Take a walk around campus and you will see signs of the Christmas season. Nativity scenes depict the birth of Jesus. Green and red boldly declare Santa’s arrival. But navigating the Christmas season can be a challenge for our students who do not celebrate the Christmas holiday. How do they embrace the season’s customs, while maintaining their own religious identities?
The “December Dilemma” is a term often used to describe the anxieties non-Christians and interfaith couples face during the Christmas season. Parents are confronted with choices about the boundaries between adopting Christmas customs without infringing on their own personal beliefs. However, this isn’t limited to the Christmas season. These are choices some of our students face each time they enter the chapel, sit through a Religion class, or pray with their class before a meal. How can we, as an Episcopal community, foster an environment where all families feel welcomed and respected in their beliefs?
There’s a deep American tradition in respecting religious differences. Our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom. Similarly, Episcopal upholds the idea that students should be respected for their personal religious beliefs. The school website states, “We are created to be models of God’s love and grace. We are created to serve Christ in all persons, regardless of origin, background, ability or religion. We are created to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.”
In order to respect our differences, we must first understand our differences. Inviting families into the classroom to share their traditions is one of the ways that Episcopal faculty bring diversity into the school day. Miriam del Rio is mother to Episcopal students Kaplan (‘20), Parks (‘24) and Reed McMains (‘24). She recalls her experience celebrating Hanukkah in the boys’ classrooms when they were younger. “We would read a story about the meaning of Hanukkah, light the Menorah, and play a game of Dreidel. The kids loved spinning the Dreidel and especially enjoyed eating the Gelt (chocolate candy). Although this is just a small part of our holiday tradition, it has been encouraging that the teachers have helped create such an accepting environment to teach awareness about those with different backgrounds.”
Paul and Stacy Dampf are parents to David (‘30). Stacy writes, “As parents raising a Jewish child in a religiously blended home, we are thankful for Episcopal’s spirit of diversity and inclusion. We have always felt welcomed and encouraged to come to school and share the Hanukkah traditions of the Jewish faith with David’s classmates. We find this to be a wonderful opportunity to educate other children about some of the customs and practices of Judaism.”
Episcopal 4th grade teacher Rosalyn Won recalls a similar experience with her son Milo (‘30). She and her husband, Zevi Gutfreund, were invited to speak to Milo’s Pre-K3 class about the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Milo’s teacher, Mrs. Cascio, invited the couple to recite the hamotzi, a blessing over the bread (challah). Even at a young age, students were able to make the connection between this prayer and the prayers they prayed before eating lunch each day. Recognizing the similarities between our faiths helps foster a mutual respect. What starts as an intellectual exercise about tolerance, ultimately shows us something more basic and profound—appreciation and love for one another.
Throughout the Christmas season we can be mindful of those on our campus who do not share the same beliefs. Teaching our students tolerance, respect and understanding allows Episcopal to be a community where students of different faiths feel safe, welcome and valued.
Julie Pace A 2001 graduate of Episcopal High School, Julie returned to her alma mater in 2012. She received both her undergraduate degree and MEd in Elementary Education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. After teaching 2nd grade in a Dual Language program in Texas public schools for three years, Julie moved abroad to teach 1st grade at a bilingual school in Gracias, Lempira Honduras. After her adventure was over, Julie accepted a position to teach Pre-K4 at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, teaching alongside some of her former teachers. She has enjoyed seeing what life is like on the other side of the desk