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Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2000

Secular’ celebrations

November 5, 2000

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Increased diversity in our schools makes it more difficult to find consensus on holiday celebrations.

As a Lawrence school board member is finding out, regulating the celebration of "secular" holidays in public schools is a slippery slope.

Take Christmas. Schools might think they could avoid offending anyone by celebrating the secular side of Christmas with such symbols as Santa Claus and snowmen. But in fact, they offend not only non-Christians, who don't celebrate Christmas at all, but also Christians, who recognize Christmas as a religious but not a secular holiday.

This is just one of the dilemmas involved in drawing the line on holiday celebrations in the public schools and one example of why it will be difficult, if not impossible, to follow through on Scott Morgan's desire to "have Santa Claus and the Great Pumpkin in our classrooms."

Times have changed. Lawrence is a much more diverse community than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Many people who grew up in Kansas during the 1950s and before have memories of school Christmas pageants that reenacted the whole Christmas story. But that was when a high percentage of the student body of a given school was being raised in the Christian tradition and celebrating Christmas at home. Today, Lawrence schools include students from many different religious backgrounds. Many of them eschew Christmas celebrations religious or secular.

Many other holidays also have some religious significance that individual families may or may not celebrate or support. Halloween is seen by some as a pagan holiday. Valentine's Day celebrates the life of a Catholic saint. Even Thanksgiving, perhaps the most universally accepted American holiday, involved the Pilgrims giving thanks to God for their survival in the New World.

And yet, if you try to celebrate holidays only as secular events, they lose much of the significance that caused them to be set aside as holidays in the first place.

The historic significance of religion and religious holidays is an appropriate focus for the classroom. So is the cultural significance of various holidays and the celebrations that accompany them. Allowing children to share different religious traditions with their classmates could be educational as well as promoting appreciation and tolerance for cultural differences. But finding almost any single traditional holiday that all local school children can actively celebrate would be a difficult task.

When all of these factors are considered, it's no wonder that school officials in Lawrence and many other cities have chosen to simply eliminate most holiday celebrations from the classroom. It's the easiest, and least controversial, way for them not to do the wrong thing. It's called being politically correct. A policy that gives schools some flexibility to recognize various holidays without promoting them or diminishing their significance probably would have significant public support, but it will be a difficult line to draw.

The school board's time might be better spent on issues directly related to educating students rather than regulating celebrations.

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