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John Whitehead's Commentary

Is It Illegal to Celebrate Christmas in the Schools?

John Whitehead
"I think there's something wrong with me. I just don't understand Christmas. I like getting presents, sending cards, decorating trees and all that. But instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down."--Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965

When I was a child in the 1950s, my parents didn't have much money to spend at Christmastime. I remember one Christmas when I wanted a cowboy gun and holster from Santa Claus. I got the toy pistol, but Santa, it seems, couldn't afford a holster. So my dad made one for me out of one of my mother's old leather purses. It didn't look like the ones on TV, but it worked pretty well. And it made me feel good that my dad cared enough to do what he could to make a little boy's Christmas dream come true.

Being poor didn't really matter all that much because there was magic in the air. And the magic of Christmas, which hinges on the spiritual nature of the holidays, was promoted in the schools. We sang Christmas carols in the classroom. There were cutouts of the Nativity scene on the bulletin board, along with the smiling, chubby face of Santa and Rudolph. We were all acutely aware that Christmas was more than a season to receive--it was a special time to give as well.

But times have changed. Turmoil surrounds our schools. Police officers walk the hallways, and embattled teachers often act more like wardens than instructors. Sadly, the timeless celebration of Christmas seems to have been lost in the mix as well. Schools across the country avoid anything that alludes to the true meaning of Christmas--such as angels, the baby Jesus, stables and shepherds. Just consider some of the incidents that have taken place in recent years.

For example, a member of a parent/teacher organization at a Connecticut elementary school was in charge of decorating a large display case in the school's entrance. For the upcoming December holidays, she was planning to put up a display called "Festival of Lights" and feature a display with a crèche for Christmas and a Menorah and Star of David for Hanukkah, along with a document that explains the histories of both events. However, she was told by school officials that no religious objects could be used in the display.

A kindergarten teacher in a Texas public school was informed that he could not mention the word "Christmas" or tell the historical Nativity story because someone in the district might sue. All other secular customs of the "winter holiday" were deemed to be okay, just not the religious symbols of Christianity. According to the school principal: "We cannot tie candy canes, trees, wreaths, Santa Claus, etc, as a religious symbol. What we can teach is the secular side of holidays. We can have the tree, candy cane, wreath, Santa Claus, etc, anything that is secular. No religious words can be attached. We cannot read aloud to the students any book pertaining to religious beliefs or happenings brought by you [the teacher] or the students. The student who brings a book can read/look at the book silently."

Another incident that highlights this extreme Christmas phobia involved a Michigan elementary school, where the principal issued a directive specifically forbidding references to God, Christianity or the birth of Jesus Christ. This is censorship, pure and simple.

I have yet to understand how anyone can discuss the true--or even historical--meaning of Christmas without at least a reference to the baby Jesus. Surely something has gone wrong when America's children are encouraged to celebrate the fictional Rudolph but are refused the opportunity to even mention Jesus, who was an actual, historical person. To claim that Christmas is something other than it is--a holiday with a religious foundation--is both dishonest and historically unsound.

Indeed, Christmas (Old English Cristes Maesse, "the Mass of Christ") was instituted, and for centuries kept, as a religious holiday (as in "holy day"). Originally, Christmas included festivities, but its primary purpose was to provide a time for spiritual renewal.

Unfortunately, far too many parents, students and teachers erroneously believe they cannot celebrate Christmas in the public schools. Whether through ignorance, fear or political correctness, Americans are painfully misguided about the recognition of religious holidays. (The word holiday it must be emphasized means holy day.) Ironically, the most targeted religious holiday for exclusion is Christmas--also the most popular in American culture. Are American schoolchildren to be forbidden from learning about one of the most culturally significant events because it has spiritual overtones?

To the contrary, there are ways to celebrate Christmas in the public schools without violating the United States Constitution. These are succinctly set forth in The Rutherford Institute's "Twelve Rules of Christmas," available at While it is true that public school teachers, as agents of the state, may not advance religion, they are allowed to discuss the role of religion in all aspects of American culture and its history. And this includes the religious aspects of the Christmas holiday.

Indeed, teachers can use Christmas art, music, literature and drama in their classrooms, as long as they illustrate the cultural heritage from which the holiday has developed. Religious symbols, such as a Nativity scene, can be used in this context as well. Of course, any holiday observance should occur in an educational setting, rather than in a devotional atmosphere. Teachers should also make students and their parents aware of the school district's opt-out policy as an alternative to the teaching about any particular religion.

While our Constitution does not give carte blanche to promote religion in the public schools, neither does it dictate a cleansing of Christmas from the classroom. Students may enjoy the same freedom of religious expression that is allowed any other time of the year--in or out of the classroom. This means that students can freely distribute Christmas or Hanukkah cards to their friends and teachers, just as they would a birthday card. Such cards can even mention the words God and Jesus Christ.

Erasing traditional Christmas practices from our daily life is discouraging and disheartening. In a society already known for its selfishness and consumerism, it seems that a religious holiday would be an opportunity to celebrate something more essential, something wholesome and good and also something that would remind us of our nation's history--one that is dominated by a spiritual and religious heritage.

In fact, rather than making Christmas the height of the selling season, why can't the focus be on celebrating family and friendship, camaraderie and memories? Why can't it be a time to reflect and celebrate our freedoms? Why can't it be a season of extending a helping hand to the less fortunate? Why can't it be a time to step back and meditate on the original meaning behind the Christmas holiday? And why can't these important traditions be taught in our schools?

It has been more than 40 years since Charlie Brown, as he puzzled over the glitz and commercialism of the modern age, asked, "Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?" Linus responded by telling the story of Jesus Christ's birth, as recounted in Luke 2:7-14, to his friends and classmates. What Charles Schulz' beloved 1965 cartoon did not capture, however, was the growing aversion on the part of many school officials and public figures to anything remotely related to the true Christmas story. Hopefully, as our children ponder what Christmas is all about--a subject that almost certainly arises in the classroom--our teachers at least will realize that they have the right to truthfully answer the question. If so, our children will have the opportunity to experience the richness of our traditions and culture. And what better time than Christmas?

NOTE: The Rutherford Institute's "Twelve Rules of Christmas" are included below and can also be found here.

The Twelve Rules of Christmas®
(Compiled by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute)

Unfortunately, Christmas has become a time of controversy over what can or cannot be done in terms of celebrating the holiday. In order to clear up much of the misunderstanding, the following twelve rules are offered:

1. Public school students' written or spoken personal expressions concerning the religious significance of Christmas (e.g., T-shirts with the slogan, "Jesus Is the Reason for the Season") may not be censored by school officials absent evidence that the speech would cause a substantial disruption.

2. So long as teachers are generally permitted to wear clothing or jewelry or have personal items expressing their views about the holidays, Christian teachers may not be prohibited from similarly expressing their views by wearing Christmas-related clothing or jewelry or carrying Christmas-related personal items.

3. Public schools may teach students about the Christmas holiday, including its religious significance, so long as it is taught objectively for secular purposes such as its historical or cultural importance, and not for the purpose of promoting Christianity.

4. Public school teachers may send Christmas cards to the families of their students so long as they do so on their own time, outside of school hours.

5. Public schools may include Christmas music, including those with religious themes, in their choral programs if the songs are included for a secular purpose such as their musical quality or cultural value or if the songs are part of an overall performance including other holiday songs relating to Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or other similar holidays.

6. Public schools may not require students to sing Christmas songs whose messages conflict with the students' own religious or nonreligious beliefs.

7. Public school students may not be prohibited from distributing literature to fellow students concerning the Christmas holiday or invitations to church Christmas events on the same terms that they would be allowed to distribute other literature that is not related to schoolwork.

8. Private citizens or groups may display crèches or other Christmas symbols in public parks subject to the same reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions that would apply to other similar displays.

9. Government entities may erect and maintain celebrations of the Christmas holiday, such as Christmas trees and Christmas light displays, and may include crèches in their displays at least so long as the purpose for including the crèche is not to promote its religious content and it is placed in context with other symbols of the Holiday season as part of an effort to celebrate the public Christmas holiday through its traditional symbols.

10. Neither public nor private employers may prevent employees from decorating their offices for Christmas, playing Christmas music, or wearing clothing related to Christmas merely because of their religious content so long as these activities are not used to harass or intimidate others.

11. Public or private employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs require that they not work on Christmas must be reasonably accommodated by their employers unless granting the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

12. Government recognition of Christmas as a public holiday and granting government employees a paid holiday for Christmas does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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