I have three children in three different types of schools -- Catholic, public and private. My junior-high son, who is in our parish school, gets a full dose of faith with his academic lessons. Today he read at the Advent prayer service. Tomorrow he will attend the school Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. My elementary-age daughter attends public school, so for her anything decorated even in basic red and green is crossing the church-state line, it seems. There will be a Winter Concert and holiday gifts, but whatever she gets in the way of faith comes from home and and Mass and the faith formation class I teach. Finally, my preschool daughter attends a Montessori school, where there is no overt religious education but where Christian ideals are incorporated into her everyday learning experience without notice or tension.
Now, as we enter the season not only of Advent and Christmas but also of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, she will get a holistic holiday experience at school. There is Christmas tree "work" (as activities in Montessori schools are known) and a Nativity set and dreidel work and Kwanzaa candles. As opposed to public school where no one is allowed to celebrate their faith traditions, our Montessori school's approach recognizes many different traditions, and that's something I can appreciate. During this season of peace and light, it seems appropriate to find a way to celebrate together rather than fight alone.
I remember when I first moved to my upstate town and sauntered in the public library one December. There was a huge menorah with all kinds of literature about Judaism. For the Christians there was a tree decorated with mice. I contacted the library to express my dismay and offered to purchase and set up a Nativity scene. I was dismissed and cast as an anti-Semite, despite the fact that I repeatedly told the library administrators that I did not want the menorah removed; I just wanted a creche added alongside it. It didn't happen that year, but someone managed to get through to them and now both faiths stand together in the entrance to the library. There is something heartening about that. Our different faiths shoulder to shoulder, as they should be as we Christians mark the season of Advent listening to the prophets of Hebrew Scripture, remembering always that we did not start out of nowhere. We started as Jews and became Christians. How can we not celebrate with our Jewish brothers and sisters at this time of year?
As we venture further into the Advent and Christmas season, it's important to recognize that while this is a holy time in the Christian faith -- preparation for and celebration of God Incarnate -- this is also a holy time for people of other faiths. We should be able to live together and respect other traditions, even if we do not accept other beliefs..
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York covered this territory in an op-ed piece in today's New York Daily News. Here's some of what he had to say about the holiday tendency to argue over our differences rather than honor them:
"Obviously, I am enthusiastic about 'keeping Christ in Christmas.' For those of us who believe that Jesus, the Son of God and our Savior, was born to Mary in a stable in Bethlehem 2009 years ago, we never forget what it is and why it is that we are celebrating. Christ must remain our focus. We must never let the commercial aspects of Christmas overwhelm us or cause us to think that the gift-giving and the parties are all that matters. I know that for me, as much as I look forward to spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts, sharing Christmas dinner and cheer, it all really begins deep down inside, with faith, hope and love, as we thank God for the gift of Christ, and share this sacred present with others.He's right. It doesn't have to be this way. My preschool daughter knows it. It would be nice if we adults could learn the same.
"However, many others don't believe as we do but still wish to celebrate this wonderful time of the year. Parties, decorations, holiday specials, gifts - I'm all for it!
"Still we see the public relations battle, the calls to spurn this retailer in favor of that, the angry denunciations of those who wish to sing 'Silent Night' or 'The First Noel' at a town event. Even more troublesome is that this season, when we should be celebrating peace, we find instead so many ways to be at odds with one another. It really doesn't have to be this way."
To read Archbishop Dolan's full column, click HERE.