Teaching Opinion

Teachable Holidays: Don’t Separate Church and Education

By Marilyn Rhames — December 21, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa.
On Christmas we celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. At Hanukkah we celebrate the miraculous drop of oil that lighted candles for eight days in the Jewish Temple. On Kwanzaa we celebrate the miraculous strength of our African ancestors who passed down virtue in spite of unimaginable hardships. And others simply celebrate the festive winter season. This time of year is unlike any other because despite all the suffering in the world, a large percentage of the world’s population has something to celebrate. This sounds like a teachable moment to me!

I believe educators can integrate the holidays into their world history, writing, and literature instruction. We cannot be so afraid of crossing the line of separation of church and state that we neglect to educate our students about important historical, cultural, and religious celebrations. We are charged with preparing students for the real world, so we must be able to objectively inform them about how certain popular traditions came to be. For example, one need not preach Christianity to educate our students on how the birth of Jesus Christ defined how historians measured time itself. One need not to preach Judaism to explain how the forced worship of Zeus—which is openly taught in Greek mythology classes—spurred captive Jews to rebel against the Greeks and their victory led to the celebration of Hanukkah. Neither does one need to be of African descent to educate students on seven principles of Kwanzaa that embody the cultural heritage of millions within the Black Diaspora. I think students would appreciate knowing, and it would deepen their understanding of the complex world they live in.

May I take this argument a step further? I believe a truly educated American—regardless of his faith background—has at least a basic familiarity with the Bible. This includes the Hebrew Bible (which is also known as the Old Testament) and the New Testament. I say this because the Bible is like our second language in the West. It is deeply embedded within the English vernacular. Here are several examples:

• “Apple of his eye” -- Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8
• “Blind leading the blind” -- Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39
• “Eat, drink, and be merry” -- Ecclesiastes 8:15
• “Eye for an eye” -- Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20; Matthew 5:38
• “Good Samaritan” -- Luke 10:25-37
• “Handwriting on the wall” -- Daniel 5:5
• “My brother’s keeper” -- Genesis 4:9
• “Out of the mouths of babes” -- Psalm 8:2
• “Signs of the times” -- Matthew 16:3
• “Strait and narrow” -- Matthew 7:14
• “Sweat of your brow” -- Genesis 3:19
• “Drop in the bucket” -- Isaiah 40:15
• “Thorn in the flesh” -- 2 Corinthians 12:7

The Bible is also stitched deeply within the fabric of English literature, which is a class that almost every American student must take in high school. Just read any work of William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Bunyan and try to fully comprehend each line without some basic bible literacy. That’s very difficult to do! And that is to say nothing about the Bible’s influence on medieval and modern era European art, music, philosophy and politics.

There are numerous works in American literature that use Biblical references in its title, themes, and imagery, as well. Take the following for example:

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe

When we read historical speeches by President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we find them rich in biblical references, making higher-level comprehension impossible without a biblical schema. Some researchers found that 94 percent of the citations found in our U.S. founding fathers’ writings were from the Bible. Whether you believe that statistic or not, there’s no denying that biblical literacy is a prerequisite if one is to fully engage with the writings of early American settlers and government leaders.

I believe atheists could teach this. We do our students a disservice when we pretend that faith and religion do not exist. The U.S. Constitution states that we have the freedom “of” religion, not “from” religion. We must be open-minded enough—intellectual enough—to teach aspects of religion whether we agree or disagree with its content. Doing so does not diminish who we are or what we personally believe in.

And when we are not sure how to answer a student’s question, we can always say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.” Or better yet say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but do some research and come back and teach me.” After all, a good teacher must be a lifelong learner, as well.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Kwanzaa!

Happy New Year to all!

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion You Can Motivate Students to Accelerate Learning This Year
If young people suffered setbacks during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean they’re broken. Now is the chance to cover more ground than ever.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Teaching Opinion A 6th Grade Class on Racism Got Me Ready for the Rest of My Life
Every student should have the opportunity to learn about race, writes a college freshman.
Cristian Gaines
4 min read
Illustration of silhouettes of people with speech bubbles.
Teaching Opinion The Classroom-Management Field Can’t Stop Chasing the Wrong Goal
And, no, new social-emotional-learning initiatives aren’t the answer, writes Alfie Kohn.
Alfie Kohn
5 min read
Illustration of children being cut free from puppet strings
Daniel Fishel for Education Week
Teaching Photos What School Looks Like When Learning Moves Outside
One class of 5th graders shows what's possible when teachers take their lessons outside.
1 min read
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va., on Sept. 7, 2021.
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week