Our school head recently came back from a meeting of other school heads and the question of what Holiday songs to sing came up. For myself and my colleagues, we long ago thought this out and came up with what feels like a satisfying answer to the dilemma of inclusion. Mostly, schools either unthinkingly carry on traditions that can be exclusive, as in accenting Christmas only in December, or they swing to the other side and prohibit all songs and traditions, leaving kids with either nothing or some bland generic Frosty the Snowman fare. For those faced with these issues, it might be of interest to hear how my colleagues and I responded. As follows:
I am proud that at the San Francisco School we don't have to eliminate the beauty of these songs in the interest of not offending.
What we do now is sing some songs that are "winter" or pagan (Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, This Little Light of Mine, none of which refer to Christmas directly) some that are Jewish (Oh Hanukah, Dreydl, Shalom Chaverim) and some that are Christian or mention Christmas (Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, We Three Kings, Joy to the World, Silver Bells, Mi Burrito Sabanero). In singing time, we identify the differences between these kinds of songs, and we let the kids know that we are enjoying the messages and beauty of these songs, not singing them as expressions of belief in one faith or another.
And what of the other major religions? Around December 8th, we often tell the story of Buddha's enlightenment day. The school celebration of Diwali in November brought in the Ramayana and that Hindu festival of light. We also mention the Sufi poet Rumi’s Wedding Night (when he died) around December 17th. We have children who celebrate Hanukah volunteer to tell the story of the Maccabees and children who celebrate Christmas tell the story of Jesus’ birth (which is news to many who celebrate Christmas thinking it’s mostly about Santa and Christmas trees and such). Many years back, we did a Holiday Show theme called Festivals of Light where we did stories from each of these traditions.
The "everybody celebrates Christmas" assumption IS oppressive, but that doesn't mean we have to avoid singing the songs. There are lots of Christian biases built into the way schools in the U.S. are set up. The fact that we have a two-week vacation centered around the 25th of December is based on the dominant Christian culture (we don't get Ramadan off or Chinese New Year, for example). But we're probably not going to mess with that. What about THANKSGIVING, celebrating...a probably fictitious moment in the early days of colonization and genocide...pass the pumpkin pie!
I think that in relative terms, the messages of Christmas Carols represent one of the sweetest, most universally inclusive messages of Christianity...we're singing "Silent Night" not "Onward, Christian Soldier!” I think it's better to name the potential confusion or oppression about singing religious songs and still get to experience their power and beauty in school.
In Spanish class we look at what celebrations are happening in Latin America with repertoire that include Venezuelan Parandas (celebratory songs that have nothing to do with Christianity), Hanukah songs in Spanish (celebrations in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile etc) and Villancicos from many countries. And the 8th graders perform the ritual mummer’s play St. George and the Dragon, with all the accompanying traditions from ancient Winter Solstice rites.
And I joined in:
The question of inclusiveness is a real one and not one to be taken lightly. My hope is— and always has been— to use this as an opportunity to widen the conversation and take a look at the historical context of people’s hunger for the miraculous, their thirst for mystery, their hope for the return of light and all the diverse forms those common yearnings have taken. By educating ourselves about how these traditions overlapped and sometimes borrowed from each other, tasting the power of each through song and stories and accenting the common humanity behind them, I think we’ve found a wonderful alternative to mindlessly celebrating one or banning all.
Come join us as we sing “Angels We Have Heard Spinning Dreydls in a Winter Wonderland.”