Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Worst Christmas Pageant. Ever.

My children attend a public elementary school in the Midwest.

So each Winter Concert there has always been at least one Christian Holiday song.  That might bother some atheist parents. Surprisingly enough, it hasn't really bothered me. Maybe because I once loved and cherished those songs. The two that seem to appear each year is "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger". Usually the kindergarten children play the hand bells along to them. I think it's sweet and they are rather easy songs. I can see why the music teacher selected those two songs for the youngest students in the school.

This year, their music program was called, 'Paint the Town December'. For the past two months, I heard my children sing the songs they were learning at school while they played at home. Based on the songs they were singing, it was going to be a wonderfully diverse program.

We arrived at the auditorium and took our seats. The 5th grade band played "Jingle Bells" and the older children sang some songs. Then the kindergarten children took the stage and played "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Away in a Manger" on the hand bells.

So far, it had matched each Concert that the school had put on since my children started attending there three years ago.

The first through fifth graders started walking down the aisle towards the stage and were looking around for their parents and waving when they found them. Parents were standing up trying to get their students attention. I was trying to locate each of my children so I knew where to look during the performance.

Once the students were settled and ready to go, they started with a non-religious song called "Paint the Town December", and it was really sweet.

From that point on, the Winter Concert became something other than what it should have been. I couldn't believe how many racist stereotypes were blended into something that I was expecting to be so very diverse.

As the children with speaking parts took the stage dressed in berets, white painter smocks and thin mustaches, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Their role in the Concert/Play was the painters. They were walking from store front to store front offering to paint the windows in the town with holiday themes. (Paint the town December, ah, I get it.)  But every time one of the students opened their mouths to speak, a thick, stereotypical French accent came out. I glanced at my husband and he gave me a look that said, "Give it time, maybe they just missed the mark on this part."

I wish it had stopped there. I really do. But every time they represented any culture or people who weren't Caucasian Christians, their portrayals were steeped in stereotypes.

The next song was a Hanukkah song. The children with speaking parts came out with yarmulkes and side curls. They spoke with heavy Yiddish/Hebrew accents. 

Then it was time for Kwanzaa... Same deal. Offensive stereotypical accents and garb. 

Even the secular song, "Up on the Roof Top" ended with a little boy yelling, "God bless us, everyone." You would think that would have been the only moment to offend someone who is atheist. Nope. They kept going.

Next, they had a little girl in a hijab walk out on stage. She spoke briefly about Ramadan. They didn't make her speak in a heavy accent. But they also had no song. Granted, Ramadan was celebrated in July this past year, and only rarely falls in December, (last time was in 1999 and the next time will be 2030), but I could see how they were trying to touch on as many religious holidays as possible, even if it meant leaving out a few that actually are celebrated every December. (Chalica, Human Light, Saturnalia...)

I am from Southern California, an area that is alive with the wonderful Hispanic Culture of so many different races. So when the children were setting up for the song, "Las Posadas", I was cringing before they even opened their mouths to speak.

The children were wearing over sized sombreros and ponchos that were made from small area rugs with holes cut in them for their heads to fit through. The fake accents were sloppy and offensive and I couldn't believe how the entire performance was riddled with pigeonholing and stereotypes.

Well, almost the entire performance. The one song that wasn't misconstrued by ignorant backwards thinking was the song that represented Christmas. The song was 'Shepherd Boy' and the children spoke in their normal accents, which weren't as 'country' or 'Southern' as they could have been. Or even should have been considering the running theme. They were reverent, soft and respectful. Did the store owner come out in a wife beater holding a shotgun? Nope. Did the children with speaking parts have bright white teeth and tans or speak like Valley Girls? Nope. They were just average, normal sounding children. There were a lot of American accents and stereotypes they could have chosen from. But because it represented THEM (mostly the person in charge of the performance, considering these are primary school children). It was something she could relate to, something that seemed 'normal' to her.

By the end of the performance, I was racking my brain for ways to un-educate my children who were obviously miseducated about so many wonderful cultures and so many different religions. We had already been celebrating Hanukkah, so I know that would be something that I had already, recently, put the foundations for in place.

I was so disappointed. I went in with such high expectations of diversity and well represented cultures and religions and I walked away with such a bitter taste from the pigeonholing that only stopped for a brief moment when the children sang a song that represented the majority of the school, and the music teacher.

I wanted to write a letter to the school, but I don't even know where to start. I loved the premise, I hated the execution.  I wasn't planning on making my children's Winter Concert into a huge learning lesson at home, but now I know I must.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our Atheist Hanukkah

Neither my husband nor I were raised in a Jewish home. I had never considered celebrating Hanukkah until after I had children. As a child I was always curious about my friends who celebrated the holiday.

The past few years we have lit our Menorah, read Hanukkah stories and played dreidel. This year they even sang a Hanukkah song for their December Concert at school. (More on that later.)

This year we focused on the story of the Maccabees, the Jewish rebel army who fought back to take control of Judea. We spoke about how the temple had been taken over and Judaism was outlawed. We learned about the re-dedication of the second temple and the oil in the lamp.  We spoke about religious freedom. We spoke about standing up for what we believe in.

We discussed the point of what a 'miracle' is. What defines magic, what defines logic and what we can conclude from our discussion.

My children are in first and second grade. So our discussion didn't get too deep, they were focused on the dreidel playing they knew would be taking place after mommy stopped talking. But I know that if we use this holiday as a way to have an open discussion each year about religious freedoms, and discussions about what makes a miracle, I know that the holiday I spent time wondering about as a child, will become a sweet family tradition.

Our Menorah on the 8th night of Hanukkah 12/2013

Each night of Hanukkah this year, they received a small gift. This was our first time doing more than the candles, stories and dreidels. My husband and I felt that it was time for us to make this our main holiday for the year, instead of focusing so heavily on Christmas. It felt really awesome seeing how much fun the girls had celebrating something so foreign and different to my husband and I.  To me, it proved that there were already so many awesome holidays in place, that I didn't need to create any of our own.

I am hoping to celebrate Chalica next year alongside Hanukkah and maybe Christmas. I want my children to learn more about the origins of Saturnalia and we may end up nixing Christmas altogether next year. I am hoping to find a way to mix all of the December holidays together, but I am thinking it may just evolve into a month long celebration of Thankfulness and lessons in religious freedom, science and history. As soon as I figure it out, I will let you know!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Taking the Christ out of Christmas

One of the most difficult things to learn about while I was unknowingly shedding myself of religion was that Christmas wasn't originally Christmas. It was a Pagan holiday called Saturnalia.  I know what you are thinking, that I just made that up. (I totally thought someone out there on the internet was messing with my mind.) But I assure you, the entire December birth in Jerusalem is probably not even true. Which is also something I read on the internet that I had originally thought was anti-Mormon propaganda.

Now, maybe it wasn't a shock to you to learn that the holiday we celebrate as Christmas used to be celebrated for a similar, yet entirely different reason.  They celebrated the birth of a son as well, but it was the Sun God. Christians snagged the holiday for their own and totally ruined it. I really wish they would have let it be. (Actually, there is a ton of things I wish Christianity hadn't tainted.)

This Pagan story is totally cool and equally fictitious, but I like how it's more about family and the days getting longer after solstice. It is the re-birth of the sun. And nothing makes a holiday more enjoyable for little ones than faeries and woodland critters do.

I don't think the story of Christmas is harmful to children. (Avoiding the part where Zeus God has sex with a mortal to get a demi-god son, per Mormonism.) I have taught my children the birthing story of the Christian god, as to give them knowledge they may need at school. But I didn't tell them it was fact, mostly because biblical scholars will tell you that Jesus was born in March or maybe early April. We even have a Matryoshka doll with Joseph, Mary, a sheep and Jesus that serves as the Christian Nativity in our home. This year we will have a Pagan Nativity as well.  It's important to me to give my children as much knowledge as possible, and the Winter Holidays are perfect for teaching various wonderful lessons that have nothing to do with the supernatural. (And some that do.)

It was difficult to find Humanist or Atheist holiday traditions on-line. When I went looking during my first holiday free of religion, I couldn't find much of anything. The first thing that I came across that really made me feel like I may actually find usable ideas was this:
Instructions for an atom snowflake.

I know that may seem trite, but when you feel like you are starting something steeped in tradition from scratch, little things can really mean a lot. And that little snowflake got the snowball rolling for me. I found it difficult to truly blend my love for science with the religious muck that seemed to be everywhere at first. Don't get me wrong, I think it's important for traditions that are not ours, to be respected, understood and cherished; to me, that is important in raising children with character and compassion. Sometimes people are going to believe crazy things, that doesn't mean we can't love them. I just wanted something of my own, something of great importance to me and my family to become part of December.  It took me a while to realize that I didn't have to start from scratch, a lot of the religious traditions I grew up with could be tweaked to fit our family and my new beliefs.

Besides the atom snowflake, I have collected little ideas here and there and I figured I would share them here.

 There are a lot of things that I want for my children. I want them to be understanding, compassionate and loving. And I know that in order for me to give them the best chance at understanding those around them, is to expose them to many traditions and cultures, as well as teaching them about why science is the most awesomest thing in the entire whole of existence, not forgetting, of course, about teaching them about human rights and what truth really means.

Picture of the Fellowship Baptist Church we passed on the way home one night.