Monday, December 17, 2012

    Is Teen RIght for Questioning Christmas Display?

    Should your local high school be allowed to have a Christmas display, even if some students object?

    I came across this very interesting post at the Friendly Atheist (a column I regularly read at Patheos) which offers a response to a teen concerned that the teachers in her school have set up Christmas trees and are playing Christmas music: 

    "I am a (soon to be)15 year-old high school student in Austin, Texas. I go to a public school. My school exhibits at least two decorated Christmas trees, and several teachers play what they call “Christmas Music” during class. There is no menorah, but there also isn’t a nativity scene. I have talked to my Mom about my thoughts on the subject, asking her whether or not I should raise a fuss and get them taken down. We talked about jockeying for equal representation, but I don’t believe that would resolve the problem. There is no conceivable way to truly exhibit equal representation. After all, what would the majority of parents think if our school had a Wiccan altar, or a Festivus pole? I would really appreciate your help."

    Richard's response, I think, is not only helpful but also spells out the truth that there is, in the United States, both a secular and a religious observance of Christmas and both are a part of the fabric of our culture. For Richard, the important question is: How serious is the religious imposition? That is to say, if the school is just decorating a tree for fun and if the Christmas music tends more the way of Jingle Bells instead of O Come All Ye Faithful, maybe there's no reason for a young atheist to worry about launching a protest.

    I used to be a public school teacher and a youth pastor at the same time.   As a committed Christian, I objected to all the religious symbolism in my school at Christmastime.  Some of my colleagues would say, "But you're a minister.  Why are you bothered by us bringing Christmas into the school?" For two reasons: 

    Firstly, I was sensitive to the fact that I had students in my classes whose families were nonreligious, whose families were of Christian sects that believed celebrating Christmas was wrong, and whose families were Jewish.  (One year, I posted a Happy Hanukkah sign on my classroom door in honor my Jewish student and the teacher across the hall asked "Should you do that? Isn't that against the separation of church and state?" to which I replied, "And what about the giant Christmas tree outside the office with the angel on top?"). Secondly, I objected to the Christmas displays at school because I felt they were adding to the way our culture waters down the religious observance of Christmas, turning it into a mere secular festival, devoid of its spiritual meaning.  The very fact that we can proclaim a "Christ-mas tree" isn't religious, I argued, is symptomatic of the problem.  (Yes, I was part of the whole "Let's put Christ back into Christmas" brigade.) 

    Over the years, however, I've come to a different perspective on all this. I still think we have to be careful about imposing Christian symbolism and messages on children in public schools (partly because these symbols come devoid of any ability to offer them in a thoughtful religious context. You can say Christmas is about Jesus, but you can't talk about what it means.)  Relatedly, being sensitive to the ways in which we publicly express our faith as we coexist with people of many different faiths or no faith at all is simply a sign of respect.  

    Then there's the fact that I've come to realize what perhaps should have been obvious to me all along: Christmas is not a religious holiday. Okay, yes it is...and it isn't.  For some of us it is an important religious season.  But for many it is simply a winter festival -- a chance to bring some light and cheer into the darkest, gloomiest time of the year.  In fact, it was Christians who co-opted the winter solstice festivals of the pagans to create a religious observance.  Nobody took Christ out of Christmas.  Rather it was Christians who decided to nudge Christ into a mostly secular festival.  So walking around saying "Jesus is the reason for the season" not only sounds ridiculous to many people who celebrate Christmas without mention of Jesus, but I think it's also often meant to be offensive. It a way for the dominant religion in American culture to bully others into observing the holiday OUR way.  Is that really how we want to draw people to the light of Christ? 

    So, I wonder: can we encourage our Christian youth to respect the secular Christmas of most of the culture, while also teaching them about the meaningful metaphors and narratives of our religious observance of Christmas? Can we let both exist side-by-side and be happy that people find time, in the cold of winter, to celebrate family, friends, charity, and love...even if there is no manger under their Christmas trees?

    What do you think?


    JAK said...

    I've replied to your blog privately before but I wanted to give public kudos on this one man. Great great post. I applaud the boldness of your post. It takes a little be of a controversial stance on the issue, but I found your arguments very convincing. I hadn't really taken the approach that you offer, but I totally see where you are coming from. I really liked your perspective on the day/celebration originally starting with the pagans of Northern Europe and the celebration of the solstice. Anywho, great post, and great insight. God is really using you! Thanks for keeping it fresh! Love you stuff, I really mean that! Blessings this Christmas and advent.

    robert lahm said...

    Christian Church in Yorba Linda or Christianity- these might be sometimes topics for debate. But what everyone understands is that Christmas is a time for people to celebrate life and give happiness to others in any way they can.

    Anonymous said...

    Good words! I agree! :)

    Brian Kirk said...

    Thanks for the encouragement. Now with Christmas Day behind us and I see how quickly everyone has moved on to the "after Christmas sales" I'm even more convinced that embracing our own liturgical calendar -- 4 Sundays of Advent and then a 12 day season of Christmas -- is the way for us to encourage youth to step out of the cycle of seasonal consumerism of our capitalist culture and to step into God's time for awhile.