Once upon a time, in the good old days, Americans celebrated Christmas in their public schools. They sang hymns, hung stockings and decorated trees. And nobody complained.
Then along came the big, bad American Civil Liberties Union and other left-leaning fellow travelers, who bludgeoned educational officials into restricting or even removing the holiday from our schools. And the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s just one problem with this bleak winter’s tale: It’s not true. Despite what you might hear about our contemporary “War on Christmas,” holiday celebrations have sparked dissent in American public schools for more than a century. And by pretending otherwise, we miss a real opportunity to teach our children something important about America itself.
Ground zero for this year’s controversy is Montgomery County, Maryland, which decided to make its school calendar “religion neutral” following demands by Muslim parents to recognize Eid Al Adha, the feast day commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to Allah. The holiday fell on the same day in September as Yom Kippur, which was already a recognized school holiday. So the county school board removed all religious designations from their calendar, to avoid being seen as favoring one faith over the other.
As Christmas approaches, the blogosphere is lighting up with righteous holiday indignation. Some critics blame Islam, even though the original request was to add Muslim holidays to the school calendar, not to remove religious holidays altogether. Others attacked the ACLU and liberals in general for imposing a “politically correct” secularism on the schools.
“Children have always been celebrating Christmas in public schools, as a tradition,” one post declared. “But Christmas is now ‘Winter Break’ . . . This is the War on Christmas, and it’s un-American.”
So let’s go back to 1906, more than a decade before the ACLU was founded, when Jewish families in New York City staged a one-day boycott of public schools in the city. The reason? You guessed it: Christmas celebrations in the schools.
In particular, a committee of Jewish leaders told the city Board of Education, they objected to “the singing of denominational hymns” and “the use of the Christmas tree.” Such rituals are “inflicting repugnant religious convictions on the schoolchildren,” they argued.
Indeed, a Yiddish newspaper added, school Christmas programs represented “shmad shtick” – that is, an effort to convert Jews. Another paper argued that the New York State Constitution required a separation of church and state; by the same token, Christmas celebrations violated it.
And when the school board turned a deaf ear, Jews turned on their heels. On Dec. 24, the day before Christmas, New York Jews declared a one-day school strike. On Manhattan’s lower East Side, the city’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood, an estimated 25,000 children stayed home.
“Empty Schools: Tens of Thousands of Jewish Children Shun the Christmas Tree,” a Yiddish paper exulted. “Hurrah for the Jewish Children!”
But thousands of other Jews shunned the strike, reflecting a stark division in the community. One Jewish school official urged Jews to ignore “agitators” and listen to “the more intelligent Jews of this city,” who regarded Christmas rituals as harmless. “I have no objection to Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe and similar decorations,” he added.
The following year, New York barred hymns and other “religious content” from holiday celebrations in the schools. But it continued to allow Christmas symbols, as The New York Times happily reported on Dec. 25, 1907.
“Santa Claus and Christmas trees were very much in evidence everywhere,” The Times declared. “Representatives of the Board of Education, of the Christian ministers, and of the Hebrews admitted that they had no ground for complaint.”
But controversy would continue to hound Christmas. In the late 1940s, Jewish complaints about Christmas rituals in a suburban Boston school prompted threats of a boycott against their stores. “If you Jews don’t stop interfering with the Christian gentile and mind your own business, word will be sent out by ‘United Gentiles’ to withhold all trade from the Jews,” one newspaper warned.
In the 1960s, when the Supreme Court barred school prayer, some districts actually increased the “religious content” of their Christmas celebrations “to compensate for what has been banned explicitly in the daily school routine,” as one Jewish leader worried.
Across the country, Jews faced the same dilemma as always: whether to object, and to whom, and how much.
And Jews weren’t the only dissenters. For many years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have objected to holiday decorations. So have Pentecostal worshippers, who view popular icons like Santa Claus as slights upon the true meaning of Christmas.
So Americans disagree about Christmas, and they always have. That’s why the “War on Christmas” provides an ideal teachable moment, if we have the guts and imagination to seize it.
Whether they celebrate the holidays or not, then, let’s hope our schools devote a few minutes to teaching kids about the history of this dispute. They’ll all learn a lot about America, no matter what they think of Santa Claus.