Secular v. sectarian Christmas displays: What is the obligation of public schools to be welcoming?

I walked into one of the Iowa Area Education Agencies (AEAs) last week and saw a tree in the foyer that was decorated with lights, tinsel, ornaments, a star on top, and presents underneath. The area around the receptionist’s desk was decorated with red and green garland; a Santa Claus candy dish; little stockings with names on them; Santa Claus nesting dolls; and a smaller tree also decorated with lights, ornaments, and a star on top. On the door to the receptionist’s area was a green wreath and a chalkboard sign with a snowman on it that said ‘11 days ‘til Christmas!’

As I walked past the holiday displays, I was confronted yet again with my annual concerns about public schools, religion, and inclusiveness. I’ve blogged about this the past two Decembers:

The Iowa Department of Education speaks

This year I decided to ask an Iowa school law attorney what he thought about what I saw at the AEA. He referred me to the December issue of the Iowa Department of Education’s School Leader Update monthly newsletter, which states on page 11 (in part):

Secular aspects of Christmas. The non-religious aspects of Christmas may be part of students‘ lives at school to the extent that they do not otherwise violate school rules. For example, the following are permissible activities (inasmuch as they do not violate the First Amendment):

  • Hanging pictures of reindeer, bells, other non-religious symbols.
  • Sponsoring a "giving tree" on which students may hang hats, mittens, scarves, other items for donation to less fortunate persons.
  • Handing out candy. [Remember, this does not violate either the First Amendment or state nutrition guidelines (if not provided by the school; check to see if it would violate a local school wellness policy!]
  • Sponsoring sleigh rides.

Class parties. Focus on the secular side of Christmas. Excuse all children whose families object to celebrating Christmas in any way, both those families who are of other faiths and those who are Christian, but who find the commercial aspects of the holiday to be offensive.

. . .

Displays. Aside from the utter schizophrenic nature of displays that commingle nativity scenes with Santa, displays that do not overemphasize the religious side of Christmas have been ruled by courts to not violate the First Amendment. Nativity scenes standing alone have been struck down by the courts.

Christmas trees. There is nothing sectarian about a “Christmas” tree. (Go ahead…show me where the New Testament refers to it!) The tree is not the problem. The ornamentation could be. Make sure that the ornaments are not all (or not primarily) representative of the Christian faith. Better yet, see “Secular aspects of Christmas” above.

Scram, kids. We’re celebrating!


So it appears that the Iowa Department of Education has no problem with secular Christmas displays, trees, or celebrations in public schools [and even gets a little cheeky about it; read that New Testament comment again!]. The Department says that class Christmas parties are not an issue: simply excuse objecting students from the party. [Sorry, kids. We’re all now going to celebrate the secular aspects of a sectarian holiday. If you don’t like it, we’ll send you to some other location in the building while we engage in our revelry. You can come back when we’re done with our merriment.]

I don’t fully agree with some aspects of the Department’s legal analysis, but that’s okay. Some of the finer points of holiday displays and celebrations are yet to be determined by courts. What I’m more concerned about, however, is the issue of inclusiveness.

Serving all, but only welcoming to some

Last year in the very active discussion to my post on this topic, I said:

I notice that no one’s taken up my inclusiveness concern (and by that I mean schools’ moral, ethical, professional, and societal responsibility to provide welcoming learning environments for ALL kids).

The obligation of public schools to be welcoming to students, families, and community members appears to be lost in all the legalistic wrangling. We can dance on the legal head of the pin all we want, but the bottom line is that all communities – even really homogenous ones like those that exist in many rural Iowa communities – have some members who are Jews, Muslims, Jains, agnostics, Hindus, Baha’i, atheists, etc. They also have members who may be Christian but who aren’t of the dominant denomination(s) in the local area and thus may object to particular expressions of belief. Many of these members are uncomfortable with public schools expressing even the secular aspects of sectarian holidays because there’s often no concurrent recognition (in December or at other times) of their own holidays. They don’t feel that their own beliefs are validated, they don’t feel included, and they don’t feel welcome.

It’s not about declaring a ‘war on Christmas.’ Heck, I like Christmas; my family celebrates it every year. Much of this isn’t even about religion. Instead it’s about kindness and respect. Why do so many schools talk all year (and even implement curricular programs) about being kind, respectful, and inclusive and then get their backs up and get defensive about their right to do this? Don’t they see the disconnects between their rhetoric and their actions? Why on earth are they fighting so hard to send messages of noninclusiveness?

As a former Social Studies teacher, attorney, school law professor, and American citizen, I believe that public school administrators and the organizations that they lead have an obligation to recognize and honor the ideological, cultural, and religious diversity that exists in our country. We don’t do that by allowing holiday displays that scream CHRISTMAS! and nothing else. Every December this is an issue, and every December I feel sorry for the students and families who are of minority faiths or no faith because I know that many schools are doing very little to help them feel welcome too during this supposedly-festive time. In a country that is the standard-bearer for the world when it comes to ideological and religious diversity, allowing this sort of activity just doesn’t sit well with me. Even if it’s legal, that doesn’t mean it’s morally right for the members of our community that we choose to ignore.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. Have at me…

P.S. Also see this story about a preschooler being suspended for having long hair for an altogether different example of a school’s noninclusiveness.

29 Responses to “Secular v. sectarian Christmas displays: What is the obligation of public schools to be welcoming?”

  1. Gee, I just got chewed out on Devan Black’s blog (not by him) for raising a similar issue. Nice to know it’s not just me.

    Let’s just say that this time of year I’m really glad my kids don’t go to public school. That’s all.

    Thanks for raising the issue, Scott. It’ll be interesting to see what responses you get, and how many are not defensive.

  2. I agree with you 100 percent. See the article I wrote for Essential Teacher in December, 2007 – The December Dilemma and English language learners. (

  3. Scott,

    I’ve always found your perspective on this topic interesting, and the comments are equally thought-provoking. I think you’re right in asserting that schools have no place erecting any sort of sectarian display (without an educational purpose). On secular matters, however, I think you might go to far.

    Being inclusive doesn’t mean blocking students from something they might find offensive. By barring any and all holiday displays, it seems like we’re sending the message, “Because Person A MIGHT be offended, we got rid of it entirely.” At the very least, the displays should always evoke conversation…not arbitrary elimination.

    On a slightly related note, what are your thoughts on President Obama’s “Christmas Message” to a group of students at a D.C. Boys & Girls Club?

  4. Hi Steven,

    I didn’t say that schools must ‘ban any and all holiday displays.’ I’m arguing for inclusiveness. Displays for one – and only one – holiday are not inclusive. If I thought most schools did a good job of recognizing other holidays/cultures at this or other times, this wouldn’t be much of an issue. But they don’t, so it is.

    I always try to take the perspective of a non-Christian kid walking into a building or classroom festooned with secular Christmas displays. Do I feel welcome? Do I feel included? I’m guessing that quite often I don’t…

    Well, President Obama wasn’t in a public school…

  5. I think it’s fine as long as other holidays are reperesented as well. We have Xmas & Hannukah decorations in our library every year, and very limited Kwanzaa, too. Still tilts too much on the Xmas side, imo, but def. not terrible about it.

    I know our school Winter Concert has been criticized for being a bit heavy on the Xmas songs (secular, where lyrics are sung–religious tunes in instrumental format). I know they try to be inclusive, but for whatever reason(s), the Xmas tunes (of both varieties) are more numerous & there are a lot of really musically good ones, so I think they work pretty hard at choosing inclusive, musically appealing tunes from other traditions. But many Islamic sects, for example, prohibit music, so it makes it hard to reperesent that particular religion in that way.

    Anyway, your point about how it affects the non-Xmas celebrating kids is very well taken.

  6. Interesting debate. I was actually talking with a couple of non-Christian kids about this last week. One is a Muslim and the other is Hindu. We were discussing the greeting the school’s Student Leadership council should record for our local radio station (we have a weekly radio update), and they were both of the opinion that they preferred “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” for two reasons.

    First, the holiday season exists because of Christmas, not some weird conglomerate of Christmakwanzukah. Second, acknowledging that it’s a religious holiday means that you’re more likely to respect religions in all their forms. They were concerned that people that forced secularism on Christians would be equally disrespectful to their own religious traditions.

    It was an interesting perspective, anyway.

  7. I had my kids vote about what they wanted for the party on the last 1/2 day of school.

    They wanted to
    1) have food
    2) Play WII and on the computers
    3) have an open craft/art table

    They all voted NO on seasonal craft. All the students got to vote. A child who does not celebrate Christmas brought a note thanking me and saying he could stay for the party. The only issue I had this year was having to segregate the may possibly contain peanuts food from the free of peanuts food. I was pleasantly surprised that parents found cupcakes with out peanut warnings. Still I didn’t eat them and my student who is also Peanut allergic didn’t eat them.

  8. Every time this comes up, which is every year, it makes me think that the problems of having a public school and having it stay faithful to modern interpretation of the First Amendment are insurmountable. It seems like we should have a separation of state and school similar to that between church and state. And not just because of religious issues.

    Of course we completely need public funding of education and that makes public funding of private, especially religiously affiliated, schools problematic at best. It’s a tough situation.

  9. Dear Scott,

    Well said.

    We have folks from around different parts the world here in Bloomfield, and many of them got here within their lifetimes.

    One thing a teacher can do that makes a difference is quietly recognize the non-Christian Holy Days with a student who celebrates it. No need to make a big deal about it (nor a class announcement)–it is not about teachable moments or cultural awareness or how clever the teacher is–it is about acknowledging a child’s life outside the school.

    (I enjoy reading your readers’ comments–some of them frightening–in light of your words.)

  10. In principle, everything a school does should have educational value directly related to curriculum and standards. In principle, everything a school does should be what’s best for kids.

    In reality, schools are asked to take on much more than curriculum and standards; and what’s best for kids is highly debatable.

  11. But when, if ever, do schools go too far trying to be inclusive? We want a holiday tree, so we also put up a display for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice and Buddhist celebrations and…when does it stop.

    That being said, schools should never ban a student from putting up their holiday display if others are recognized. But I think it’s unreasonable to insist that schools can be completely inclusive to any student that walks through the doors. There are just too many individuals with too many different perspectives in our society (which is a good thing!).

    Merry Christmas!

  12. I agree completely–addressing the student indivudually *is* a respectful & inclusive act and should def. be encouraged–but it’s not going to change the fact that his/her religion (even the secular aspects of it) aren’t celebrated openly through decorations or that the music in the Winter Festival is heavy on the Xmas tunes (secular or otherwise).

    It’s the very public nature of these celebrations/decorations that is what makes people feel excluded–it’s about the cultural weight we put on some holidays/traditions vs. others. And the question is, what is the appropriate role of a school in this? And I don’t know the answer–I’d hate to ignore Xmas, but we need to find ways to publicly and sincerely (as you note in post, sincerity is key here) acknowledge others’ traditions, too.

    What did you find frightening, btw?

  13. I don’t want to seem like I totally disagree with part of what is being said in this post, but I would like to play devil’s advocate for just a moment. There are religions right here in Iowa that feel that we should not be using technology. They drive horse and buggies, use hand tools and don’t even use zippers in the construction of their clothing. We have another very prominent group who are uncomfortable with the flag and the pledge. We have religions who are uncomfortable with the eating of meat. The idea of a melting pot of cultures does not mean that we all give up our beliefs but rather that they all exist alongside one another. I have a slightly different view point on this topic. I have my rights to express my beliefs as long as I am not pushing them down someone else’s trhoat. I am one who puts out some Christmas decorations such as snowmen, Santa Claus figurines and even a small tree I sit on my desk. I do not feel comfortable putting out a nativity scene or angels as I feel this may be overstepping my bounds.
    I have always had conversations with my instrumental and vocal music teachers concerning their selection for our winter concert and ask that they not refrain from using one type of music, but rather seek to provide a concert which would include selections which would expose students to a wide spectrum of cultural beliefs.
    I understand how it could become a little overwhelming for a student of non-christian backgrounds in our schools, but instead of banning or prohibiting the expression of some, why don’t we take the opportunity to discuss the idea of democracy, appreciation and acceptance of cultural diversity etc. This is the same argument that is used when discussing the regulation of technology/internet filtering. Don’t restrict, educate.
    Why does freedom of speech only work for those in the minority? The whole idea of a democracy has been lost at times in our country. I understand that we need to be constantly aware of the rights of the minority, but we have become so focussed on the rights of the minority, the majority have lost theirs.
    I don’t always agree with the thoughts and ideas of others, but I do acknowledge their right to have them. It has almost become taboo to express a value or belief that would advocate for the majority or tradition.
    I can honestly say that many would identify me as being very liberal as I feel strongly that people should be free to express themselves, that government should not restrict speech, etc. Others that know me better would probably say I am very conservative as I make personal choices that would be more conservative in nature. I have John Wayne pictures all over me office, I think that the good ole traditional family is ideal, that change is good, but the past should be honored, that respect for your elders is important and when in a discussion, the elder person should be given the privilege of having the last word as a sign of resect.
    I think that this is a particularly interesting topic due to the fact that it hits upon the ballance between the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority. It is not as simple as citing the establishment clause in the first ammendment and claiming that any expression of a belief in a public setting is a violation of the rights of the minority. The bill of rights was established to prevent forcing those in the minority to abandon their beliefs not to prohibit those in the majority from expressing theirs.
    Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Bodhi, Happy, Shabe-Yalda, and any other beliefs that coincide with the northern hemi-sphere Winter Solstice. There are some great cites concerning religious tolerance and winter holidays two of which I have included below.

  14. What I find interesting is that very few people consider what the children of Christians think when their cultural traditions are virtually banned from school.

    The school I teach at is predominantly Christian (Catholic, Pentecostal and Baptist predominate). There are some students who are Christian sects that do not celebrate, but as far as I know, we have no Jewish or Moslem kids. There are agnostics and atheists too.

    But in the end, somewhere close to 70 percent are Christians, or are those who celebrate Christmas and find it non-offensive. Banning all displays seems offensive to them. Their parents are tax payers too. Why are their beliefs singled out as offensive? They are made to learn about a large number of other religious beliefs in their World History and Geography classes. They have multi-cultural lessons planned for them in all segments of the curriculum throughout the year. Yet, their own religious/cultural celebrations and observances are virtually banned or secularized, which to many Christians is even MORE offensive.

    I fail to understand why teachers – fail to see the harm in this? Why do they think that it is OK to subject children to this constant negativity about Christianity, when so many kids come from Christian homes. It reminds me of how minority groups were treated prior to the current day – separate, but equal. And we know this is NEVER the case.

    I think that we should indeed celebrate holidays of every represented culture in our schools. We should be more inclusive of all cultures, not less – and that INCLUDES Christians. Those who don’t believe should not be forced to participate, but they should be included in the LEARNING aspects of tolerance and inclusion for ALL groups.

    There was a time when we Americans loved a good celebration, regardless of where it came from originally – too bad we can’t be more like that now instead of trying to eliminate long standing American traditions because they began as religious observances. Religion is a part of who many of us are and we should spend more time learning tolerance of others and less time excluding anyone’s culture.

  15. @Steven Hopper: I confess that your argument that ‘we can’t recognize everyone so let’s only recognize one’ doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Couldn’t schools make a good faith effort to at least be MORE inclusive rather than throwing their hands up and saying ‘we can’t do it at all’ or ‘we can only do one?’ Wouldn’t that be a more sensible course of action?

    @David Keane: Please remember that there’s a big difference between individuals expressing their own beliefs and/or respecting each others’ belief systems versus the imprimatur of the state standing behind one single belief system. The latter is what I think is missing from your comment above and that’s the issue at hand here. I’m not advocating that schools prohibit the majority from expressing anything. I’m merely asking the majority to also recognize and ACT UPON the fact that others’ beliefs exist too. And we do NOT do a good job of that in many schools, whether in Iowa or elsewhere.

    @Teach-J: I’ll repeat what I said above. I’m advocating for greater inclusiveness. Asking for schools to recognize that more than one omnibus belief system exists in their community is not banning anything. It’s instead opening up the door to greater respect / kindness / inclusiveness. Why do schools have to adopt the ‘only Christmas or nothing at all’ approach? They don’t.

  16. Scott,
    I think your title says a lot. This is about making kids feel welcome and safe. Schools can’t make an unbalanced world balanced.

    But a school or teacher should be careful about messages. For example, that Santa brings presents to “good” children. Just because non-christians have to teach their children to ignore those messages doesn’t mean a school should feel it’s OK to send them anyway.

  17. As someone who was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home, I am more offended when people stumble all over themselves to try to be inclusive of everyone. I am also offended by people who refuse to say “Merry Christmas” because they don’t want to be labeled as insensitive or “religionist”. When people wish me a “Merry Christmas”, it’s never out of malice or disrespect. People wish me a “Merry Christmas” because that is what they are used to saying. It’s simply habit. If I were to correct them, or make a comment about it, I then become the disrespectful one – basically saying “thank you for being nice to me, but you fail.”

    It is incumbent upon me as a minority, especially in schools where I may be the only Jewish student, to accept the traditions of the majority – not to practice them, but to accept them, respect them, and respect those who practice them. As long as I am not forced to partake in them. And, as long as my right to my own religious practice is not infringed upon. In addition, I love Christmas music – I think some of it is the most dynamic vocal music ever created. I listen to it on my own iPod every year. I also show Charlie Brown’s Christmas in my library every year – because it’s good television. I don’t force people to watch, but I have it on if they want to.

    I think instead of trying to sanitize this season, we need to truly be accepting of other religions. Chanukkah is among the most unimportant holidays in the Jewish tradition. The only reason there is true acknowledgment of Chanukkah is because of it’s proximity to Christmas. The only reason we have this break is because of Christmas. Please, let’s acknowledge that fact.

    If schools want to truly include other religious groups, then let’s actually do it. In all my years as a student or a teacher, nobody has ever acknowledged Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover or Ramadan or the Chinese New Year or any other holiday which is celebrated in other cultures. If we are going to be inclusive, then let’s actually be inclusive, hmmm?

  18. @Teach_J

    Full disclosure: Atheist. Always have been. I might have lost you already but stay with me.

    So..I don’t know how to say this in a PC way..but nobody is really concerned about offending Christians in the same way that nobody is really concerned about defending white males (by nobody, I mean, people not included in the aforementioned groups).

    If you’re Christian, you hold the power in the country. If you’re a white male (don’t even think that Obama is a sufficient counter-argument) you hold the power in the country. We don’t worry about protecting the rights of those that are in power. We don’t make laws to protect the king. We make laws to protect the people from the king.

    Think about the controversies we see in schools. Christmas vs. everything else. Creationism vs. Evolution. Abstinence-only vs. sex education. Gay rights (teachers and students). Prayer in school. Pledge of allegiance. These are rooted in Christian vs. everybody else.

    Nobody needs to worry about those in power. It’s the rest of us that should be protected.

  19. This is exactly what I wanted to express, only better said.

  20. You know, here’s my issue with the whole inclusiveness thing: I find it hard to implement in the trenches with my kids. Most often, I find that inclusiveness ‘initiatives’, for lack of a better word, come from school administrators who understand your point of view and choose to put their school on a better path toward respect for all perspectives around the holidays. That’s fine.

    Inadvertently, though, they put teachers in a tough spot: if a teacher is even remotely familiar with the many celebrations that occur in December and January, they have a much better base of knowledge with which to be inclusive than a teacher (like me) who doesn’t necessarily have that knowledge. In order to find that knowledge, I had to do research this year when my principal sent a memo (with content similar to yours) urging teachers to decorate with an eye to inclusiveness for the holidays. I found my ability to do this remarkably inadequate, considering that I am an agnostic who doesn’t really have much of a holiday spirit.

    I think that if we really want to be inclusive, making it happen on an administrative level is only the first step. Faculty and staff (and administrators, too) need some professional development that gets them to think about what this inclusiveness actually looks like. Otherwise, mark my words, you will just get teachers who resort to buying Festivus Poles for their classrooms.

  21. Steve, Dave, and Teach_J say it eloquently and with clarity. Respecting the beliefs of all does not mean we have to physically create individual demonstrations of that respect and recognition. We do, however, have a responsibility to support the fact that we all believe differently – even within the various belief systems.

    If we ignore our differences, we ignore our strengths.

  22. @Marshall: Sorry, I don’t buy it. If you don’t ACT upon the supposed respect that you have by EXPLICITLY and VISIBLY recognizing other holidays besides sectarian Christmas, it’s all a sham because the non-Christian kid who walks in the door never sees anything of hers. She only sees what is of others. Explicit recognition of only one, and implicit recognition of others, doesn’t cut it for that kid.

    @Mike: I am extremely empathetic to your comment.

  23. The core assumption that is flawed in all the comments is that SCHOOL must be a PLACE. Increasingly, school is not a single place, as Scott has pointed out in “School is no longer constrained to how far the bus can travel in the morning.” As school expands to near infinite places, becoming a virtual reality, respect and welcoming will be where you choose to go looking for it. The displays you see will be the ones you click on. The holidays students celebrate and take off will be the ones they choose. The problem of what message to send when dealing with captive audiences is a 20th century problem–at least it should be.

  24. I appreciate your voicing this concern, Scott. In the public school where I work in Minnesota we don’t celebrate any holidays. The library displays books about all the holidays our students celebrate throughout the year in their homes and classroom teachers moderate conversations with their students recognizing the importance of cultural heritage and practice.

    I have never understood why public schools would think it necessary to contribute to the commercialization of so called Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter.
    Thanks for keeping the conversation in the forefront.

  25. So lets take this discussion a little further. If schools/teachers are to
    ACT upon the supposed respect that
    you have by EXPLICITLY and VISIBLY
    recognizing other holidays besides
    sectarian Christmas,who decides which
    holidays are worthy of recognizing and
    respecting? Are they different from state
    to state? I agree with the idea of
    showing respect and recognition but…
    making that decision seems about as hypacritcal
    as selecting one.

  26. @Tina: Really? You can’t think of any way to explicitly recognize other important holidays except sectarian Christmas?

    If not, luckily other school systems have figured this out. We can find those systems and see what they do. That’s probably a good place to start if our own local imaginations and creativity aren’t up to the task…

  27. This is very disheartening. I love Christmas and everything that goes with it. But to Focus simply on the secular sides of it is just not what it’s about. Some people do not believe in a Santa. Or maybe they just celebrate it in a different way. I believe that a religious Christmas should not be shunned. If students and their families celebrate different holidays than Christmas at Christmastime, then they should be allowed to show their holiday spirit too. The comercial side of Christmas is not the problem here, though. It is simply that the religious side of Christmas is being locked away in some box, and where is the freedom of religion in that? Also, that the Iowa Department of Education would stoop so low as to make such a snide comment about the New Testament, I can hardly retain respect for them. Who wrote that anyway? It seems as though someone with a middle school countenance and maturity. Honestly, that is an attack against Christian viewpoints, not simply a “you can excuse yourself if you wish to not be a part of this.” I am highly disappointed in this as a christian, a U.S. citizen, and as a future educator.

  28. @Scott ? The discussion point of my comment was as stated…I agree with the idea of
    showing respect and recognition but…making that decision (who decides which
    holidays are worthy of recognizing and respecting?Are they different from state
    to state? )seems about as hypacritcal as selecting one holiday. Why is it NOT hypacritical for a teacher, administrator, curriculum director,or superintendent, to decide that the following holiday events are worthy to be included in a school environment. If you are looking at inclusiveness I guarantee that you will be excluding some religious/non-religious event or holiday. It is not possible to include every belief that every student has or is practicing, the list is endless and new beliefs are created daily. So are we talking about the obligation of the public schools to be welcoming? Yes as much as possible, but to what extent? If an elementary child believes in Christianity and when he/she is involved in school activities does not see any sign of the holiday CHRISTMAS…is that unwelcoming to that child…you bet it is. Including and Excluding does not equal WELCOME. So what do I say for … local imagination and creativity… that would deal with this topic? I have always used the arts to welcome discussion and awareness. Students can and do express their religious and cultural beliefs through drawings, paintings, music, and dance. It is the perfect place to discuss and celebrate differences and similarities. It is also included in the curriculum. With the students initiating their own ideas and teachers guiding the learning everyone feels welcome and no one feels excluded. And of course display the artwork and enjoy the music and dance with a school events.


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