Christmas for Everyone

Graland's Christmas Pagaent

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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:

The First Noel (Carrie Underwood). "Noel" is the from the Old French word for "the Christmas season."

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.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (St. Peter's Choir). History of this song's Unitarian and anti-war origins.

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.

NEXT: The Prohibition on Carrying on the Sabbath Makes it Virtually Impossible for Jewish People to Worship Outside

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  1. Merry Christmas. Share the Kiss of Peace.

    Here is the very finest Nutcracker Suite hidden behind a typo.
    Ahh, it won’t link. At YT search “Bolsoi (1989) Nutcracker Suite”

  2. A few comments.

    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 1/5 or 1/6 of the Graland community that was Jewish did not put its foot down and stamp out the Christmas Pageant.

    Did it ever occur to you that refraining from objecting was, for at least some, more a result of feeling coerced, or maybe fearing retaliation, rather than just genial acceptance? No. I guess not.


    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.

    The world is not ideal, and people often don’t behave in these ways, especially where religion is concerned. And minorities may not want to “partake of these celebrations in that same universal spirit.” Why should non-Christians want to participate in a Christian religious celebration?

    And why should it be necessary to object, and be excused? That seems to me to place the objector in an inferior position. Let me quote from George Washington’s famous letter “to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI.”

    All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

    (emphasis added)

    It seems to me that the practices you describe violate this principle.

    1. “Did it ever occur to you that refraining from objecting was, for at least some, more a result of feeling coerced, or maybe fearing retaliation, rather than just genial acceptance? No. I guess not.”

      Did it ever occur to you that America is a Christian nation that has treated Jews better than any other nation in the world?

      Synagogues in France are being burned, but if a synagogue here burns, it will (a) not be arson and (b) they’ll be able to temporarily use some Christian church until they can get theirs rebuilt.

      If Irving Berlin, the son of a Cantor, could give us “White Christmas” without abandoning his Jewish faith, I don’t see what the issue is.

      After all, at least for Protestants, Christmas is *not* the major religious holiday — E ASTER is. (Remember, it’s not that Jesus was born, it’s that he rose from the dead…)

      1. Remember too that a Christmas tree is a Druid fertility rite — and that every culture that evolved north of the 40th Parallel has some sort of festival involving bright lights within a week of the winter solstice?

        It has to do with having only 9 hours and 20 minutes of sunlight versus having some 15 hours of it during the summer solstice. When you get above the 45th Parallel, the sun rises & sets in the *south* on December 21st.

        Christmas has more to do with Seasonal Affective Disorder than Christian theology.

        1. Christians have co-opted Christmas something fierce. Witness all the complaints about “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

          You can make all the excuses you want. You are blind to what you do not want to see, just as, while Bernard is spot-on here, he is blind to so many Progressive prescriptions.

          Government is the common evil to so many problems. Here, this school was private, not government, and there is no government meddling to be the problem. But to pretend that Jews and atheists and other non-Christians, and even some Christians, were happy to be part of this very mainstream Christan festival, is blindness of the same wilful sort which manifests in almost every excuse for government.

          1. As opposed to the Marxism of today? The multiculturalism and the global cooling/warming/change stuff, etc?

            1. And it was so widely accepted that we were a Christian nation that there was no need to state that in the Constitution. In fact, it was so widely accepted that states had established churches that they insisted on the Federal government not having the authority to interfere with that.

              Remember that the text is “Congress shall pass no law” — the states insisted on that so as to protect their own laws which did the exact same thing.

              Notwithstanding this, it seems that a whole lot of people who weren’t Christians came here. Now why might they have done that?

              1. And it was so widely accepted that we were a Christian nation that there was no need to state that in the Constitution.

                The very fact that the Constitution makes no mention of Christianity is, for Dr. Ed, proof that the USA is a Christian nation.

                What about all the other religions the Constitution doesn’t mention?

                1. “What about all the other religions the Constitution doesn’t mention?”

                  To a greater extent (e.g. Massachusetts) or a lesser extent (e.g. Virginia), all 13 states had an established church in 1787 — with the exception of Maryland, it was a Protestant denomination. (Quakers are Protestants.)

                  To a greater extent (e.g. Pennsylvania) or a lesser extent (e.g. Massachusetts), the established state denomination accepted (or tolerated) those of other denominations. Never forget that Quakers were hung on Boston Common — historians state that the Quakers won by being able to send more people to Boston willing to be hung than Massachusetts was willing to hang.

                  Most of the letters about religious tolerance were in response to fears that the new Federal government would eliminate the religious tolerance that other religions then enjoyed under state law.

                  And nothing outside the Judeo-Christian tradition was here at the time — and prior to the 1960’s, there was an expectation that respectable people attend a house of worship.

      2. For once, I agree with Bernard. It was far more likely that the Jews and atheists and others just put up with it, as an easier route than protesting and opting out. This is the same reasoning behind so much marketing and so many commercial attempts to clear up problems — it’s far easier to keep existing customers than get new ones, it’s far easier to just go along to get along.

        Your complaint about Bernard suffers from the same problem so many Progressives and other statists have — they are so blinded by being a part of the proposed solution that they simply cannot put themselves in the shoes of outsiders, even when those outsiders make their position crystal clear, as Bernard does here, and as you so plainly cannot comprehend, let alone understand and empathize with.

        1. “It was far more likely that the Jews and atheists and others just put up with it, as an easier route than protesting and opting out.”

          Indeed? You’re making an assertion about probability without any adduced evidence. Absent that, I think I’ll have to go with,

          “… 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.'”

          Which matches my own experience pretty well, which is quite similar to Dave Kopel’s, both as to personal belief and my opinion about religious holidays.

          1. Indeed? You’re making an assertion about probability without any adduced evidence.

            Evidence? I attended public school at a time when religious observance there was not even limited to Christmas pageants. There were daily prayers, usually explicitly Christian, and Bible readings.

            I can assure you that I and many of my Jewish friends regarded it as an imposition, even an insult, tolerated because there was no other option. The occasional objection was not met graciously.

            So perhaps that evidence is as good as what Kopel offers, especially since he speaks from the standpoint of at least a nominal Christian.

            Of course, I’m willing to believe that not everyone cares, but I’m not willing to believe, as you are eager to do, that attitudes are uniform, and are exactly what you would like them to be.

            1. You must be older than me. I only recall any religious influence in public education being during my elementary school years, from 02/50 through 01/59, in the Detroit Public Schools when prior to Thanksgiving we regularly engaged in the singing of “We Gather Together”; those are fond memories. (I have no recollection of any other “religious observances during elementary school nor any during high school, attended by me from 02/59 through 06/62.)

              But even for myself who had a fairly-strong Protestant upbringing, the hymn was significant more from its perceived historical context than its religious significance. This perception was due to its origin in The Netherlands, the embarkation point for the Pilgrims, and being roughly contemporaneous with the founding of Plimouth Plantation. (I have since learned that its incorporation into the American experience was much later.)

              Yet the rendition did provide inspiration for aspiration to something greater than my tawdry parochial context. In this there is great value for persons of whatever origin or creed.

              1. We are very close to the same age. My experience was in the South, however, so that may account for the difference.

      3. Did it ever occur to you that America is a Christian nation that has treated Jews better than any other nation in the world?

        1. America is not a “Christian nation.”
        2. I am well aware – better than you are, I suspect – that Jews have been very well treated in the US compared to other countries.

        If Irving Berlin, the son of a Cantor, could give us “White Christmas” without abandoning his Jewish faith, I don’t see what the issue is.

        I’m sure you don’t.

        After all, at least for Protestants, Christmas is *not* the major religious holiday — E ASTER is. (Remember, it’s not that Jesus was born, it’s that he rose from the dead…)

        What is the relevance of this to my comment?

        1. If it’s not primarily a religious holiday, then…

          1. Christians don’t consider Christmas a religious holiday?

            Really?

            It’s a far cry from not being the most important religious holiday to not being one at all.

            “…Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.”

            “Glory to the newborn King.”

            “O Holy Night… it is the night of our dear savior’s birth.”

            “Holy infant, so tender and mild”

            “Come and behold Him…”

            That’s all just off the top of my head. Not a religious holiday. OK, Ed.

            1. “primarily”

              Words mean things…

              1. For the majority of practicing Christians, Christmas (literally Christ’s Mass) is entirely a religious holiday. There are two major holidays on the Christian calendar. Christmas and Easter. While most may consider Easter the more important of the two, that does not make Christmas not “primarily” a religious holiday.

                1. Then why did the Massachusetts theocracy ban it?

      4. Did it ever occur to you that America is a Christian nation

        You just made Bernard’s point for him.

        America has a majority Christian population; it is not a Christian nation.

        1. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

          Look into Edmund Burke got that from…

          1. Pretty sure that was Jefferson. And he didn’t get it from Two Corinthians.

            1. No, he got it from Burke….

    2. And why should it be necessary to object, and be excused? That seems to me to place the objector in an inferior position. Let me quote from George Washington’s famous letter “to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI.”

      All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

      I would tender that you are perhaps drawing an unjustifiable inference from President Washington’s pronouncement. Rather I tender that DK’s aspiration for “[t]he highest collective product, not the lowest common denominator” is consistent with the above.

      Washington in the first and last quoted sentences was concurring with those observations of the Congregation regarding the deprecation of bigotry and persecution, and thus “a Government … generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine”. By the second quoted sentence then I conclude he meant every segment of society was granted equal liberty to “enjoy… the exercise of their inherent natural rights” without jeopardy of it being withdrawn by a segment constituting a majority of the society. I do not conclude he meant that any repudiation of the shibboleth of “toleration” was an excuse for suppression of the “inherent natural rights” of a majority of the society, as they also are one of the “equal parts of the great governmental Machine”. For this then would constitute intolerance thereof under the guise of tolerance no longer being a necessary legal prerequisite.

      I can perceive various degrees of angst if a particular person is required to participate in or observe celebrations that have no meaning to him or her. In such event accommodations are proper. But eliminating all possibilities of offense then impose the “lowest common denominator”, with few public expressions of contrary ideals or opinions being tolerated. To me these juxtapositions are an oxymoron and I thus cannot conceive this is at all what Washington contemplated.

      1. But eliminating all possibilities of offense then impose the “lowest common denominator”, with few public expressions of contrary ideals or opinions being tolerated.

        No. Eliminating religious obeservance in schools does not impose the “lowest common denominator,” in the sense that the school would be “better” somehow if Christian religious observance were part of the curriculum. I don’t see any basis for that.

    1. “Kwanzaa emerged not from Africa, but from the FBI’s COINTELPRO”

      And Coulter’s father was an FBI agent…

      See: https://anncoulter.com/2019/12/25/happy-kwanzaa-the-holiday-brought-to-you-by-the-fbi-6/

    2. Same to you, Matthew.

  3. And just to clarify my own position, after ranting about government and Christian oppression and people who refuse to recognize it, I listened to all the links above, except John Denver, because I never did like him. The other links were all wonderful, and I gladly oppressed myself.

    1. I’m glad you could enjoy the music. I respect your choice to avoid John Denver, and I recognize that non-Coloradans have no obligation to like him.

  4. “So here is my policy view: I understand that public schools can’t stage John Riley/John Comfort-style Christmas pageants.”

    Ummm, the public schools did…

    If he had teachers “who were using the conscription exemption for teachers to avoid the Vietnam draft” then this would have been roughly 1965-1971 and public elementary schools back then did have Christmas programs. Not to the extent of the Graland Country Day School as they had no support staff — it was just classroom teachers in classes of 30 students.

    But they had pianos that they knew how to play and we sang Christmas Carols from the exact same booklet that my church also used. When my father started teaching high school in 1962, he was required to “start every day by reading an appropriate Biblical passage” during homeroom. He largely read Psalms, which I’m told are also in the Torah….

    And one of my fondest childhood memories was when my father’s students came to the house to sing Christmas Carols and sang “Jingle Bells” for me.

    This was a much better country back then…

    1. You are almost entirely correct. There were Christmas events back in public school in those days. I recall my class going Christmas caroling; I and other Jews chose not to participate.

      But Psalms is not in the Torah, but rather the Tanakh (which is a Hebrew acronym for the Torah, The Prophets, and The Writings).

      1. I stand corrected — my understanding is that the Old Testament (3/4 of the Christian Bible) comes from Jewish scripture and didn’t realize the distinction.

        The thing that a lot of people (of all faiths) tend to forget is that Jesus was an observant Jew and that (according to Christian scripture) one of his issues was that the Jewish religious leaders were themselves not observing Jewish leaders. (E.g. the incident with the money lenders in the Temple — John 2:13-16.)

  5. I suppose it’s a bit late to mention it this year, but what about a Hanukkah pageant to balance out the Christmas pageants?

    Start with the Maccabees killing the apostate and raising the standard of rebellion. Then driving the pagan oppressors out of the Holy Land. Then the miracle of the oil.

    If the schools and synagogues don’t like the idea, run it on Spike TV.

    1. What about the schools devote time to teaching things like math and English, and let the students and their families participate, or not, in religious observances and celebrations as it suits them, on their own time?

      1. I anticipated that objection with this sentence: “If the schools and synagogues don’t like the idea, run it on Spike TV.”

        1. SpikeTV hasn’t existed in almost three years.

          1. Well, that was awkward.

      2. What about the schools devote time to teaching things like math and English, and let the students and their families participate, or not, in multiculturalism and social justice celebrations, as it suits them, on their own time?

        There, fixed it for you.

        1. I don’t need you to fix my comments.

          You would do well to devote your efforts to fixing your own. They need work.

    2. “Start with the Maccabees killing the apostate and raising the standard of rebellion. Then driving the pagan oppressors out of the Holy Land.”

      Do you honestly think you could openly celebrate something like this today?

      The only reason Hanukkah isn’t being protested is that most people have a hard enough time spelling it, and have no idea who the Maccabees even were — although they have no problem protesting the IDF…

      1. Are you just here on Christmas to pick fights?

        1. I’m merely pointing out that we live in the world of BDS.

          I won’t even get into Masada…

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