Learning Matters: A different perspective on the word Christmas

When Glendale News-Press Editor Dan Evans introduced us new columnists to his staff and each other last August, he expressed a wish for some lively exchanges of perspective between Hoover High School teacher Brian Crosby and me. Today I’ll grant my editor’s wish.

I do indeed have a different perspective than Crosby expressed in his Dec. 20 column, “Christmas, by name, should be cherished.” I’d call it a “Yes, but” response to his wish that school staff could feel freer to say “Merry Christmas” and could more openly refer to decorated firs as Christmas trees rather than holiday trees.

I gathered from his column that he favors a recent Texas law “…that allows teachers to say the greeting [‘Merry Christmas’] and to celebrate Christmas without fear of repercussion.” I would not favor such a law.

If our teachers fear repercussion from an occasional “Merry Christmas,” then I’d say they or their principals don’t understand the district’s “Religious Expression in the Schools” policy, adopted in 2001.

When I directed an elementary chorus, I served on the committee that developed the policy and took the policy to heart in choosing music for December programs. As an active member of the Christian/faith community, I continue to believe the policy steers us in the right direction: toward inclusivity and understanding. It’s a policy that deserves more attention than it gets.

Nowhere does the policy forbid the word “Christmas.” What it does encourage is balance and an understanding that schools should not be seen as favoring one faith tradition over another.

The full policy can be viewed at www.gusd.net, but two key points are these: “Religious expression in public schools involves a careful balancing of free-speech rights and the right to free exercise of religion without promoting or establishing religion… [and[ school staff members, when acting in their official capacity, are prohibited from endorsing, soliciting, encouraging or directing religious activities with students, on campus or at school-sponsored off-campus events.”

Glendale Unified’s policy was based, in part, on “Finding Common Ground, A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools” by Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas.

Words from their book serve as the introduction to the district’s policy: “We can and must develop out of our differences a shared understanding of the role of religion and values in the public schools, and, in so doing, re-forge a common vision for the common good in public education.”

I’m grateful I had the chance to hear Thomas, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and Baptist minister, when he spoke to the Glendale Council PTA and district administrators in 1997, at the invitation of then Council PTA President Mary Boger.

I know it can be awkward to tiptoe around Christmas. Keeping the balance envisioned by the policy takes work. In my years riding on the school district entry in the Montrose Christmas Parade — a delightful community celebration in which I was honored to participate — I’ll admit I struggled to hold together the spirit of the policy with the parade spirit.

I tried hollering “Happy Holidays” to the curbside audience, but it felt too tepid. Adding an occasional “Happy Hanukkah” didn’t quite do the trick either. Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I came around to “Merry Christmas,” voiced in all its secular and sacred senses, trusting (mostly) that the people who came to the Montrose Christmas Parade wouldn’t be offended by a Christmas wish.

But still I wondered how the non-Christian parade participants felt at the mostly-Christmas/Christian greetings of their school representatives. I was a little off-balance on my parade car perch, but I kept grinning as I waved and hollered.

I don’t think Crosby has to worry that, to quote his column, “Schoolchildren are not sharing in the common culture that most of us over the age of 50 had…,” a Christmas he describes as “an ideal we buy into no matter our ethnic or religious background.”

As he points out, children see the lights, get visits with Santa and experience the display of “pure Christmas Americana at…the Americana….” They hear the popular songs (many written, as he points out, by Jewish songwriters) as they shop with their parents.

But are our children getting enough exposure to traditions other than their own, stories and songs they don’t already know? Are they learning to understand cultures other — and older than — their own?

I encourage Crosby and all our educators to review the religious expressions policy and embrace its commitment to sharing our varied historic traditions. When they do, they shouldn’t have to fear an occasional “Merry Christmas.”
--JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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