signs and traditions from becoming mere stories.
And that’s a good thing.
This does not explain, obviously, why Santa Claus – whose imaginary quality cannot possibly be lost on Principal Kim – is not allowed.
In America, Christmas has all but detached itself from its religious roots. We believe in giving gifts mainly because of Charles Dickens. We put trees in our homes, which is an ancient Pagan tradition, not a Christian one. We decorate with lights because they’re pretty and festive. We make snowmen and snow angels because it’s cold outside.
These are not in any way exclusively “Christian” traditions.
For more on how we owe more to Charles Dickens than King James in today’s Christmas celebration, I’d strongly encourage you to check out NPR’s show with the always-hilarious David Sedaris. You’ll get a good dose of misanthropic cheer, if nothing else.
But here’s the real question: if when kids leave the school building they see endless Christmas commercials, and lots of candles and trees in windows, and hear “Jingle Bells” playing ad nauseam, should we really try to “protect” them from this reality at school? I’m all for keeping religious icons out of public spaces, for the sake of non-believers and believers alike.
But secular holidays – like Thanksgiving, and yes, Christmas – should be included at school.
I’ll be very interested in hearing Principal Kim’s justification for rejecting even the word “Santa.” Hopefully we’ll hear from her soon.
Photo: Flickr/Kevin Dooley