Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bah Humbug Redux: First Draft

Dear Ms. Principal:

I’m writing to ask about Smartypants Yuppie School’s policies and guidelines regarding December holidays.

At winter break last year Mermaid Girl brought home several Christmas-related items, including a red-and-green wreath-shaped art project and and a reindeer handprint cutout as well as some Santa-and-reindeer themed worksheets. I was uncomfortable with the apparent emphasis on Christmas in her class, but didn’t say anything at the time, in large part because I only knew about it after it was over. This year, however, I would like to find out ahead of time what the school as a whole does to acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and that there are many ways—religious and non-religious--of observing the advent of winter.

I do understand that many, if not most, people think of Christmas as a general holiday of good cheer and not as a specifically religious observance, and that in a public school where most students (including MG, with some of her relatives) celebrate Christmas, it’s unrealistic and stifling to expect there to be no discussion or acknowledgement of the holiday.

But for non-Christians in particular a plethora of Christmas-related symbols at this time of year (reindeer, santas, wreaths, even candy canes) can lead to feelings of exclusion. As a personal matter, I don’t want only one side of MG's family to be acknowledged in the December excitement. I’m also concerned as a member of the SYS community for the other students—be they Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu—whose families don’t celebrate Christmas.

I’m contacting you before writing to Ms. Teacher because I would like to get a sense of the policy of the school as a whole before approaching her with any potential concerns or offers. In particular, though, I would like to ask that Christmas-specific symbols be minimized in homework, art projects, and party themes, whether they’re initiated by teachers or by parent volunteers, and to suggest that general winter symbols such as snowflakes might be more appropriate and help more children feel included.

I’d also like to offer, if it’s appropriate and you approve, to come to MG's class and read a fun book about Chanukah sometime during December. It was hard for me to get a sense from MG about how the holidays were discussed last year, though I know she was asked to bring in a menorah and talk about Chanukah. While I appreciate that her teacher made the effort to introduce some diversity into the holiday celebrations, this year I’d be grateful if any presentation of Chanukah could come from an adult (either me, another parent, or Ms. Teacher) rather than asking my 1st grader to explain the holiday herself.

For more information on this topic, you and the SYS staff and PTA might be interested in these links:

Religious Holidays in the Public Schools,” from Finding Common Ground: a Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools (PDF file)

"Religious Issues in Your Child's Public School: A Guide for Jewish Parents", a publication of the Anti-Defamation League.

I’m happy that our family is part of an inclusive school community that celebrates diversity wherever and whenever it can. I would love to see that inclusivity extend to a sensitive and thoughtful policy about Christmas and other December holidays in all the classrooms as well as the school as a whole.

Many thanks,

Elswhere Booland


Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I'm slightly terrified to hear that this is a problem in an urban, blue state school. I'm just saying.

5:38 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Extremely good letter!

5:56 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

liz-- thanks!

ps--Yup, I was pretty horrified myself. I'd just assumed it wouldn't be an issue in a public school. But this neighborhood is historically pretty homogeneous (Scandanavian, in particular) and I'm betting that it's only in the last few years that there's been more than a very few Jewish (not to mention Muslim, Hindu, etc.) kids at all. WAY different than my own elementary-school experience.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Songbird said...

That's a great letter.
Can I just say that as a practicing Christian, I don't find religious significance in candy canes or reindeer? I think the whole world is fireplaced up beyond all recognition by the commercializing of Christmas. I want it to go away so I can have my religious observance without the pseudo-cultural "American" Christmas being thrust upon me by Madison Avenue and Jerry Falwell. Bleh.
And I want your kids and mine to know about each other's holidays and practices. We were blessed by having a same-age Jewish best friend for #1 Son whose fascination for our holidays was matched only by his articulate fervor for his own. Both families benefited by having the chance to really understand what the other was doing. For about five years running we made sugar cookies together every December, both angels and dreidels. Now they're all grown up and have beards and girlfriends and those days are far away in the past. But each of those young men has an openness of spirit that is surely based in their joyful embrace of each other's faith practices all those years ago.

6:33 PM  
Blogger nyjlm said...

oh boy. I'd pledged that I would write this letter early in the school year so I wouldn't have to worry as December approached. I haven't written it though, and I was thinking it could already be too late. My kids are out of school for Thankgiving already.
It is so tiring to be the one to educate the teacher (and principal) every year, and my son is only in 2nd grade. Last year the PTA newsletter had Mary/Joseph/Jesus clipart in it. I almost fainted. I called the principal, who didn't completely get my concern; he wanted me to help him figure out how to 'deal with' Wiccan parents. ?????
I grew up in NYC and now live in Florida. This is so different from my childhood.
sorry to go on so long. Think I can borrow some of your letter? : )

6:35 PM  
Blogger nyjlm said...

Songbird, speaking for myself only of course--it isn't that I object to candycanes and reindeer. Or that I think they are what the true meaning of Christmas is to believers. It is just that I feel so fireplacing INVISIBLE in December. Heck, forget December, tonight we went to a lovely dinner at our Audubon center, and the grace before the meal was ended "in Jesus' name we pray." Yup, invisible.

Sorry, clearly this is a very sore topic for me. I need more therapy : )

6:38 PM  
Blogger Kate R said...

What'll she say do you think else? (I know what my kids' elementary school principal would do: not answer, but perhaps take some kind of behind the scenes action. Maybe).

Keep us updated.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Songbird said...

They used Jesus in a prayer at the Audobon center?
I hate that. I'm so sorry this happened.
I've been asked to pray in ecumenical settings, since I'm a professional pray-er, such as the State Senate, and I work very hard to be unitarian in my prayers.
And, frankly, just blessing a meal is an effort in my house, since my husband doesn't believe in God and always feels invisible in (and threatened by) the wider culture.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slightly tangential, but I address this in my blog at Avoiding Christmas. It's not that exposure to various cultures and traditions is An Evil Thing, it's that the application of this is lopsided and done in a way that smacks of indoctrination.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous ppolarbear said...

I'm with Songbird. And you, too. Although candycanes and wreaths look generic--they're not. They are a weak substitute for real Christian celebration and yet clearly linked to that tradition...and leave out lots of other kids. I don't understand why schools need to "do" holidays like this anyway. What's wrong with snowpeople and New Year's celebrations for pub schools, anyway?

1:59 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Wow, it's nice to see all these comments! Thanks for the support. I sent a slightly edited version of the above to the principal yesterday, and will keep you all posted.

nyjlm, please borrow away; that's one reason I put it up here, though it could use some tightening.

bailie, good to see you here! RW's been talking about how great it was to meet you at the conference.

songbird and ppb-- thanks for the support. It particularly means a lot coming from folks like you who celebrate Christmas with so much personal meaning.

9:46 PM  
Blogger That Girl said...

Great letter! The truth is, I wouldnt notice or even think about how offensive things like that would be. On the other hand, I would NEVER start a prayer or even talk about celebrating Christmas unless someone else brought it up.

8:08 AM  
Blogger liz said...

Oooh! Love the new look!

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Genevieve said...

Great letter, elswhere! (yes, and snazzy new digs here!) Let us know what the principal's response is.

I agree that lots of wreaths, trees and candy canes make me feel invisible. J. notices a lot when there are only Christmas-themed decorations. His school did pretty well with this last year, though - I was pleased that his Spanish homework included the words for menorah, candles, and dreidel.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Wow. You've redecorated. It looks really good.

Great letter. I hope something happens as a result.

I suppose things are different depending on where you live. I grew up in the NYC/tri-state area and when I was a kid there was always an injection of Chanukah and Jewish songs in our celebrations but that's because of the Jewish population in that area. A good number of kids in most of the schools I attended were Jewish.

And...Happy Thanksgiving!!

9:26 AM  
Blogger Suisan said...

Wandered over from Kate Rothwell's.

The school "Christmas" celebration is a really hard one. My husband is Jewish, and I sit on the school board. Believe me, we talk about it every December.

At one school in my District it had been a tradition for thirty years to have a christmas tree in the foyer and to have an all-school tree decorating assembly. And that school community INSISTED that they weren't celebrating Christmas. They were only carrying on the traditions of the school. Some former parents who are now parents there were furious to think that we were taking it away for "PC" reasons.

I had to finally say, "It's not because it's PC. It's because all these winter holidays are about welcoming friends and neighbors. My daughter would feel excluded and embarrassed if you asked her to decorate a tree, and she'd never say a word. Please don't do that to the kids in your school."

The principal, the teachers, and the administrators got it. Most of the parents got it. But I did get a threatening letteer from the president of the PTA over the Christmas Tree. (The mind boggles.)

Keep pushing for the shift, but you may also want to consider that parent volunteers and the PTA may have a larger influnece in this sort of "Fun Stuff" than the administrators of the schools. Parent volunteers, not teachers, are often the ones cutting out four million little reindeers this season.

Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Channukah!

5:02 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

suisan, thanks so much for this. At MG's school it's just as you guessed: the PTA and random unaffiliated parent volunteers are in charge of lots of the activities, which is why I wanted to go to the principal rather than the individual teacher.

I should probably go to the PTA and/or advisory board too, but frankly there's only so much fuss I'm willing to make. I'll see what the principal does first.

I love what you said to the Christmas tree school. It gets right to the heart of it.

9:08 AM  

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