Teaching Holidays in School

Greg Beach is a First Year Teaching Fellow at the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, MA

As the weather finally begins to match the December date, it is undeniable that the holiday season has arrived. For me and certainly many others, the holidays are a mixed bag. While the seasonal aesthetic of bright lights breaking through the darkness of winter is much needed, the social infection of commercialized Christmas never ceases to irritate and depress. Similarly, the holiday season revives the frustrating debate over the War on Christmas, in which the forces of political correctness are pitted against those of tradition, or so the media narrative goes. This perceived conflict distracts from meaningful conversations that could be had regarding how we celebrate holidays and teach religion in our public schools.

The debate is polarized around the mentioned positions, which obscures more nuanced perspectives on the matter. In a multicultural country like the United States, elevation of one holiday as THE holiday by a passionate majority should not be acceptable. On the other hand, this should not mean that we must exclude all religious or cultural traditions from the public sphere. In fact, discussion of religion and tradition should be encouraged. Our public schools are a fitting institution for such a discussion, in part because of children’s enthusiasm for the holidays but also because of the inclusive, open structure of the classroom.

In the classroom, we are able to share our identities, ideas and interests. Still, there are important perspectives that are conspicuously absent from holiday classroom discussion. Students should learn about the religious holidays that are celebrated by their fellow Americans. However, this should not be limited to discussions of traditions and aesthetics. We must also explore the origins of holidays from both a religious and, importantly, a historical perspective. For example, the depiction of Christmas in the Christian tradition contrasted with the historical origins of the holiday would provide a vibrant subject for exploration and reflection.

In my schooling experience, I had to dig deep for any sort of historical information on religions that weren’t practiced by Sumerians or Ancient Greeks. It felt almost as if someone didn’t want me to learn that Christmas as celebrated today was heavily influenced by Pagan traditions. We are so hesitant to mention anything Christmas-related that we miss out on a fantastic opportunity for students to explore alternative perspectives and cultures. The history of religion is the history of our deep-seated beliefs, beliefs that many of us have inherited without really examining where they come from. We should not seek to avoid discussing the historical origins of religion if we truly want to understand each other and ourselves.

I’ll admit that opening up the dialogue regarding religion in public schools is tricky.  Religion, especially in schools, is a touchy subject in the United States. However, understanding the historical connection between the Roman Empire and the growth of Christianity, for example, does not diminish God’s great mystery. What it does do is place religion within an academic context that is sure to inspire many students. It connects the dots and examines new perspectives on religion, a topic that is neglected at all levels of public education. The holiday season is an exemplary time to begin a discussion of holidays as history. Whether its learning about the origins of the Christmas tree, the historic events that inspired Hannukah, or the winter festivals that preceded and influenced our modern holidays, the holidays provide a rich base of content to engage and open young minds.