Beating My Head Against a Wall; Or, Whatever Happened to the Separation of Church and State?

At times like these all kinds of clichés run through my head. I’m definitely beating my head against the wall. Or chanting the mantra “same *%$#@ problem, different *%$#@ day.” (Fill in the blanks depending on how bad your mood is.) Or cursing the g*#d@#* f&*%$#* white liberals. (Oh wait, I am one of those. But that’s a different story. Maybe next month.)

What has gotten me into this mood? Can’t you guess? Yes, Christmas. Hey, I like pretty Christmas lights as much as the next person. I own every Christmas carol Frank Sinatra ever sang. I have a stack of presents that’s way too big in the corner of my office and next month I’ll have the credit card bill to prove it. I happen to adore Heat Miser and Cold Miser and make a point of watching their antics several times in December. And in case you’re still questioning my Christmas credentials, my jeans are just as tight as yours from eating Christmas cookies and walking department store aisles in lieu of trips to the gym. I wasn’t raised a religious person, but my family bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the commercial bonanza called Christmas. And that’s fine by me.

But I happen to believe that Christmas has no place in public schools.

I mean, come on, what does the obligatory one annual Hanukkah handout (usually three days after Hanukkah ends), one Ramadan handout every other year (if we’re lucky) and the occasional mention of Kwanzaa (all good white liberals know what that is) teach our children when they are awash in a sea of Christmas trees and jolly old elves?

Intolerance. The belief that Christianity is the best and only religion. For children who don’t celebrate Christmas, a sense that their families’ rituals and belief systems are unfortunate at best and shameful at worst. And for goodness sake, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday… it doesn’t hold a candle (no pun intended) to the Jewish New Year. Hanukkah is only taught at all because it happens to fall near the all-important Christmas.

I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly Christianity permeates the public schools when four weeks after becoming a mother I was taking my daughter to her first day of kindergarten. Come December 1st, it turned out, the teacher — Mrs. Henry — plunked the kids in front of Christmas specials every day after lunch. I had already made a fuss after an unannounced visit in which I personally witnessed these children watching the bite-the-bad-guys-in-the-crotch scene in 101 Dalmatians. Seriously. Mrs. Henry did not understand how I could object to Frosty and Rudolph however. “But they were taped from the ABC family channel!” she assured me. Was I speaking some other language?

The notice for the school’s “winter” party added insult to injury. The theme? Reindeer day. At an appointment with the principal I politely explained that a Christmas party was inappropriate in public school. “But it’s not a Christmas party!” she assured me. “It’s a reindeer party!” Right. And Rudolph was making a special guest appearance. 

News travels fast in a tiny public school, especially news of the parent who makes waves. Mrs. Henry pulled me aside the very next morning. “Would you like to come share your Hanukkah traditions with the class?” she asked me earnestly. It was my first contact with the elementary school teacher’s answer to everything — guilting working parents into taking a personal day to come and “share.”

But she had met her match.

“I’m not Jewish.”

What? You could see the wheels turning in her head. What was I making a big stink about if I wasn’t Jewish?

“Even though my family celebrates Christmas, I think the children should be learning about traditions from many religions and areas of the world, without a stress being put on Christian ones,” I explained.

And I have to give credit where credit is due. The kids did get one math worksheet with a Hanukkah theme. I found it balled up at the bottom of Saadia’s backpack during Easter — oh, I mean spring — break. That one torn, balled-up addition quiz was the only impact I had on that school. Christmas specials continued. And by all the glowing accounts and celebratory photo spreads in the school yearbook, reindeer day was a smashing success.

I shook the dust of that school off my shoes without any regrets when we moved 50 miles to the north to make a new home with Claudia. Except to my surprise it turns out that it wasn’t just that school. Despite the fact that we now live in an extremely progressive community with people of all nationalities and religions, Christmas still permeates everything.

My good friend Louise works in my daughter’s school. I’m grateful that she also happens to be a) a big fan of my daughter; b) a lesbian; c) Jewish; and d) the go-to person when my daughter’s current teacher is in over her head. Not necessarily in that order.

After the third notice to get in the permission slip so Saadia could take part in a mentoring program the teacher had set up with her church’s youth group — because how could I object? — I knew I had to take a stand. Louise called me to tell me what happened when her teacher got my note:

 “No, Saadia cannot take part in the mentoring program. I am uncomfortable with Saadia being mentored by any Christian group, as my partner is Jewish and I am agnostic.” Hey, could I be more polite?

Apparently Saadia’s teacher had no idea what agnostic meant and was picturing something akin to devil-worship as she ran breathlessly to Louise’s classroom down the hall, distastefully holding that note at arm’s length. Louise reassured her. We had a good laugh on the phone and I thought that would be the end of all this nonsense.

Imagine my surprise when later that night I opened Saadia’s notebook to find this note:

“Are there any agnostic winter rituals or traditions you would like to share with the class?”

You have to be multicultural in December or you can’t decorate the Christmas holiday tree in the classroom, after all.