ADL: December Dilemma

‘Tis the season when children in public schools face the December Dilemma. As part of a classroom lesson, Jewish youngsters may be given Christmas trees to color. During holiday music programs, they may find themselves acting in a nativity scene or singing “Silent Night.” Santa Claus may show up on campus, passing out candy canes and asking them what they want for Christmas.

Nor is the dilemma confined to Jews. Muslims and others must contend with the fact that from Halloween onward, many classrooms are focused almost entirely on the upcoming Christmas season. Even when teachers try to be ecumenical, they sometimes stumble. Instead of Christmas trees, they may pass out dreidel shapes to Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religion forbids them to celebrate any holidays at all.

At this tricky time of year, when everyone’s sensitivities are on high alert, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) looks out for flagrant abuses in public school classrooms. The ADL circulates a clearly-worded set of guidelines entitled “Religion in the Public Schools,” which spell out legal decisions pertaining to the separation of church and state. Organizational representatives are also ready to meet with teachers and principals to discuss specifics. ADL makes clear that the practice of religion during the school day violates the Constitution. It is, however, permissible to teach about holiday observances in a way that is neutral, historical, educational, and age-appropriate. Although some supposedly non-religious symbols of Christmas — like Christmas trees and Santa Claus — are legally acceptable as classroom décor, the ADL encourages a balanced approach that helps all children feel included.

ADL’s Western States Associate Counsel Tamar Galatzan fields phone calls from anxious parents of many backgrounds. Galatzan is well aware that the issues raised are thorny ones. Many Jewish parents, for instance, are satisfied if they can go into their child’s classroom and explain the rituals of Chanukah. Clearly, talk about latkes and gelt poses no problem. But what about displaying a menorah and describing the miracle of the oil? Last year, after a Jewish parent’s Chanukah presentation, a Christian mother demanded equal time to explain to the children the religious significance of Christmas.

On the job, Galatzan deals with several types of educators. Young teachers, fearful of giving offense, sometimes try to avoid holiday references altogether. Veterans may resist any changes to time-honored lesson plans, saying, “I’ve been teaching this lesson for 30 years and no one’s had a complaint.”

Galatzan emphasizes that most school personnel mean well. She recalls visiting a school in San Bernardino County where a prominent display illustrated how Christmas is celebrated around the world. One label read, “In Israel, it is called Chanukah.” When Galatzan pointed out that Chanukah is hardly the Israeli name for Christmas, the school principal was genuinely surprised. It’s important, feels Galatzan, to recognize that such errors are sometimes made “out of ignorance, not mean-spiritedness.”

Galatzan urges parents to be vigilant, and to contact the ADL when they have serious grievances. She also hints that it’s wise not to be too thin-skinned about such things as a Christmas tree in a classroom. She suggests that parents choose their battles carefully, perhaps saving their ammunition for more blatant forms of religious coercion.

The Anti-Defamation League can be reached at 310-446-8000.