By John W. Whitehead
"Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?"
When I was a child in the 1950s, the magic of Christmas was promoted in the schools. We sang Christmas carols in the classroom. There were cutouts of the Nativity scene on the bulletin board, along with the smiling, chubby face of Santa and Rudolph. We were all acutely aware that Christmas was more than a season to receive--it was a special time to give as well.
Fast forward a mere 50 years, and Christmas is being eradicated. In fact, there is a phobia about Christmas, and it's all because of those first six letters, C-H-R-I-S-T. As a result, Americans are increasingly being pressured to avoid anything related to the religious holiday in public. Indeed, corporations and government officials are going to outrageous lengths in order to not offend those who do not celebrate the holiday. In the process, they're trampling all over the First Amendment.
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Schools across the country now avoid anything that alludes to the true meaning of Christmas--such as angels, the baby Jesus, stables and shepherds. In many of the nation's schools, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, wreaths and candy canes have also been banned as part of the effort to avoid any reference to Christmas, Christ or God. One school even outlawed the colors red and green, saying they were Christmas colors and, thus, illegal.
Teachers at a Connecticut school were actually instructed to change the wording of the classic poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" to "Twas the Night Before a Holiday." And as a mother of two schoolchildren remarked: "In the past, this school has gone from 'winter' parties that banned red and green cupcakes, and napkins, to banning any Winter party in fear that it may be mistaken for Christmas."
Things are not much better outside the schools. In one West Virginia town, although the manger scene (one of 350 light exhibits in the town's annual Festival of Lights) included shepherds, camels and a guiding star, the main attractions--Jesus, Mary and Joseph--were nowhere to be found. Supposedly concerns about the separation of church and state resulted in the omission.
In Chicago, organizers of a German Christkindlmarket were informed that the public Christmas festival was no place for the Christmas story. Officials were concerned that clips of the film "The Nativity Story," which were to be played at the festival, might offend someone. And in Delaware, a Girl Scout troop was prohibited from carrying signs reading "Merry Christmas" in their town's annual holiday parade.
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Unfortunately, it is the anathema of political correctness that has made Christmas taboo--the mere possibility that even one person might be offended by the mention of God or Christ.
For example, just recently, I was contacted by a high school principal in Virginia who wanted to know whether he could mention Santa or distribute candy canes after a Muslim family objected to them as symbols of Christmas. A public school principal in Minnesota won't even allow "Season's Greetings" to be used in school publications.
Exacerbating the problem, many Americans erroneously believe they cannot celebrate the religious nature of Christmas in the public schools and elsewhere. Whether through ignorance or fear, Americans are painfully misguided about the recognition of religious holidays. Ironically, the most targeted religious holiday for exclusion is Christmas--which is also the most popular in American culture. Are our schoolchildren to be forbidden from learning about one of the most culturally significant events because it has religious overtones?
The good news is that there are constitutional ways to celebrate Christmas in the public schools and elsewhere without violating the United States Constitution. These are succinctly set forth in The Rutherford Institute's "Twelve Rules of Christmas" (available at www.rutherford.org).
For instance, while it is true that public school teachers, as agents of the state, may not advance religion, they are allowed to discuss the role of religion in all aspects of American culture and its history. This includes the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday. Teachers can use Christmas art, music, literature and drama in their classrooms, as long as they illustrate the cultural heritage from which the holiday has developed. Religious symbols, such as a Nativity scene, can be used in this context as well. Of course, any holiday observance should occur in an educational setting, rather than in a devotional atmosphere.
While our Constitution does not give carte blanche to promote religion in the public schools, neither does it dictate eradicating Christmas from the classroom. Students may enjoy the same freedom of religious expression that is allowed any other time of the year--in or out of the classroom. This means that students can freely distribute Christmas or Hanukkah cards to their friends and teachers, just as they would a birthday card. Such cards can even mention the words God and Jesus Christ.
In a society already known for its selfishness and consumerism, the trend toward doing away with Christmas is discouraging and disheartening. Surely, we should welcome an opportunity to celebrate something more essential, something wholesome and good and also something that would remind us of our nation's history--one that is dominated with a spiritual and religious heritage.
In fact, rather than making Christmas the height of the selling season, the focus should be on celebrating family and friendship, camaraderie and memories. It should be a time to reflect and celebrate our freedoms. It should be a season of extending a helping hand to the less fortunate. It should be a time to step back and meditate on the original meaning behind the Christmas holiday.
Recognizing the importance of Christmas, the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 paused on Christmas Eve, 1968, as the spaceship orbited the moon, to read the story of creation from the Bible as told in the Book of Genesis and offer the following brief prayer:
Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen.