When I went to school, way back when, my music classes regularly sang Christmas carols, my art classes colored Santas and Christmas trees, my writing classes had us writing about our favorite Christmas present, my homeroom classes had us making Christmas presents for our parents.
When I went to school, in a sort of diverse neighborhood on Long Island, in New York, I went to school as a Jewish child painfully aware of how different I was. A kind teacher might say to me, "Lisa, you can make Hanukkah presents." But mostly, I was just ignored and told to do what everyone else was doing. The whole school, the whole town, seemingly the whole world was celebrating a holiday I had nothing to do with.
Today, I work in a wildly diverse school district on Long Island, in New York. My students celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Divali, Kwanzaa, sometimes nothing at all. I spend most of my time in the classroom helping my children understand diversity and celebrating it, not fearing it. I work to help children relate to others who are different, not copy them. I encourage the children to share their cultures and feel proud of who they are.
In our country, we struggle with this amazing diversity. Many places in the United States are not diverse. In many places, everyone celebrates one holiday. In most places, there are no issues with decorating the stores, the towns, the streets with Christmas decorations. There is no question about playing Christmas music over loudspeakers in the local mall. And teachers are free to color Santa and write about favorite Christmas presents.
But we need to begin to understand more of the big picture. We are a diverse country and we have many, too many, instances of people not accepting of this diversity. We have many people in our country who would be quite happy to "keep America white and Christian." Thankfully, that view is not held by most but what do we teach our students when we focus on a religious holiday in a public school? Are we letting our children know that even those with different beliefs are to be respected when we only see Christmas decorations at the public library or on the lawn of Town Hall? How ridiculous do we make others seem when we "honor" them by sticking a menorah next to the nativity scene on the lawn? "There," we can say to our young,"we care about everyone. Look, we have covered all the holidays with the Christmas tree and the menorah."
My job, as an educator and as a parent, is to prepare my children for the future. And I have the great opportunity to help mold that future. I want a future that is better than today. I want diversity to be recognized, revered, and accepted. I want peace. Peace will only come with understanding. Understanding will only come with honest recognition.
So I don't say Merry Christmas, or even Happy Holidays, unless I know for sure what someone is celebrating. I never assume anything. If I want to know, I ask. Otherwise, Happy New Year will work just fine. Or even "Have a great vacation." When we come back, I will ask the children about their vacations. Many will have stories of holiday celebrations and we will share them with each other. Many, like me, have already had their holiday and will just share our activities. And some will not have holidays to share at all. But we will share, learn, and enjoy. And maybe, just maybe, my students will grow up not expecting everyone to believe what they do, practice the religion they do, and celebrate the holidays they do. And that will be a wonderful way to live!
Peace to you all!