Short, controversial post: War on Christmas edition

Local schools should be allowed to decide whether or not to put on Christmas pageants that include the birth of Jesus Christ, the three wisemen, Mary, Joseph, and the whole nativity event.

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86 thoughts on “Short, controversial post: War on Christmas edition

  1. If they’re not required for students to attend and don’t cost any money, I don’t really have a problem with that. Perhaps the schools should offer to allow other religious groups to hold their own pageants as well, if only to ensure that it doesn’t appear that a school is choosing favorites.

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    • This is where I must profess massive ignorance.

      Are there Channukah plays? Or Eid plays? Kwanzaa plays?

      My experience with Jewish holidays is that everybody sits around the table and the senior Jewish person tells a story that is, effectively, “they tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat” and then we eat.

      I know stories about Islam’s Hajj but the stuff I’ve read is more that everybody throws pebbles at a column or something rather than watch a play.

      And Kwanzaa… well, I admit to not doing a whole lot of in-depth research into Kwanzaa but are there Kwanzaa plays?

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        • A joke.

          A couple of Jewish people got stranded on a desert island for a decade. They were found and rescued and, before they went back to civilization, gave their rescuers a tour of the Gilliganesque paradise that they managed to put together.

          “Here is the building where we sleep and get dressed… here is the building where we built clothing out of palm fronds and coconuts… here is the building where we washed our food… here is one synagogue… and here is the other synagogue…”

          “Why do you have two synagogues?”, the rescuers asked.

          They leaned over and in hushed tones pointed to the latter and said “I would *NEVER* go to that synagogue.”

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  2. I disagree. There are plenty of other institutions that can fill this role if people want them to, that aren’t as directly supported by the state or implicated in instructing children. If the local Rotary Club or Cub Scout Troop or church wants to stage a pageant, more power to ’em. I’ve got no problem with religious or quasi-religious celebrations. But given that there are plenty of institutions available to fill this function, without the overtones of coercion you get from doing it through the school, why not use those instead?

    If you want to have a holiday concert in music class or whatever, that’s fine, as long as you leaven “Silent Night” with “Frosty the Snowman” and the Dradle (sp?) song. But an explicitly religious dramatization of only one religion’s founding myth? While ignoring other religions, or secular holiday traditions? That’s not acceptable.

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        • Yeah, I don’t think you can say the government shouldn’t regulate the content of speech, then thrown in the caveat that if speech is religious and then there are only two options to ban entirely or give equal time/space/resources to all religions ever.

          Personally, I’m not religious but I think we’re a bit overzealous with our 1st amendment readings. It was passed to prevent the government from deciding Unitarianism would be the religion of the land and/or banning catholic churches and/or requiring everyone to eat bacon on the sabbath. Hence, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

          If the amendment meant no public monies shall be spent for religious purposes, I think it would’ve said as much. Which isn’t to say we should be forever beholden to the original bill of rights but that we shouldn’t read into what we’d like it to say rather than what it does say.

          If a school decides it want’s to put on The Cat in the Hat that’s fine, if they want to put on the nativity story, that’s fine to. Provided attendance at either isn’t mandatory and religious themes aren’t coerced or provided any extra benefits that wouldn’t be extended to plays with non-christian religious themes or areligious themes.

          I’m curious, would we (/you, dan) think differently about this if, instead of a Christmas themed play in December, we were talking about Major Barbara in April? Is there a difference between art with religious elements and proselytizing? Or is any mention of religion suspect?

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          • I think there’s a key distinction between work that has religious elements or motivations (up to and including, say, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) and actual religious texts (like the story of the Nativity). One’s acceptable and one’s not, for schools to have kids participate in. As for attendance not being mandatory, well, presumably class time will be spent on this, it will be part of the curriculum, etc etc. When those two elements are present–when public school class time is being spent on having kids explicitly endorse an actual religious text–that’s where I get off the bus.

            What I don’t understand is why this insistence on having nativity, etc in schools. People know that some will get upset over it, and that it will exclude a certain subset of kids; so why insist on an explicitly religious celebration? Save that for the extracurriculars.

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            • I’m not being snarky but I think the pretty explicit purpose ( at least for some people) is to display dominance and/or who is primary and who is secondary. One group feels it is their country so they get to do things a certain way because they are the majority and always have been.

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            • What with all the post- stuff going around anymore, I can’t tell the difference between religious elements/motivations and actual religious texts.

              Christians don’t even believe that Jesus “really” turned water into wine anymore. Why would a Nativity automatically be assumed to be the latter rather than the former?

              “See, we don’t *REALLY* believe that he was born anywhere but Nazareth but Bethlehem is an allegory, if you were familiar with the region you’d know that the “shepherds” were far more likely to be goat herders and it was much more likely to be early October than late December (which would mean that Jesus was more likely to be a Libra than a Capricorn) and, additionally, the Three Wise Men didn’t show up until Jesus was, like, two and they were an allegory anyway.”

              Now can they do a Nativity?

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            • I’m finding this really interesting, so thanks for answering. I mean I guess what I’m having trouble with is where the line is. Is there a meaningful difference between mythology and religion and thus because nobody worships the pantheon of greek gods, it wouldn’t be offensive to say produce a play based on Disney’s Hercules.

              Also, I kind of want to push back on this idea that production implies endorsement. Gone With the Wind has been adapted twice into a stage musical and with it’s treatment of antebellum Southern life, would a school production of that amount to an endorsement of slavery?

              The obvious question I have is that Christmas is a federal holiday, as is Thanksgiving. So if it’s appropriate to produce some kind of performance art explaining or related to the origin of Thanksgiving, shouldn’t it be equally appropriate to do the same for Christmas, even if the roots of its status as a federal holiday have a religious basis?

              Of course the day someone proposes stripping Christmas’ status as federal holiday is the day this becomes a real issue instead of filler for the local news.

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              • That’s an interesting point about Thanksgiving. I think there’s actually a good case for removing Christmas’ status as a federal holiday and just closing the office de facto that day (or week, whatever–would depend on the agency obvs) because nobody else is working. Of course, this is about the same level of importance as removing “In God We Trust”, but if I were dictator I’d do it.

                As for the Gone With the Wind/Hercules comparisons, I think you’re right that the difference is the existence of a large social bloc who actually encourages this belief, which doesn’t exist for either Zeus or slavery. Having an official school Christmas nativity pageant seems a lot closer to officially endorsing one religious viewpoint, which isn’t the place of the schools.

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                • If people believe things, they can’t put on plays regarding those things. If they don’t believe things, however, they can put on plays about them.

                  This no longer has to do with the content of the play, but the content of the thoughts of the people who want to put the play on in the first place.

                  This seriously isn’t freaking you out?

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                  • I’m amazed that you aren’t freaked out that an organ of the government (i.e. public schools) is allowed to host events explicitly endorsing one religious viewpoint. If a private school, neighborhood group, or whatever puts on the play, they can do whatever they want, obviously, but it’s different when you take on the mantle of the state while endorsing one religion and excluding other religious beliefs.

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                    • My putting on a play saying “X!” is not excluding people who say “Y!”.

                      Now if this same group of folks was saying “oh, you can’t put on your Channukah play, it’s offensive to people who don’t agree with you”, I would have a problem with *THAT*.

                      As it is, I can’t help but notice that you’re playing the role of the Christians who are yelling about the thought processes of the people who want to put a particular play on.

                      Given that the Christians in this thread aren’t talking about banning particular plays but you are, I’m stuck being freaked out by you.

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  3. To the extent a First Amendment case would come out of this, it would come down to the specific facts. In theory, there’s nothing that should be wrong with this if the event is not held during school hours, if it sticks to what it is supposed to stick to and attendance is voluntary.

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  4. Disagree. There’s no way to do this without creating a social dynamic that is bad for non-Christian kids. They either participate and therefore “become Christian” at the hands of the school, or they don’t participate and that means that the Christian kids get a social advantage over them.

    If there is a Christian student club on campus that wants to have a Christmas pageant, then the school can make its facilities available to it, the same way it makes its facilities available to any student club.

    Kyle’s point that a tremendous amount of art and culture is tied up with religion is certainly well-taken, but there are other things a school can do to educate kids about the arts and culture that are not as deeply religious as re-enacting the nativity. Keep a school’s involvement with religion where it belongs, in history class.

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    • In the absence of a deity, a nativity play becomes the equivalent of any other play the children might put on (excepting Equus). They’re pretending to be people they are not, doing things that didn’t happen, and parents clap at the end. It’s like saying that a school shouldn’t put on 12 Angry Men because one of the kids in third grade has a dad in prison for stabbing someone (with a switchblade).

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        • Or even more accurately, one of the kids in third grade *MIGHT* have a dad in prison after having been wrongfully accused of stabbing someone (with a switchblade).

          But no, I don’t think that’s qualitatively the same thing. We’re not talking about the drama geeks putting on Arsenic and Old Lace here. 1) Religion is inherently about being part of an in-group, and a nativity re-enactment sponsored by the school identifies Christians as the in-group and non-Christians as the out group. Second, religion purports to be the truth. A Christmas pageant re-enacting the nativity carries with it the imprimatur of the school that what is happening on stage is a re-enactment of actual historical events, not a work of enertaining fiction along the lines of, say, Pygmalion.

          I suppose if there were a short statement from a school official before the play that “This is a work of fiction and no one should think that the play is anything other than entertainment open to everyone” would mitigate that — but that, in turn, would tend to substantially diminish the impact of a nativity play in the minds of its intended target audience.

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          • This strikes me as banning a (let’s face it, amazingly bland) work not because of its content but because of what people in the audience might think about it.

            I don’t see how “people might really feel strongly about this!” qualifies as a reason to ban a work.

            As I’m analogizing in another thread, if other people are so easily affected by symbolism, then the people who argue that gay marriage will affect straight marriage have a point.

            Sorry, I don’t believe they do. I don’t believe that allowing kids to go ahead with the process of putting on and parents watching a Christmas play at Christmas time really infringes on anybody’s liberty.

            Even if I were to concede that it might infringe on someone else’s liberty (which I haven’t done, and don’t believe I would do), it certainly does not infringe anywhere near as much as saying “sorry, you can’t perform that play” would infringe on it.

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            • doesn’t it strike you as a possible establishment of religion? I think that is the gist of the issue some of us have with this kind of thing. Not a bland or likely cute kids play, but the gov through the public schools supporting one religion.

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              • See, when I think of “establishment of religion”, I think of stuff like The Church of England.

                I don’t think of stuff like “allowing schools to put on a nativity play”.

                We aren’t talking about forcing schools to put on a play, but *ALLOWING* them to do so if that’s what they’re inclined to do.

                If the Muslims want to get together and put on a play, they should not be prevented from doing this. If the Jews want to get together and put on a play, they should not be prevented from doing this. Hell, if the homosexuals wanted to put on a play, they should not be prevented from doing this. (Indeed, I double-dog dare you to *TRY* to put on a play without allowing Jews or Homosexuals to participate… you’ll end up with something with about as interesting as, say, a Nativity play.)

                I don’t see how “SORRY, YOU CAN’T PUT THAT PLAY ON!!!” as protecting anybody’s liberty for a freakin’ second.

                Again: We’re not talking about Equus. We’re talking about a friggin’ Nativity.

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              • But how exactly is it supporting religion by allowing it to happen?

                I mean think that’s the issue. If support for a play is entirely content neutral, that means it can be Christmas themed, it could be football themed, it’s really just not up to the school. BUT, if the school steps in and says, “oh hi, you mention god, sorry you can’t do it,” that isn’t content neutral with a bias against religion. Frankly, I’m having trouble with that. But I’m all for content neutral regulation and robust 1st amendment protections.

                But content neutral except when religion is involved, isn’t content neutral. Therein lies the problem, basing the permissibility of speech based on content, which I generally don’t think is nor should be a governmental power.

                No one here is saying that a school or its officers should encourage a nativity play or force students to participate or observe. However, if a class wants to do it, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed not to.

                To be fair, we recognize that school appropriateness matters but if it’s to be performed after hours to an elective audience, I think the threshold for censorship is fairly high.

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                • Hmmmm I think presenting this hypo as “allowing” the school to put on a nativity is odd. The school is a public institution, paid for by all. So it needs to have a reasonable respect for all. An arm of the government ( or in the case of a public school, a pinky toe) should be as neutral as possible on the subject of religion. This sounds to me like what no establishment of religion means.

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            • I never said that I disapproved of “allowing kids to go ahead with the process of putting on and parents watching a Christmas play at Christmas time.” I join you in approving of “allowing kids to go ahead with the process of putting on and parents watching a Christmas play at Christmas time” (empahsis added). What I disapprove of is sponsoring such an explicitly religious activity, based on its explicitly religious content.

              The failure of the government to sponsor something is not the same thing as censorship.

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              • I do not see allowing access to facilities as the same thing as sponsoring.

                That’s like assuming that the public access television station is establishing religion by allowing the local crank his half hour to talk about Jesus. No, the facilities are there. Saying “you can’t use them because you’re going to be putting on a Nativity play” (when, presumably, they’d be allowed access if they were going to put on Equus) is a problem.

                You’re denying access based on *CONTENT* and not the content of the play but the presumed content of the thoughts of the folks in the audience.

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          • Two thoughts. The first as per your Christians as in-group as defined by the nativity scene. IIRC, and I’m going to presume that I do, the persons depicted in the nativity story are almost uniformly Jewish. Moreover, subsequent to the events depicted, Christians were stigmatized and rather noticeably, actually persecuted and oppressed.

            It’s hardly Christianity’s version of Triumph of the Will. (Which I’m using as a noticeable peace of propaganda, not in a Godwin’s Law kind of way)

            Second, “re-enacting the nativity carries with it the imprimatur of the school that what is happening on stage is a re-enactment of actual historical events, not a work of entertaining fiction along the lines of, say, Pygmalion.”

            While I’m devastated to find out that Shaw didn’t base Pygmalion on reality, I’m just not sure that’s right. I think people think it’s a story. Some take it literally, some fictionally, and some think it has religious meaning but may not be historically accurate. I don’t think people see thanksgiving plays and think, “I’m watching a verbatim exchange between Amerindians and Pilgrims reenacted by 8 year olds.” Frankly, your assertion seems rather arbitrarily drawn.

            Not to mention the hypothetical statement would seem to cross a line. One could say, the story isn’t meant to proselytize or endorse a particular religious truth. However, asserting that a religious story is categorically untrue, does more than that, it makes it a local governmental institution’s view that Christianity is entertaining fiction which is quite directly a violation of the establishment clause.

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            • I agree that the prohibition against Establishment goes both ways. The school sponsoring the play and not disclaiming its contents is an Establishment of Christianity; the school sponsoring the play and then disclaiming it as fiction is an Establishment of non-Christianity. The school shouldn’t be playing this game at all. It should be silent on the issue of whether Christianity is correct or not.

              Nowhere did I suggest banning the nativity play. As I originally wrote, the school should make its facilities available to all students groups on an equal basis. If it happens that there is a Christian student club, and it happens that this Christian student club wants to put on a nativity play, then the Christian student club can access and use the auditorium on the same terms that the drama club does.

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              • TL- this makes sense to me.

                And it should be fairly obvious that the same people who have bunched panties over not having nativity plays would probably scream if Muslims, gays or atheists tried to put on an analogous type of production in front of their little Billy.

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                • I have no doubt that’s true.

                  It’s interesting, in thinking about this for the past couple of hours, I’m less sure now that there’s a clear point of demarcation between religion and culture. How can we balance respect, culture, and religion in a way that does justice to our pluralism?

                  As stories, I think understanding where Christmas comes from (though not endorsing it as the holy truth) can be educationally important and not just for religious purposes but also culturally. Same goes for Passover, Ramadan, and other major religious holidays whose significance is at least somewhat cultural and historical.

                  Sort of an open wondering…

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                • “And it should be fairly obvious that the same people who have bunched panties over not having nativity plays would probably scream if Muslims, gays or atheists tried to put on an analogous type of production in front of their little Billy.”

                  You probably wouldn’t believe the things I’d be willing to say to those folks.

                  I’d start with discussions of “banning Nativity plays” and quickly move to discussions of burning Harry Potter books before bringing Hitler up.

                  But, as has been pointed out, those people wishing to scream about the local Mosque wanting to put out an Eid Play (go to the 9:30PM show, rather than the 6PM show… the 6PM show has people fainting all the time from the fast… or, heck, maybe that’s a reason to go to the 6 instead of the 9:30) have avoided commenting in this thread.

                  I’m stuck with the people who are arguing that we shouldn’t allow Nativities because they’ll get their christianity in the other childrens’ secular.

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  5. (I think we’ve reached the end of the comment threading ability so starting again here)

    “My putting on a play saying “X!” is not excluding people who say “Y!”.”

    If class time is being devoted to it, and participating in it would result in your violating your religious convictions, then absolutely you’re being excluded! How are you not?

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    • My religious convictions are inviolatable by such things as other people practicing their own religion.

      My religious convictions are mostly violated when people start banning works of art, books, plays, and such. That stuff is the stuff I fight against.

      Someone else putting on a play? Eh.

      Now if the school is forcing children to be in the play despite their own (or their parents’ objections) then *THAT* is a problem. In the absence of a child saying “why do I have to be Balthazar? Because I’m Korean?”, I don’t see why it should not be the case that, ahem, Local schools should be allowed to decide whether or not to put on Christmas pageants that include the birth of Jesus Christ, the three wisemen, Mary, Joseph, and the whole nativity event.

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      • I have no problem with some school in Georgia doing the nativity on the front lawn of the court house. Schools should be local. I don’t have a say in what they teach in Kansas, but I can sure laugh at them. Likewise, we’ll be having Bataille out here in Lotus Land and may very well choose to end public funding for religious schools.

        What some local school should be allowed to do, differs dramatically from what I would allow for “my” public school.

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  6. P.S. – I disagree with the “work of fiction” bit. Think how offended virtually all religious groups would be by this. Why not just say that the views expressed in the play are not the official views of the school? And use bakesale money to fund it and put it on after school hours and not require anyone to be in it and all those other good ideas? Positive liberty, right?

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    • Why not just say that the views expressed in the play are not the official views of the school? And use bakesale money to fund it and put it on after school hours and not require anyone to be in it and all those other good ideas?
      So long as you’re going that far, add the small matter of having the play put on by some organization that isn’t part of the government, and we all agree it’s a good idea.

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  7. I’d agree, except I don’t trust school administrators not to make attendance mandatory.

    Of course, this is a rich-school argument. They’re lucky to have plays at all.

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    • That’s actually a really good point. Fundamentally, this is very much a “First World Problem”.

      As for your feelings about school administrators, what happens when you extend them all the way out to the Federal Government?

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