Thursday, November 05, 2009

Bah Humbug, Yet Again: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love "The Holly and the Ivy"

The annual "Bah, Humbug" post has become a holiday tradition here at the Booland, and far be it from me to mess with tradition. Tevye and I, we are ALL ABOUT teh tradition. (Here are all the old ones, if you'd like to bask in the past.)

What-- you say it's not even December yet? Tell that to all the local merchants. Because things are gearing up already.

Hence, forthwith, the FIFTH installment of our esteemed annual "Bah, Humbug" series. Said series aligning more or less-- no, wait, exactly!--with the number of years that the Mermaid Girl has been in public school in the Pacific Northwest/Western Canada/A Place Far From the Greater New York Metropolitan Area Where I Grew Up and Where School Staff Would Be Less Shocked At A Suggestion That They Teach The Flat-Earth Doctrine Than One That They Drag a Tree and Wreaths and Santa and Reindeer, Never Mind The Little Baby Jesus, Into the Public Schools In December. (At Least That's How I Remember It.)

Our story (this year) begins back in early October, when the Mermaid Girl's Special School Choir started its rehearsals. The official name of the Special School Choir is actually-- I finally learned last week when I saw the permission slip, which never made it home last year due to the mysterious paper-eating qualities of MG's backpack--"The Christmas Concert Choir."

I mean, I knew from MG's experience last year that that's what it actually is, but in my home country we don't say that. Even in Seattle they'd call it the "holiday choir" or some such.

MG was hot to be in the choir, and no way was I going to be the bad guy here. I asked her if she minded singing songs about baby Jesus, like she did last year. "No," she said, "As long as there aren't too many. And as long as I don't have to believe in him."

I asked her if she wanted me to talk to the choir teacher, as we'd talked about a little last year after the concert, and she did. What did she want me to say? She wasn't sure. Did she want me to ask if the choir could sing a couple of songs about Chanukah, or at least not about Jesus or Santa? Yes, that was what she wanted. And should I say that if they do a Chanukah song, she would rather it not be the Dreidel song? YES YES I HATE THE DREIDEL SONG MOM.

Okay! So, I went in to talk with the choir teacher. I'm always anxious about being an obnoxious demanding parent (having dealt with a few from the other side of the desk) so I practiced in the shower before I went, and even typed up talking points so that I could keep them in my pocket and refer to them if need be.

And it went...okay. I've learned from some of my previous experiences and finally understand that much as I am stunned at the Christmasmania in the public schools out here, the people running said public schools honestly don't see anything wrong with what they're doing and really aren't going to transform their December celebrations into a replica of those in public schools on the Upper West Side or Northern New Jersey just because I told them they should. "Park Slope wasn't built in a day" is my new mantra.

So I started by telling the choir teacher how much MG loves choir, which is true, and how excited she is to get to be in Special Choir, which is also true. Then I said, "Um...did you know that MG is Jewish?"

And, no, actually, the choir teacher hadn't known that!

So I talked a little about my surprise about the repertoire last year, and recounted much of my conversation with MG about it, and added my own observation that she actually seemed to be more affected by the Santa stuff than by little baby Jesus references, and the poignant (and true) detail that every year around Christmas she gets very upset and goes on and on to me about how she wishes she wasn't Jewish. And I do understand that Christmas is important to a lot of people at the school, but we are also a school and a community with a fair bit of cultural and religious diversity, did the choir teacher think she could maybe tone down the Santa and Jesus a bit? And maybe include a Chanukah song, or at least one that's not specifically about Christmas per se?

And the choir teacher was very nice and listened very well and wasn't defensive and then said, well, of course we have to do Christmas (which, why??? Everyone seems to think so, and I've finally learned not to argue, but I still don't truly understand why), and the choir does sing "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger" every year because they perform at Downtown Hotel and the old people there really like to hear it, and the choir is optional and is called the Christmas Concert Choir just so there won't be any confusion, and she's had concerns before from Jehovah's Witness families.

BUT she could certainly look into including a Chanukah song, especially as she'd also had a question from another parent (the other Jewish family!) about the repertoire.

And lo and behold, afer several weeks of rehearsal MG is going around warbling about "LIGHT the candles, SPIN the dreidel," and complaining genially that most of the kids don't know how to pronounce "Nes Gadol Haya Sham." Warms the cockles of my heart, it does.

And even the Christmassy songs seem less... Christmassy this year. She's been singing Jingle Bell Rock, which isn't actually about Christmas at all if you think about it, and The Holly and the Ivy, which is so old that it's practically pagan and which actually, according to RW, references paganism.

AND the for the Big Annual Christmas Show this year, they are doing NOT some made-up Santa-extravaganza, but an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," which at least is, hey, Dickens! And as far as I can remember has no Santa in it! (Though Scrooge does I think dress up as Father Christmas at the end.)

So: I am happy.

On the one hand: It seems like such a pathetic incremental amount of change to be happy about.

On the other: I am happy. Pretty much. And Park Slope was not, after all, built in a day.


Blogger Anna said...

I've been wondering how this first holiday season in public school is going to go for us, too: the two years in the Jewish preschool in town provided a nice balance against the rampant Christmasism everywhere else. It made it easier to talk about "Some people believe this, some people believe that." Now we don't have the balance, and I'm waiting for the onslaught of Christian customs, which demand just as much explanation, since we're all basically atheist in this family. Even the Ramona books have a gentle "God" presence that I'm not sure what to do with.

Anyway, I'm glad you talked with the teacher, and that the other family did too. You're right, it's a small change, but at least it _was_ a change? Better that than a blank wall.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

Hey, looks like you're making some progress with the Dominant Paradigm. Go you!!
Enjoying catching up on your posts.


word verification: kisse
that's funny!

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Beth said...

I've taught over 20 years in public schools and I fight this fight every year. Especially since I teach music. This week in the staff room I pointed out to a the K teacher that she might want to sing that beautiful French song about the 25th of December but that there were several kids in her class who were Muslim and one who was Jewish.
Her response knocked me on my ass - "Yes, but it's a Christian country!"
To which I responded, "No it's not. Our country has no official religion. There is a separation between Church and state and we're state in this school. We have no religion here, we're not to be teaching religion."

"But the parents expect it."

"Not the Muslim parents. Not the Jewish parents. Maybe we should let our Christian parents know that they shouldn't be expecting it and that they should go to their churches to sing carols."

20 years the same discussion and it still goes on. I'm hoping the younger teachers get it and when my generation retires the fight will be over. *sigh*

7:17 PM  
Blogger MsJess said...

This brings back memories of being the lonely Jew on Christmas and nearly quitting my choir group becuase I was sick of singing about Jesus.

And I wanted to touch on something you said, about "having to do christmas." I remember a few years ago when ther was that big faux war on christmas, where somehow stores emphsizing the holiday season over exlusivly the christmas season somehow impugned on the rights of christians to celebrate christmas even though lots of people celebrate Christmas in a total secular way.

4:25 PM  

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