For several years running, my middle school hosted the Solo and Ensemble Festival for our southeastern Michigan region, always held on the first Saturday in December. That meant that thousands of middle school musicians, plus their parents, piano accompanists and indulgent grandmothers descended on my middle school for a day of nervous renditions of "Little Fugue."
are more than 40 middle schools in the region, so that also meant hanging with a
volunteer workforce of a few dozen orchestra and band teachers, pulling 12-hour
shifts on a Saturday. Every year, at least one of them would express surprise
at the wreath hanging on the counselor's door, the (ugly, scrawny) Christmas
tree in the office--and the marching lineups and drum assignments for the
annual Fantasy of Lights parade
posted in the band room.
do you get away with that?" I was often asked. At many schools in nearby
Oakland County, the student population is much more ethnically and spiritually diverse.
Many of my counterparts were doing winter concerts where the musical literature
was tightly scrutinized for religious imbalance and stealth piety. Ironically,
many of them were selecting literature based on mildly schizophrenic policies
that allowed them to play masterworks--such as For Unto Us a Child is Born--on the theory that they were
"educational," but forbade secular tunes like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because--duh!--the word
"Christmas" was in the title.
Most school policy on Christmas music--and performance of other traditional and ethnic holiday compositions--falls somewhere between muddled and nonexistent; a fair number of directives get added when someone complains at a school board meeting. And a large segment of school personnel and the general population profoundly misunderstand the elasticity, purpose and intent of the First Amendment. It's not about boldly defying the separation of church and state (although some people want to fight that specious battle endlessly). Charles Haynes, First Amendment scholar, expresses this beautifully in a must-read article:
Amendment solution is stunningly simple: Schools should plan holiday programs
that are educational in purpose and balanced in content. Nothing in the First
Amendment prohibits public schools from educating students about music,
religious and secular, as part of a comprehensive music program that exposes
students to a variety of traditions and cultures.
also notes that one Merry Hyatt of California is now collecting signatures to
put a referendum on the November 2010 ballot requiring all public schools in California to include Christmas music
in classroom activities, every December. Haynes thinks that even if the
referendum passed (and I get a little queasy thinking about the mileage Bill O'
Reilly could get out of that one), it would be overturned on constitutional
this need to be a fight? We're a diverse country. Teaching children to
appreciate the range and beauty of cultural traditions is something we ought to
be endorsing in every public school, no matter which holidays a majority of
students celebrate. Most people who hail each other in this season, whether
they say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas"--or any
other greeting--are not proclaiming religious fervor. They're trying to be
friendly and social. Good cheer in dark times.
is not and never has never been a "War on Christmas." Everyone in
America gets Christmas, for weeks, whether they want it or not. The First
Amendment lets us sort this out, school by school, keeping educational integrity
uppermost. School leaders can serve as models of inclusive and respectful
citizenship--a more admirable goal than majority domination.
For those who insist that all middle school bands play Christmas music, I propose a mandatory winter holiday parade. A few years marching in sleet ought to make any "War on Christmas" zealot think twice.