Jonathan Zimmerman: New war on Christmas? Not so new after all

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.”]

Once upon a time, in the good old days, Americans celebrated Christmas in their public schools. They sang hymns, hung stockings and decorated trees. And nobody complained.

Then along came the big, bad American Civil Liberties Union and other left-leaning fellow travelers, who bludgeoned educational officials into restricting or even removing the holiday from our schools. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s just one problem with this bleak winter’s tale: It’s not true. Despite what you might hear about our contemporary “War on Christmas,” holiday celebrations have sparked dissent in American public schools for more than a century. And by pretending otherwise, we miss a real opportunity to teach our children something important about America itself.

Ground zero for this year’s controversy is Waterbury, Conn., where one principal barred Christmas symbols — including Santa Claus — from his elementary school. The story made it all the way to a television spot on “Fox and Friends,” where an angry local school board member joined the Rev. Rick Warren in condemning the decision.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere lit up with righteous holiday indignation.

“To all you liberal, p.c. global warming nut jobs, you disgust me!” one post blared. “This nation was founded on Christian values — it’s sad we have moved away from those values.” Back in the day, another post added, “no one protest[ed] against these holidays as they do now.”

So let’s go back to 1906, more than a decade before the ACLU was founded, when Jewish families in New York City staged a one-day boycott of public schools in the city. The reason? You guessed it: Christmas celebrations in the schools.

In particular, a committee of Jewish leaders told the city board of education, they objected to “the singing of denominational hymns” and “the use of the Christmas tree.” Such rituals are “inflicting repugnant religious convictions on the school children,” they argued.

Indeed, a Yiddish newspaper added, school Christmas programs represented “shmad shtick” — that is, an effort to convert Jews. Another paper argued that the New York state Constitution required a separation of church and state; by the same token, Christmas celebrations violated it.

And when the school board turned a deaf ear, Jews turned on their heels. On Dec. 24, the day before Christmas, New York Jews declared a one-day school strike. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the city’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood, an estimated 25,000 children stayed home.

“Empty Schools: Tens of Thousands of Jewish Children Shun the Christmas Tree,” a Yiddish paper exulted. “Hurrah for the Jewish Children!”

But thousands of other Jews shunned the strike, reflecting a stark division in the community. One Jewish school official urged Jews to ignore “agitators” and listen to “the more intelligent Jews of this city,” who regarded Christmas rituals as harmless. “I have no objection to Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe and similar decorations,” he added.

The following year, New York barred hymns and other “religious content” from holiday celebrations in the schools. But it continued to allow Christmas symbols, as the New York Times happily reported on Dec. 25, 1907.

“Santa Claus and Christmas trees were very much in evidence everywhere,” the Times declared. “Representatives of the Board of Education, of the Christian ministers, and of the Hebrews admitted that they had no ground for complaint.”

But controversy would continue to hound Christmas. In the late 1940s, Jewish complaints about Christmas rituals in a suburban Boston school prompted threats of a new boycott — against their stores. “If you Jews don’t stop interfering with the Christian Gentile and mind your own business, word will be sent out by ‘United Gentiles’ to withhold all trade from the Jews,” one newspaper warned.

In the 1960s, when the Supreme Court barred school prayer, some districts actually increased the “religious content” of their Christmas celebrations “to compensate for what has been banned explicitly in the daily school routine,” as one Jewish leader worried.

Across the country, Jews faced the same dilemma as always: whether to object, and to whom, and how much.

And Jews weren’t the only dissenters. Take the current dispute in Waterbury, where Jehovah’s Witnesses have objected to holiday decorations. So have members of the city’s Pentecostal community, who view popular icons like Santa Claus as slights upon the true meaning and sanctity of Christmas.

“It’s ridiculous,” said one Pentecostal parent, who has pulled her children out of school during holiday celebrations. “There is a separation of church and state, and this is a public school.”

But Americans disagree about what these words mean, and they always have. That’s why the “War on Christmas” provides an ideal teachable moment, if we have the guts and imagination to seize it. Whether they celebrate the holidays or not, then, let’s hope our schools devote a few minutes to teaching kids about the history of this dispute. They’ll all learn a lot about America, no matter what they think of Santa Claus.

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Jonathan Chu - 12/28/2009

Steve Nissenbaum has amply documented the late arrival of Christmas to public space. Real conservatives remember when Puritans in Boston stewed ouside their meeting house when newly arrived Anglican Governor Edmund Andros celebrated Christmas.