Christmas as a “Secular American” Holiday?

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jul 4, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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by Sheila Musaji

My youngest son is in Kindergarten this year, and once again I have to help a child find a way to “draw the lines” between “cultural expressions”, religious celebrations, etc.

Maybe I am getting older and have less patience, but it seems that the public schools are placing more and more emphasis and for a longer period of time on the Christmas celebration. The art projects began right after Thanksgiving. The children made ornaments, cards, decorations for their classroom and for the school halls. There was a Christmas tree at the school entrance and even in the classroom. Santa, Frosty and Rudolph were everywhere. There was a Christmas party, a music program consisting of Christmas songs, and even a field trip to sing Christmas carols.

From my discussions with teachers, PT A members and administrators it scems that the belief is that Christmas has become “an American cultural holiday” that “everyone” can participate in and celebrate at the cultural level. As long as the symbols are Santa, Rudolph and trees, and the songs are Jingle Bells or White Christmas, then this NOT a Christian, but an American holiday. If, on the other hand, there was a creche under the tree or the song was Ave Maria, then that would represent a different holiday that is purely Christian and not celebrated in the public schools.

It would seem that what is being proposed as a “solution” for maintaining all of the majority religions’ celebrations ( e.g. Christmas, Easter) within the public schools is to artificially create two parallel holidays that are celebrated simultaneously - one a “secular” cultural holiday (celebrated by ” Americans”), the other a “religious” holiday (celebrated by Christians).

The religious holidays of other groups (e.g. Hannukah or Eid) might be mentioned in the public schools as holidays celebrated by Jews or Muslims. But this mention is a footnote, a brief comment in passing The impression left with the children is that Christmas is the OFFICIAL holiday. Some minorities have chosen to attempt to create traditions that will coincide in timing and/or external trappings with this official holiday - but for Muslims this is not a reasonable alternative.

What we are left with is a situation where it is not expected that Muslim or Jewish children will participate in the religious holiday celebrated outside of the public schools. But, if they do not participate in the secular holiday celebrated within the public school, then that is somehow “un-American”.

As a Muslim this “solution” does not satisfy me. The sight of those children who do not participate having to sit in the library or principals office or a corner of the room, drawing or “doing their own thing” while the rest of the class works on the “official” class project of making ornaments or practicing for the Christmas program disturbs me.

It is a lot to expect that a child will handle this difficult situation in a mature way. And, it is made more difficult by the fact that many parents make the decision to just “go along with the program” because they don’t want their children to be outsiders. This has been the most difficult thing to explain to my own children who cannot understand why they cannot participate and other Muslim children are participating.

Not only do my children have a difficulty understanding this, but the teachers and school administrators do not understand it either and ask why no one else has raised this issue. What is being conveyed (by this behavior) is that there are two groups of Muslims - the fundamentalists (fanatics) and the moderates.

It would seem that this attempt to secularize a religious event would disturb all of those holding a particular belief - Christians, Jews and Muslims. Because,when you remove the central religious element and leave only the external trappings you have a “hollow” materialistic event. As a Muslim, my beliefs as to the nature of Jesus (pbuh) and his mission are not the same as the beliefs of most Christians, nevertheless I can share with them a thankfulness for his birth and for the remembrance of this event as a reminder of what is important. If this reminder causes people to be thankful, compassionate and charitable, to think about God and their fellow creatures, and to renew or increase their religious commitment - then we can share in the appreciation of this renewal of the spirit and essence of the teachings of all the prophets. On this level I can share in the wish for “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”.

But, this level on which there can be some common ground is at the religious or spiritual level, not for the secular event being celebrated in the public schools.

It is possible that the majority who may have seen this tactic as a way to maintain these events within a society that has become truly multi-religious and multi-cultural may ultimately regret having created a situation in which their children will choose to celebrate the American cultural version and forget that there is a religious version.

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 1992 issue of TAM.