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To participate in joyous Christmas goodwill, a person doesn't have to be a Christian. Here are links to outstanding performances of some Christmas carols, along with a story about how a school of mixed religions celebrated Christmas. It's an example of how religious majorities and minorities can thrive together.
From kindergarten through 9th grade, I attended Graland Country Day School in Denver. The Christmas Pageant was run by John Riley–a frightening character to many. Assistant Headmaster, immigrant from England, and music director. His spine was always perfectly straight and erect. Rigid self-control. When he played the organ, he swayed with fervor, posture perfect. Every year he put on two great shows. In the spring, a week-long run of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. And on the last day of school in December, the Christmas Pageant. This was the one day of the year when all of the 500 students (ages 4-15) and all their parents, and other relatives, assembled.
The gymnasium packed to standing room only, the lights went black. All was quiet. From the furthest corner, the march of footsteps. An orator from Ancient Rome strode forth, followed by eight armored Roman soldiers: fifth grade boys, who had been studying the Roman Republic. The orator unfurled a scroll and announced the decree of Caesar Augustus: the census/tax that put Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-15.) The Glee Club opened with Once in Royal David's City (King's College). (For the linked carols, the parenthetical identifies the performer.)
Lights up, the exquisite The Holly and the Ivy (Natalie Cole & José Carreras) from the best female singers. What came next varied from year to year, but was basically like this:
Ding Dong Merrily on High (Portland Ensign Choir & Orchestra). Exuberant!
Good King Wenceslas (Irish Rovers). An inspiring tale of charity, and the real Wenceslsas (a 10th century Czech noble) was a great guy too. When I was in Kindergarten, I was impressed to see fifth-grader and future Nobel Laureate economist Paul Romer hauling a huge Yule log around the stage. To me the Christmas Pageants might as well have been Der Ring des Nibelungen, except that Christmas is happy. More spectacle on-stage than I had ever seen, or would ever see again, until I started going to rock concerts.
Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle (Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal). Another Glee Club showcase, from the days when French was the predominant foreign language taught to Americans.
I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In (Sting). When our First Grade performed this, I was baffled. What did the arrival of three ships have to do with Christmas? How could it be that "they sailed into Bethlehem," which isn't a port?
Deck the Halls (Mormon Tabernacle Choir). One of only two secular songs in the mix.
Vamos Ninos. A mash-up of Mexican carols, performed by the third graders, who were studying Mexico–long before that was demographically popular. Joseph and Mary led the peasants in procession. My year, Joseph was Chris Romer (Paul's younger brother), later a leader on educational improvement on many fronts.
Mary was Carolyn Dobbins, on her way to becoming national champion biathalon skier, and later, the author of What a Life Can Be: One Therapist's Take on Schizo-Affective Disorder, an autobiography of her experience in suffering from and rising above severe mental illness. As of third grade, everyone knew she was quite smart, and some saw her exceptional athletic talent. No-one foresaw her grueling path to sanctitude.
We Three Kings of Orient Are (Anne Murray). The engagingly strange lyrics ("Incense owns a Deity nigh") fit the unusual tones.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Celtic Women). I loved this song for its far edges: the high sharp notes I never heard anywhere else, and the high sharp words. "Veiled in flesh the godhead see." Here's the history of this Methodist song.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (King's College). "Tidings of comfort and joy," always made me think of Graland's Headmaster, John Comfort. When he took charge in 1965, Graland was a good independent school, founded in the late 1920s with a special vision of imaginative play.
"Mr. Comfort" took the imaginative play to even higher levels. The Fourth Grade operetta, Fifth Grade knighting, John Riley musical extravaganzas, Field Day in the tradition of the original Greek Olympics, week-long field trips galore, and more. Along with an academic program that put the weakest students a year or more ahead of the public schools; for the strongest students, a program that never stopped challenging them to grow stronger.
Head of School John Comfort knew how to recruit and use old school teachers like John Riley, and he also knew how to recruit and utilize the many new teachers who were not at all like John Riley, such as the young men who were using the conscription exemption for teachers to avoid the Vietnam draft. Because Mr. Comfort strongly believed that tradition and excellence should be inclusive, his synthesis of old and new provided the credibility to greatly increase scholarships, making Graland much more racially diverse.
Away in a Manger (King's College). Alt. version by John Denver. In Colorado in the early 1970s, John Denver was patriotic music, expressing our love of our beautiful State of freedom. Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on my Shoulders, & Poems, Prayers & Promises were early classics. "You might say he was born again."
Silent Night (Mormon Tabernacle Choir). According to Wikipedia: "…translated into about 140 languages. The song was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I, as it was the one carol that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew." My favorite version is by Emmylou Harris. To me, it expresses the love of parents for children–that the Holy Family with infant Jesus was sacred in a way that every family is a sacred. That God is immanent. Earthly families are the image of the Trinity. Parents and teachers learn from their children. "Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace."
O Come All Ye Faithful (MTC). The standard opening song for Catholic and Episcopal Christmas Mass. No matter how highly or lowly the circumstances, a joyful and triumphant procession. God joins us in the material world. Not a distant observer, instead, a fellow traveler, sharing our difficulties and joys.
Joy to the World. The standard closing song for Catholic and Episcopal Christmas Mass. If it were really true that infinite God voluntarily joined our material world for the benefit of all, and for the benefit of every person specifically, that would be good news!
We Wish You a Merry Christmas. (Muppets). The very youngest kids, the four-year-olds, marched on stage to demand their figgy pudding. Even from the point of view of students just a year older, they were comically inept. Everyone joined in good-natured smiles and laughter at their performance. Then Santa Claus ran onto the stage, gathered kids into his arms, and the full choir launched into the chorus.
Santa was always a 9th grader; for our class, the stocky lacrosse jock Ken Greenberg was Santa, and he much enjoyed being Jewish and being Santa. The glad tidings of Christmas were for everyone. The choir giddily swayed and sang "We wish you a Merry Christmas" for as long as it took for all the audience and the younger students to recess, which was a while. Families reassembled in the parking lots. Christmas vacation was commencing, and almost everyone was high.
Policy thoughts: Graland was not a formally religious school. During most of the school year, there were school assemblies with a song selection that any Judeo-Christian, or other monotheist, could easily embrace. The Thanksgiving assembly was about giving thanks to God, but beyond that, there were few details specified about God.
Mr. Comfort made our school anthem Non Nobis Domine (Not unto us our Lord), a medieval Latin worship song. Its literal text is broad enough for any religious believer to assent. In Graland's imaginative play, it aimed fortify us to stand and fight, like Winston Churchill and like Romans who fought to save their Republic.
While civic republicanism was the undeclared Graland religion most of the year, the Graland Christmas Pageant and the weeks of preparation were different. As always, there was no religious instruction, but in Pageant preparation weeks, with all the traditional carols, the singularity of what had (perhaps) happened at the manger in Bethlehem was pervasive.
About 10-15% of the student body was Jewish, as were some of the teachers. Almost all of them went along with the whole thing in the spirit of seasonal goodwill. I don't know how my classmate Ken Greenberg was picked to be the Jewish Santa Claus, but I suspect that he was the first Jewish 9th grade Graland boy who had the muscular confidence to be a Claus. So when he became available, he was the chosen one.
Myself, I hadn't been raised religiously, but my family celebrated Santa Claus Christmas at home, and I was happy to go along with the school's festive spirit. In my choir responsibilities, I enjoyed my duty to memorize all the verses of the carols. Never in my ten years at Graland would I have self-identified as "Christian."
Among my grade of about 55 students, about 10 were Jewish or incipient agnostics, yet only one student objected to participating in the Christmas Pageant. Marea Himelgrin was a conscientious Conservative Jew, and she was excused from all Pageant activities without controversy. Years later, she ran for the United States Senate from Minnesota, as the nominee of the Socialist Workers Party. She always had admirable fortitude in standing up for her principles.
So here is my policy view: I understand that public schools can't stage John Riley/John Comfort-style Christmas pageants. I am also glad that the Graland community that was Jewish did not put its foot down and stamp out the Christmas Pageant.
In an ideal world, majorities stage their celebrations in a way that promotes universal goodwill. Minorities can partake of these celebrations in that same universal spirit. Always, the rights of conscientious objectors are respected. That's liberal tolerance, based on mutual respect, maximizing positive energy. The highest collective product, not the lowest common denominator.
Never in a million years would John Riley or John Comfort have said "maximizing the positive energy." Yet in their own old-fashioned progressive way, that's the example they set. They shared the spirit of Christmas generously.
This is a revised version of an article that originally was published by The Volokh Conspiracy in December 2013.