I have to admit to an enormous fondness for the original Christmas Carols. I was in the P.S. 35 Glee Club — as was everyone else. They were non-discriminatory about vocal quality. If you could squawk out something slightly musical, you were in. If you couldn’t even do that, you could pretend to sing — silently. Even back then, there were people who should not sing, not even in an elementary school Glee Club.
I learned all of these songs in elementary school. That was before we weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas or for that matter, any religious holidays. I understand that we have decreed that there shall be no religion (or hint of religion) in our public schools, but singing Christmas Carols was fun. The Glee Club was fun. Instead of social studies — the modern supposed equivalent of history and civics (it’s neither) — we got to go down to the Assembly Room where the piano lived and we sang. With gusto if not exactly on key.
I’m sure we were bad, but we had a great time. I have to wonder if singing Christmas Carols — or even an occasional hymn — is “religion.” I think it’s more like poetry and literature. I also think that if we actually did learn at least some of the basics of the world’s major religions, it might help kids understand each other better. If you actually know something, you are immunized against some of the introductory forms of religious bigotry. Knowledge — especially if it’s accurate — is somewhat like a vaccination against hatred.
So, does singing Christmas Carols (with the usual addition of one song about Chanukah shoved into the mix — diversity, even in 1957 existed, especially since probably half the teachers in my school were Jewish) constitute “teaching or promulgating religion” in the schools? A huge amount of our poetry, music, art, and literature has religious themes and at the very least, religious overtones. To lose all of that seems somehow wrong. You don’t need to include books that promote hate. We have “In God We Trust” stamped on our money and “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance.
I learned to love hymns and any church with a really good choir is always worth a visit. My synagogue had a small choir and I don’t think any member of the choir was Jewish — and nobody cared. Not the choir, not the members of Temple Israel.
Maybe some things that skin along the edges of religion ARE harmless and often a pleasure to share? Mind you I come from a Jewish family where my mother was a firm, unyielding Atheist, so I don’t have an oar in this water. I just remember how much I liked singing Carols and how many of the early pieces of music I played on the piano were hymns. Moreover, I didn’t convert because I sang Christmas Carols in fourth grade. I don’t think I even thought of them as “religious.” They were music. It is something to think about.
I understand we don’t want to introduce mandatory prayer or even non-mandatory prayer in public schools and I would be strongly against anything like that. On the other hand, learning the major religions on earth might be a positive start in diluting hatred based on religion. I’ve studied religions for many years and never joined one. I respect religion when it isn’t “something else” pretending to be religion. We could even invite in speakers from various faiths to talk about their fundamental belief structures! Isn’t that a terrific idea? Knowledge is never a waste of time. Somewhere in your life, everything you’ve learned will be valuable to you in unforeseen ways.
Hey, if we add some universal understanding of religion, maybe we can inject Civics and History back into the curriculum? People would discover how our government works, what a balance of powers means, and why it’s not okay for a president to refuse to leave office when he isn’t re-elected. All this learning could do us a world of good!