School Climate & Safety

Do Holidays Belong in Public Schools? It’s a Controversial Question in December

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 09, 2022 4 min read
Pymatuning Valley High School Principal Dan Jackson reads a revised "It Was the Night Before Christmas" poem to students on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, afternoon during the school's annual Reindeer Games in Andover Township, Ohio.
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The classic holiday pop song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is on constant rotation in public places in December. But the 60-year-old lyrics, particularly the refrain “It’s the hap-happiest season of all,” seem more satirical than lyrical—even, or perhaps especially, in the K-12 sphere.

That’s because contentious debates and confusion over how and even if the December holiday season should be celebrated or taught in public schools is brewing in districts nationwide. The polarizing discussions about race, gender, and culture in some states and local communities have created a fraught environment for teachers, administrators, and parents when it comes to figuring out how to handle the holidays.

From full-blown decorations and pageantry to the complete absence of any signs or symbols, there’s no broad consensus across the public school community on how best to approach the December holiday season.

A school’s rejection of a Hanukkah presentation

One highly publicized incident at a Florida elementary school illustrates the current conflict-ridden climate.

Rachel Long, a parent in Florida’s Pasco County school district, had long enjoyed coming to her children’s school, Longleaf Elementary, to share customs and traditions of Hanukkah, including stories, games, and foods associated with the Jewish holiday. She went so far as to cook latkes, a Hanukkah dish, which she said was a big hit with students. But this November, her overtures were rebuffed.

According to local news reports, the school contacted Long to decline her invitation, telling her that a Hanukkah lesson was “not part of 5th grade standards.”

The school later reversed its decision. Long speculated that the school’s initial response was a reaction to a new state law that limits topics teachers can address in the classroom.

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Long’s Hanukkah presentation was meant for a 5th grade class and had nothing to do with the prohibited issues.

The Florida education department said the new law does not restrict a presentation like Long’s.

“These laws do not prohibit the discussion of holidays in classrooms, and we do not believe any official guidance is necessary for this common-sense interpretation,” Cassie Palelis, a press secretary for the state agency, wrote in an email to Education Week.

The Pasco district agreed and said the school’s reasoning for rejecting the Hanukkah presentation was flawed.

“Hanukkah is not specifically written into our state standards. However, the state standards do reference learning about ‘cultural traditions other than one’s own,’ as well as recognizing ‘the importance of celebrations and national holidays,’” Stephen Hegarty, the district’s public information officer wrote in an email to Education Week.

Hegarty added: “In Pasco, and in school districts everywhere, as the winter holidays approach, many classrooms and offices are decorated with bright lights, Christmas trees, … and menorahs. It’s educational and it’s a fun time of year that students and teachers look forward to.”

But not everyone in K-12 sees the winter holiday season this way.

Teachers take to social media to share, spar over December holiday decorations

Among teachers, much of the contention is about how to decorate classrooms in December.

A 2018 WeAreTeachers blog post titled “Holiday decorations don’t belong in the classroom—period” was recently republished on Facebook. The response was big and passionate, generating 1,600 comments, including these:

How about you stay out of my classroom and I’ll stay out of yours?
Seasonal decorations do not need to be tied to religion. Rather, they can simply be a way for everyone to share good will, cheer, and to stop to learn about LOTS of different ideas about what this time of year means (and yes, I definitely do teach my kids about lots of different types of celebrations). Kids spend a lot of their lives in the classroom. With academic expectations, kids get so little time for fun in the classroom these days. I strive to make fun for all and I won’t apologize or be made to feel bad for being festive.

Karin Hall

I think a lovely, subtle winter theme that is not overwhelming or distracting, is OK. Better yet, let it have educational value. I always objected to Christmas trees, menorahs, and Jewish stars in the public schools in which I worked. I especially dislike the Elf on the Shelf.

Susan Burde Eisenberg

Legal considerations

The cascade of responses reveals just how much personal ideology guides teachers’ choices on acknowledging the December holidays in their classrooms. But legal considerations are at play, too.

As a recent report from the Pew Research Center points out, the Constitution prohibits public schools from “indoctrinating children in religion.” But it also acknowledges that deciding what constitutes such indoctrination isn’t always clear-cut.

Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, suggests that educators ask themselves: What are you trying to do? What’s your intent?

When uncertain about whether an activity will pass constitutional muster, he advises contacting the school district’s lawyer for input.

Holidays can be isolating for some students

Potential legal consequences notwithstanding, some educators suggest that holiday-themed decorations or activities don’t belong in public schools during December, period.

The opinion essay published by WeAreTeachers captures this sentiment.

“Sure, I know it won’t hurt your Muslim or Jewish or atheist kids to look at a lovely evergreen tree,” it says. “But those kids are already bombarded with Christmas decorations and advertising. They’re constantly reminded that their beliefs are not the culturally dominant ones in this country.”

Noelle Prignano, a public school high teacher in Connecticut and founder of the website Teach Hungry Movement, suggests that mentions of religions and their associated holidays be relegated to the social studies curriculum within the context of world religions. For teachers who can’t resist mention of Christmas during December, she advises them to compare it with high holidays celebrated in other religions.

As she writes in her blog, “It’s a way that you can give equal weight to other traditions.”

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