My children are celebrating Christmas at school. Since we decided not to send them to a Jewish school, you might argue that we should have expected this. And I might agree, except that my children are French and attend French public school.
French public schools are required to be “laïque,” a word that translates as “secular” but carries more weight than that. France takes the separation of religion and the state incredibly seriously. I don’t always agree with the extent to which my adopted country goes in order to separate religion from public life (and, for the record, I did not support the “burkini ban”), but I like the idea that children in public schools should not feel pressure around religion.
The teachers might hang some twinkly lights in December and wish the children happy “end of the year holidays”, but that is it for the festive season at school. The children can enjoy Christmas carols or light Hanukkah candles — or do nothing at all — once they get home.
When we moved from Paris to London, we duly enrolled the children in a French school. Of course, I understood that there would be some merging of the French education system and the British way of doing things. But I was surprised when my daughter came home from maternelle (preschool) with a list for “Father Christmas.”
On the one hand, I was pleased that she was learning early literacy skills, generally not formally taught in France before first grade. On the other hand, I was mildly annoyed that I would have to explain that Santa would not, in fact, be passing by our house. (I was also less than thrilled that she had been encouraged to list large toys for which we have no space or budget, but that’s another topic.)
List-writing was followed by a Christmas card project. My daughter was disappointed that another preschool class was also making wreaths from real pine boughs — which led to my bah-humbug explanation that we will not have one, even if it smells nice and has sparkly baubles on it. All the children sing in an annual Christmas concert, however, and they wear Santa Claus hats. Each class has an Advent calendar, and each child waits impatiently for her name to be chosen for the day’s chocolate. Santa Claus came to visit, right around the time of the big Christmas dinner (aka lunch).
It was all, as the French say, un peu trop (a little too much).
I took my concerns to a meeting between the principal and the PTA. I was shouted down. Did I not realize that Santa Claus was a creation of Coca Cola, from my own birth country? Christmas trees, Christmas carols, and Advent calendars are cultural, they insisted, not religious. The fact that they are inextricably tied to a Christian holiday is irrelevant.
I was one voice against many. (Later, a Catholic mother quietly confided to me that she was equally offended, in a completely different way, by the school’s assertion that Christmas was separate from Christ.) A battle over Christmas celebrations was, I decided, perhaps not the hill on which I wished to die.
My 9-year-old son is braver than I. He told his teacher that he would have to write “Happy Hanukkah” in his Christmas card. Yet when his classmates asked what Hanukkah is, he explained that it is the “Jewish Christmas.” He wasn’t willing to tell the class that Hanukkah is the holiday that celebrates the miracle that happened when a small Maccabee army decided that it was willing to fight to the death for freedom of religion.
Perhaps I could go into the school, I thought, do a show-and-tell with the Hanukkah menorah and hand out out plastic dreidels and gelt. But that would not solve the underlying problem.
When the school, as an institution, celebrates Christmas, the message is clear: Being Christian is the norm. Anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas is somehow “different,” “other,” and, by extension, “less than.” And that is not acceptable. It’s simply not OK for my child, or any other child at school, to think that his religious beliefs or practices (or lack thereof) marginalize him.
I’ve written a letter to the head of the school. If he doesn’t offer a solution, I will continue to fight. I know that I am not as brave as the Maccabees or as my son. Even as I put our Hanukkah menorahs away for the season, however, I don’t want to forget the reason for this holiday.