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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Christmas in the schools: music educators weigh in

I've been following (and contributing to) the following choral listserv thread, which comprises, even in this abbreviated form, the longest post I've ever laid on Pratie Place. Interested in your opinions!

P. M. kicked it off...
As we are approaching our Christmas Concert, yet again, I have several students who have requested that they be excused from the concert ... Of course, most of them are *not* excused, but I find myself in a bit of a quandary when it comes to finding a "replacement" assignment for the concert.

I try to always have a recording made of each concert. The make-up assignment is a detailed review of the concert. A piece by piece, blow by blow of what went well or not ... Leading questions such as: ... How did your absence affect your section and the choir as a whole? ...

B. C.
We are in a part of the country where we can actually get away with a Holiday Concert with the word "Christmas" ... I excused students with religious objections from participating in the numbers they objected to ... I did not, of course, excuse them from the entire concert.

J. S.
My suggestion would be that whatever it is, it should be either a significant amount of work or slightly unpleasant (at least in the student's eyes.)

Have the kids who can't be there sing the music in front of the choir the next day. I realize this sounds slightly cruel, but it probably is the most realistic way to replicate the performance experience...

J. P.
"The make-up assignment is a detailed review of the concert." "Have the kids who can't be there sing the music in front of the choir the next day."

Jeez, I disagree strongly with these suggestions. If I, a Jew, have requested not to be part of a Christmas concert (for instance), I don't think I should be forced then to listen to and critique it later! Or sing it the next day!

I was thinking along different lines altogether - maybe those abstaining could be encouraged to research alternative types of music and present some other material.

If you are a Christian perhaps you don't realize how galling it can be to have somebody else's religious or cultural music stuffed into your ears for a month.

I was going to keep my mouth shut but it finally got to me.

C. P.
"If you are a Christian perhaps you don't realize how galling it can be to have somebody else's religious or cultural music stuffed into your ears for a month."

I was wondering why so many people not of the Christian faith did not respond with exactly the position J. P. has described. I am a Christian and taught public school for 14 years but never in a million years would I have imposed such a standard on my *very few* Jewish and Islamic kids. Non-Christian students not only were given options, they were encouraged to pursue creative ones. When concerts were scheduled, they were planned to be inclusive of all faiths or ideas were already in place for students who were offered the option (by me personally) not to participate.

The current climate in this country, it seems, has created a somewhat thoughtless and robot-like approach to many problems in everyday life which used to be approached with more regard for the Constitution and less for televangelism and what fundamentalists call "religion". How sadly the message of "good will to all" has been treated by its guardians in some instances.

The songs of faith we Christians sing at Christmas cite this inclusiveness as a doctrine: "joy to the WORLD", "the WORLD in solemn stillness lay", "peace on (ALL) the earth", ".. and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace", "Bless ALL the dear children in thy tender care", "joyful ALL ye nations rise", "...and the WHOLE WORLD send back the song" - the citations are manifold. To use such music as a bludgeon for the diversity of students we have in taxpayer funded activities is a travesty and a perversion of all the ideals it purports to convey.

Inclusiveness does not mean we employ tactics which coerce others to play on our playing field whether they want to or not. Inclusiveness means our actions in the everyday world in which the choral classroom operates must back up what our lips, (AND Christian texts, AND laws of the land) profess to affirm.

Children of other faiths, in a nation formed for the purpose of avoiding the institutionalization of ANY organized religion, have a lawful right to be accorded the same opportunity to celebrate this time of year with music appropriate to their beliefs ... Punitive measures taken against students who refuse to participate are unconscionable.

... To non-Christians, songs of Christmas are propaganda. Christians must come to terms with that in any public sector whether they like or agree with it or not. It's part of the job description. If you can't live with it, quit.

I find it inexcusable that some colleges of education have not drilled this concept into the teachers they graduate and forced them to consider the rights of ALL the students they are turned loose on the world to instruct.

The non-Christian child who has the courage in this political climate to refuse to perform Christmas songs ought to be given a medal. Their courage demonstrates the courage we cannot seem to find among some adults.

Teachers with such children in their classrooms should rejoice in planning substitute activities for them to fulfill class requirements or flat out give them an A for backbone, something increasingly hard to find in this society.

... Those who believe that their own faith is the only one worth celebrating in the public schools and who do not take the time and trouble to inform themselves of ways to encompass other faiths should not be teaching in public schools or should refrain from programming ANY religiously based music. They belong in the private sector. They should privatize their religion, in words that are dear to the heart of many today, and teach in private schools which are doing remarkably well of late since I have been forced to support them with my tax money.

... As the season moves forward, I hope every teacher reading this - college professors also - get back to the fundamentals of how to impart knowledge in a diverse nation whose foundational and religious structures are beginning to be eaten away by those who are of the moronic "my way or the highway" mentality.

N. R.
... It bothers me that choral directors in public schools need to be so careful to avoid being criticized for choosing what to perform ... Should one or two students (or parents of students) be allowed to run the ensemble? I don't see any problem with students holding varying religious beliefs because that is what this country is all about. I do, however, have a problem with those who say that sacred music has no place in the public school system.

I. M.
As a non-Christian, I sympathize with what J. P. and others are saying. ... There's a difference between being exposed to different religious and cultural traditions from your own and being compelled to participate in activities that reify them.

Furthermore, let's be clear what this issue is really about. The reason that we are talking about this is purely and simply that Christianity is the dominant religion in this country and always has been. When you have a situation in which one tradition is so much more prevalent and widespread than any other, there is a tendency for practices which in another context would be innocent and harmless to become oppressive for those who are not part of the club.

That's why it's inappropriate for public schools to penalize in any way children who do not want to participate in activities celebrating values that may be not only different from but directly contradictory to their most fervently held beliefs.

J. Y.
... The problem is larger than just choral music, I think America needs to take back Christmas - period! - without excluding other faiths, obviously. Christmas IS STILL a national holiday isn't it? As it is in Europe. This is our heritage. Not even the Dept. stores can say Merry Christmas in USA anymore. Rockefeller center had to fight to keep calling its tree a Christmas Tree. This is ridiculous, and in my opinion, only augments non-tolerance.

J. P.
A point of view I'm hearing expressed is something like this: "This music is so beautiful, and so important. How could anybody object?" or, "It's not for a mere child - or a child's parent - to object to something a director thinks is worthwhile."

This is sort of like saying, "The Christmas tree is so beautiful, and so important to our culture, how could anybody object?" It may be hard for you to believe, but one can indeed object, and not on a nitzy politically-correct level, but on a gut level which can cause anguish.

I will say again, if you are a Christian, you may not realize how tiresome and excluding the Christmas icons can become - this includes the Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear." This holiday takes over our country for more than a month. It is overwhelming and pervasive and, believe it or not, quite difficult for many (not all, certainly) kids and adults who do not share your beliefs.

I *personally* don't mind singing, for instance, "Resonet in laudibus" or other Christmas songs which are ancient and in Latin, because there is cultural separation. YMMV...

It's not just the CONCERT ITSELF that's the problem - it's having to rehearse Christmas songs for a month or more preceding. Really, if you're Christian maybe this puts you into a state of happy anticipation for your holiday, but if you're not, it just prolongs the torment of being in the midst of somebody else's mishigas.

C. C.
At the risk of being "offensive" to any agnostics or atheists, I would like to add a hearty "Amen" to the posts of [choral directors who wrote in support of Christmas music in the schools]. When lawyers and the "pc police" get involved, all too often rather than good for all occurring as a result, only a select hypersensitive few benefit and the rest are made to suffer. Common sense, freedoms and rights for the majority, and any hope for "true" understanding, respect, peace and multiculturalism go out the window. In their place comes frustration, resentment, and oppression.

J. H.
I don't disagree, C. C., but I can also see the other side of the argument, that pushing one religion AS A RELIGION on non-believers is, if not wrong, at least rude. You speak of the "rights for the majority," but our Constitution and Bill of Rights are specifically set up to protect the rights of minorities against the arrogance and power of the majority. That's why they created a republic and not a democracy. Nobody said it was gong to be easy, and it isn't.

You are correct that students in the public schools are a captive audience, and you are correct that there are Christians who detest the separation of church and state and see nothing wrong with pushing religion (only theirs, of course, and never anyone else's!) into the schools and into the classrooms. And that is why your reminder is important, and especially important to those who are bothered by it! And that is why we have a Constitution, and courts to enforce it.

R. H.
[Also in response to C. C.'s post above.] I think there are a couple of false assumptions in this post. They could amount to "killer assumptions" when it comes to dialogue.

  • One is that there has to be affirmation of one belief over another.
  • Two is that anyone who has been given another vision than the current majority spiritual view is either agnostic or atheist.
  • Three is that to find a middle road where freedom is expressed is to choose one or the other of those roads.
  • Four is that refusing to sing something because of a personal belief is to demean it.

In some cases that fourth killer assumption is true. When I was in the Army Chorus I refused to sing "There's where the darkeys long for old massa" in the old version of the Virginia state song. A song written originally by an African American. Still, I was offended and refused to sing it and they had the grace to explore further and find the newer version. Some would say PC version but this isn't art but politics and politics should be cleaned up...

J. H.
With respect, respect for the needs of the "select hypersensitive few" is the basis of American democracy. It's not about respect for the rights [of] the majority, but respect for the rights of minorities.

As Casey Stengal said, "you can look it up" -- in this case, in the Federalist, No. 51, in which James Madison writes:
It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part...

If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: The one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority, that is, of the society itself; the other by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens, as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable...

In a society, under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign, as in a state of nature where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger...
N. N.
I am still arguing for the loss of art that comes when our expression is curtailed. I just can't get to the place that the singing of a Christmas Carol is oppressive. Perhaps I would feel differently in a different setting, but I think there has to be a point where we stop eliminating a large body of art that is great because it offends a few people. I cannot imagine that we will have anything free of offense to someone.

I am honestly offended at school programs where the only offerings of the winter choral program must be limited to "Jingle Bells", "Frosty the Snowman", "Rudolph" and "Winter Wonderland", and the like. Why is "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" a more acceptable choice politically speaking than "Il Est NĂ©" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful"? Am I rude to sing "Silent Night" to someone if I don't know him to be a Christian?

J. P.
I'm obviously the grinch here, but I'm amazed anybody could think "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is not a Christmas song! How about all those presents and the sleigh and Santa? Think! Think! AND, what an absolutely crummy world-view it presents! After Santa shows favoritism to a previously maligned outcast, the sycophants crowd around. Some message.

Pop culture Christmas music is ... used to shill for the white-bread buy-more-junk American Christmas consumer tradition. These are the songs they flay us with in the malls to make us buy more cashmere sweaters and playstations. I know plenty of Christians who have come to LOATHE these songs because their primary use today is to increase avidity and loosen purse-strings.

UPDATE: To show that I'm not a total grinch, I am posting a daily series of free mp3 downloadable files of Christmas music made by my various musical groups through the years. Starting here.

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At 3:39 PM, Blogger MLight said...

Interesting. I have all sorts of opinions. As a musician, I know that there is a large body of beautiful choral music in the Christian tradition, some of it in Latin and some not. And, as an instrumentalist, I don't think I would have trouble with playing in a totally instrumental piece that was in honor or worship of someone else's faith.


To sing words that you don't believe? Over and over? Words of active praise of someone else's deity? Maybe it's that I am a fairly quiet person, but, to me, words are very important and not to be taken lightly.

When some Indian neighbors moved in a number of years ago, they invited us to their house blessing. We went, and politely chanted "Hare Krishna" with them. But it was kind of odd. That's really the closest I can get to understanding from my own experience.

I would firmly vote for kids who aren't Christian and who would like another assignment to be able to do so - with no punishment or negative implications. I'm not even sure of the whole idea of having any sort of religious music in school - because one's faith is a very personal thing and should be respected.

On the other hand...many churches don't sing traditional music anymore (I won't get started on the sad state of Catholic liturgical music!) so if children are going to be introduced to that part of Western musical heritage there aren't that many opportunities.

On the other hand...that's not the public schools' problem, and probably something to be addressed by community choirs for kids.

Before I get enough hands for an octopus, one more thing. A question to ask the Christians on this listserve is how often they ever sing hymns of praise in someone else's faith. Have they chanted "Hare Krishna" or "Praise to Allah?" Some can; some can't.

By the way, I would much prefer that Christmas were a much more low-key holiday. From a faith perspective, the commercialization and month long push actually detract from what I want to focus on.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Lady Strathconn said...

When my HS went to block scheduling, some kids could only be in the chorus one semester so they moved the "holiday" concert to the end of the term in January. I had already graduated, so I don't know what they sang, but I know it was more secular.

However since that time they have gone back to the December concert schedule.

When I was there it was the first Bush's Oil war, and we sang "And so this is Christmas (War is over)", "Silent Night" sung over news headlines, and some foreign language holiday songs. I live in a VERY progressive, fairly white community with few non-Christians. The music we sang usually went uncommented on.

I think as long as kids are given the opportunity to sing music from other cultures and learn about those cultures it should be considered part of their education. Isn't that why we send them to school? So they can learn things we can't necessarily teach them at home?

At 2:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Children, and other short lifeforms, should only be allowed to sing songs about phenomena that have been proven true by Science.
The notes they use must also bear the stamp of Secularity, for if Jesus or Larry or The Booder is allowed to creep in, whose to say these youngsters might not also buy into other Right Wing claptrap, like Dittoism and the lower middle class lifestyle.

But is the universal language, and may well be one of the few gifts that have the ability to lift people out of their own-ness, and move them into a place where all people can gather under one umbrella and dodge the hail of hounding from monoculturalists who would have the youngfarts yowl only from within their own little trailorpark of belief.

Music is a bridge for people to walk over and meet those on other sides. The glory of the English language is its absorbency and resilience. Education would do well to echo these qualities in their curricula. Sing from the world book. And failing that...Funk & Wagnall.

You know what I mean.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger Laurie said...

As an extremely liberal Christian from a very traditional Southern family who is trying to exit the Christmas machine, I understand the frustration of being bombarded constantly with someone else's message of Christmas. In my case, the pervasive societal message of buy, buy, buy to prove your love, prove your friendship, substitute for time spent, or just show that you can is extremely offensive. If I were made to sing advertising jingles for a month in preparation for a Christmas concert, I would be sick to my stomach. Children have little control over their lives and it shouldn't be THAT hard for instructors to accommodate strongly held religious beliefs or values.

It's not about being politically correct - I personally welcome anyone saying "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays," "Happy Hanukah," "Happy Kwanzaa," or "Happy as a Junebug" to me because I understand that person is simply wishing me well. It's about respect, plain and simple.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Darren said...

There are two Christmases--a religious one, complete with Baby Jesus and angels and stars, and a secular one, with a fat man and flying reindeer and 'little people' and snowmen.

I can see, although not truly understand or agree with, someone's not wanting to sing songs of a religious nature. But not wanting to sing songs relative to a *secular* holiday? I'd say tough.

Do students have veto power over *any* song in any other performance? I can hear it now--"This artist smoked pot once, so I won't sing his/her song."

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in India and went to two schools - one a Catholic boarding school and one a Private (called Public schools in India as in the UK) school in Delhi.

At the Catholic school we did Christmas plays, I played Mary for 2 years, learned carols and sang them at the assembly etc. I am Hindu but my parents (and that of other students) didn't care that we were learning music of a different religion etc. The Nuns never did any songs of other religions though their entire student body was mostly non-christians - looking back it makes me feel slightly used, though at the time it was fun.

At DPS the other school we had scriptures read at morning assembly everyday. The "House" in charge of assembly (changed every week) was responsible for arranging for a student from their house to read the news, the weather, the scripture quote, etc. then everyone sang the national anthem. It didn't matter what scripture was read from - we were used to hearing stuff from the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagwat Gita - Upanishads (hindu), the Guru Granth Sahib (sikh) etc etc.

If we learned religious songs at music they were very secular - based on medieval Indian Bhakti music that was born in the melting pot of hindu bhakti and muslim sufi sensibilities.

My kids are growing up in the US and at Christmas I don't want them to learn religious carols like I did, though we do put up a tree and Santa stops by with presents (which my parents did not do in India).

We do our nativity scene on Janmashtami the birthday of Krishna - when all over India and where ever hindu's live, a baby krishna is rocked in a cradle. At midnight the prison doors miraculously open, the guards fall asleep, the mother says goodbye to her new born, the father is able to smuggle Krishna in a basket through the monsoon rain, the waters of the Yamuna river miraculously part to let him through to safety on the other side.

What is different ? In India the majority culture was Hindu and learning about Christmas did not put any pressure on our own religious or cultural identity as kids. In fact it opened our minds to other people and places.

Here the majority culture is Christian. Christianity is evangelical and people of other religions are exposed to messages to convert in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Minority kids here do not need to learn about christianity - they learn it through cultural osmosis. But insisting they participate in the majority religious holidays at school is detrimental to their own religious identity. Being American is not being Christian.

How many people here know anything about Id, Diwali, Holi, Janmashtami, Navroz, Bodhi Day, Baisakhi etc.? On the planet Christmas is the holiday that the most money is spent on - but there are other holidays celebrated by millions that Americans are totally unaware of. Peace on Earth comes from knowing and understanding each other.

How about learning some new songs every christmas from some of your minority students ?


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