Christian beliefs about Christmas might offend someone in our secular and multicultural society, so we ignore its religious and historical background. The reluctance to mention the origins of this much-loved holiday permeates early childhood learning programs and public schools.
Although I support the neutrality of religion in public institutions, there are some good reasons to introduce children to the Christmas story.
My children were on the cusp of a shift in society’s celebration of Christmas. Within a generation, the emphasis on the secular side of the holiday has virtually drowned out its religious origins.
A generation ago, nativity scenes, for example, were not uncommon in public spaces, and on the personal level, many families still attended a church service on Christmas Day. In the classroom, the Christmas story, carols and art had a cultural place. A babe in a manger and three kings co-existed with Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. While the secular themes of Christmas had begun to dominate, most schools still included at least a couple of religious carols in their annual Christmas concerts.
My grandchildren are the unlucky beneficiaries of the legacy of this shift. At an early childhood literacy program that I attend with my two-year old granddaughter, the leaders have been very careful to avoid the religious side of Christmas, restricting songs and stories to its secular manifestations.
Yet the story of Christmas has a lot to offer our children. It is beautiful in its simplicity and message. As long as educators present it in a neutral manner, we should not be afraid of exposing our children to the origins of the season.
Lynn Proulx, a veteran early childhood educator, thinks that the story of the nativity resonates at a deep level with children. She says that it is wonderful to watch children as they listen to the story. They feel sad when no one will help Mary and Joseph; then they feel happy when Jesus is born. Feelings of love and peace replace their feelings of anxiety and worry. The story, says Proulx, provides an excellent opportunity to teach empathy and to help children learn the values of kindness, helping and sharing.
The story of the nativity raises questions for children about the manner in which we treat one another. It should raise the same sort of questions for adults. As Quaker theologian Parker J. Palmer framed it, “What good works wait to be born in us?”
Of course, there are other stories that teach these same values, and they have nothing to do with religion. However, the story of the nativity should hold a special place within our society because it is part of our collective patrimony.
Our country’s roots go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition has shaped our culture, values, social institutions and judicial system. Our heritage includes centuries of religious art, music and literature that drew (and continue to draw) inspiration from a babe in a manger. Exposure to this cultural canon makes for a well-rounded education and a better understanding of our nation.
There is also an historical background to the holiday traditions that we continue to hold dear. Children may wonder why we put up lights, decorate trees and give one another gifts. These traditions are part of the history of Christmas and western culture.
Our children intuit the universality of the Christmas message. It is summed up in the very first Christmas greeting, “peace on earth and goodwill towards men.” It is in the air and in our greetings to one another over the holiday season, encouraging and inspiring us to act with greater generosity.
While everyone does not believe in “the reason for the season,” there is something transcendent about Christmas.
It is shortsighted to restrict children (and ourselves) to a candy cane diet of Christmas cuteness. There are meat and potatoes on the table, too. Christmas is a celebration of substance. Its Christian origins have a place alongside the magic of Santa Claus and his flying reindeers. Knowledge of the Christmas story, with its universal message of goodwill towards all people, is in the best interest of a secular and multicultural society.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.