Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Close Schools for Christmas? Yes. Close them for Shemini Atzeret? No.

I’m reading Stephen Prothero’s essay in USA TODAY (December 20, 2010) promoting the closing of pubic schools for religious holy days. Dr. Prothero (whose work I admire and use in my courses) notes that public schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holy days, and urges us to add Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Wiccan holy days as well. I disagree.

First of all, our kids need more school days not less.

Second, the only Christian holy day we close schools for is Christmas (more on that below). Easter, arguably the most holy day of the Christian calendar is not a federal holiday, and if some schools close for Good Friday they do so for the same reason some schools close for Rosh HaShanah: demographics.

Third, public schools don’t close for the Jewish holy days. Some schools designate Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as “teacher work days” because so many of their teachers are Jewish and will take those days off anyway. And they do so only if these holy days fall on school days. And they only close one day for Rosh HaShanah not the two days most Jews observe. So public schools aren’t really closing for the Jewish holy days, they are closing because it is impractical to stay open.

Fourth, public schools are supposed to be secular, and secular schools should not close for religious holy days any more than Catholic schools should close for Hindu holy days. If there are Hindu kids enrolled in the Catholic school, they may choose not to attend class in honor of Diwali, for example, but the school itself need not close.

Fifth, whose holy days would we honor and whose would we ignore? If we are truly inclusive schools wouldn’t open at all.

Which brings me to Christmas. Public Schools do close for Christmas. Is that fair? Yes. Doesn’t that violate church/state separation? No. We are a country with a deeply Christian history and as such we honor the birthday of Jesus the way we honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these birthdays are federal holidays because America would not be America with them.

Making Christmas a federal holiday is more of a threat to the holiness of Christmas than it is to the Constitution. According to the same issue of USA TODAY, “Many [people] skip the holiday’s religious side.” While 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas only 74% say Christmas is “primarily” a religious holy day, only 47% go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, and only 28% tell or read the biblical story of Jesus birth. Sadly for Christians, Christmas is going the way of many other federal holidays: just another day for tacky car ads and excessive shopping.

For me Christmas is a time to honor the most famous rabbi of all time, and I will do that in traditional Jewish fashion: I will argue with everything he had to say.


Old Lady said...

My city is extremely diverse in culture for a small southern city. During high school years, I recall how the Jewish Holy Days impacted attendance. Also, I think Christmas is so huge due to it's secular roots. Early Christian leaders did absorb local deities and holidays in order to convert people, who worshipped "other" gods, to Christianity.

My Muse and Me said...

What "A Wonderful Life" this would be in America if it actually was a nation that lived according to the values and ethics of Jesus of Nazareth, the same ethics espoused by Amos of Tekoa. Another good Jew.

I would gladly vote for closing schools on all Christian holidays if America ever became Christian.

Grégoire said...

Not to be a scrooge, but Christmas is a commercial holiday. Even in a non-secular country (such as, say, Canada or the UK) it's an unmitigated orgy of buying. Buy, buy, buy is the mantra on everyone's lips. Buy more now!

My kids celebrate Christmas every year. They still don't know who or what Jesus is. In a way, I'm glad, but in a way, I wish someone would abolish the holiday altogether. You could rename it reification day and it'd be just as fitting.

Christmas is the day in which humans attempt to find wholeness through conspicuous consumption. It's fine to celebrate it, but let's acknowledge it for what it is. Open your presents, form a relationship with the objects inside, forgetting the thought behind them. This is Christmas day in the modern world.

Merry Christmas

Unknown said...

Christmas is just Winter Solstice Celebration renamed anyway...don't tell my Christian friends, they'd be offended by that.

Maggid said...

Love, Love, LOVE your closing remark


Claire said...

I wrote something about the confusion in our culture regarding the winter festival called "Christmas", and the religious holy day called "Christmas" - I think when I put it up on Facebook, I marked it for "Everyone", so I hope you can see it over yonder:


Grégoire said...

hey claire: i'd love to see your precis, but it's giving me the "content unavailable" message.

r. armand said...

All the Christmas things are rolled out, with very little about Mary. All about the babe, nothing about the mama, the little 15 year old girl. He was innocence from innocence. Lots of information about The Birth. Then nothing for years until the overturned tables, the teachings, the 'death'.
If that had been MY child, I would have talked all the time about him. He was her little boy. Lots going on with this god in human form, but where is it written? I guarantee you she had a lot to say, a lot we mothers needed to hear.
Christ could have been a daughter but men needed to see the Message as something familiar. Someone who looked like them, and acted, pretty much, like them. Another guy.
At any rate, Christmas for me is about the gift of innocence, a reminder of who we really are. All of us. So simple. Lovely night, pretty tree, beckoning lights, warmth in the cold, the Stranger, the Child, who- as you somehow have always known - is you.

Claire said...

OK, so I put it up on my rarely used blogger account:


andrea perez said...

I'm a Florida school teacher and this year, the people who did the calendar gave us really odd days off. Christmas just happens to fall during winter break. Passover, Rosh Hashashana, Easter, a no go...St. Patrick's Day is during Spring break and gets a day off.
Martin Luther King Day yea, Columbus Day nay (no matter how politacally correct we want to be,with 56% of my school coming from a Hispanic background, that leaves them wondering Why not a day off) In other words, if a kid takes off for Diwali or Ramadan, they are in the same boat as one who takes off for Succoth,which should be an excused absence(without pay) for both teachers and children. But not a mandatory holiday.
Just because the majority of people here are some form of Christian, it doesn't make it a National holiday in a country that is based on separation of church and state. This isn't Israel which declares itself a Jewish State instead of a state full of Jews.
Close schools because it is cold outside and we need a break and time to reconnect to family, Yes.( As a matter of fact, S. Florida schools are turning the Thanksgiving holiday into a week long celebration!) Close them to support someone's religious leanings: absolutely not. And just watch out, Halloween seems to be the entry holiday (with a 3 and a half day weekend for kids: Friday is early release, and Monday is a teacher's planning day) so maybe as a nation we're just taking off to have some fun with those we care about.