What does “the holiday season” mean to you? If you’re like most Americans, your “holiday” of choice is Christmas, with an estimated 85% of people marking that particular holiday. But the popularity of Christmas also means that this season can feel oppressive or lonely for those who don’t celebrate the holiday.
For school leaders who want to communicate an inclusive environment within their schools, celebrating “the holidays” can require you to walk a fine line. Here are three guiding principles to help ensure your actions align with your values this holiday season:
Your students, staff and community all have their own authentic, meaningful traditions, celebrations and cultures. Depending on your community, there may be tremendous diversity among these different groups, or there may be a lot of similarities. If your district organizes holiday celebrations, it’s important to choose celebrations that are authentic to your community. Celebrations that have no connection to your community’s culture may be awkward – or worse.
Consumer research firm Deloitte found that audiences notice and even expect organizations to highlight inclusiveness in their messages. That means audiences also notice when organizations fumble. Every year around Hanukkah and Passover, social media lights up with examples of brands and companies that have completely failed to understand even the most basic aspects of these key Jewish holidays. In the absence of an authentic understanding of what a holiday is all about, you risk getting it wrong – and attracting exactly the wrong kind of attention to your district.
In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for public institutions such as school districts to sidestep references to Christmas, and refer instead to “holiday” celebrations (such as holiday concerts, holiday vacation, holiday celebration, etc.). Beware, however, of using this euphemism disingenuously. If guests at your “holiday” concert are greeted by red and green decorations, a chorus director wearing a Santa hat, students handing out candy canes and a selection of Christmas songs, the event may not be as welcoming and inclusive as the name might suggest.
The blanket “holiday” moniker is an example of how our actions often communicate much more than the words we choose. As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – and a decorated evergreen tree by any other name is probably still a Christmas tree. Calling something a “holiday” celebration doesn’t change its origins – or how your students and staff will feel about it.
Instead, look for truly secular celebrations that any of your students or staff could comfortably enjoy. The winter season, the end of the calendar year, and the close of the school term can provide opportunities to celebrate. Or, you can look for themes that connect some of the holidays that tend to fall during this time of year, such as the theme of light.
Regardless of the approach you choose, be explicit about what each event will include. Will gifts be exchanged? Will “Santa” be there? Will music be played? These details can help your community decide if they will feel comfortable participating.
School is a place for learning – and there is nothing wrong with students learning about holidays and celebrations that aren’t familiar to them. However, district leaders should not expect students or staff members to serve as unwilling cultural ambassadors for “their” traditions. “By asking a student or parent to be the spokesperson for their religion, a teacher may inadvertently convey to others that the religion is too “exotic” for the teacher to understand or explain,” the Anti-Defamation League warns.
By the same token, it may not be respectful or appropriate to engage in a celebration of a custom that you don’t fully understand, or that you haven’t been invited to participate in – especially if it is a religious practice. “Schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays and celebrating religious holidays,” the ADL cautions.
The bottom line
Holiday celebrations are deeply personal, but the symbols of them are often very public and prominent. Being surrounded by the sights and sounds of a holiday you don’t celebrate can be a lonely experience for students and staff. To ensure that your school district is an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcomed, be thoughtful about how – or if – you choose to celebrate “the holiday season” within your district.