The Holiday Concert That Was and Wasn

By Rev. Ann Fuller

Last night, I attended what my son’s public high school choral department has alternately billed as the Winter Concert or Holiday Concert. I enjoyed the music despite his eight-year-old brother squirming on my left and eleven-year-old brother sighing on my right. The students successfully tackled some fairly advanced choral pieces. The singers, the musicians and the director treated the audience to a very respectable level of talent. Unfortunately, I left the auditorium with feelings of disappointment rather than the pleasure I usually experience at the conclusion of a musical performance.

My reservations will likely be met with at least two predictable responses. For those who observe Christmas as a religious holiday, I will be vilified as one of those godless secularists out to destroy Christmas or if I’m very lucky, shake the foundations of Christianity to its core. For those who strongly advocate for the separation of church and state, my silence with the school administration will be seen as enabling the abridgment of our first amendment rights they so correctly seek to protect.

You see, I left the concert dissatisfied because it could not really in good conscience be called a winter concert and only in a narrow respect be correctly referred to as a holiday concert. Despite the words “Happy Hanukkah” on the cover of the program, the entire concert consisted of Christmas music with 80% of the pieces being religious works. I suppose there was something of a nod to inclusivity in that several of the pieces were sung in other languages and some were by non-American composers.

I adore Christmas music. If you were to ask me to sing ten songs I know by heart, easily seven of them would be Christmas carols and one of the other three would be “Happy Birthday.” I have a Celtic Christmas station playing on my computer as I write these words. However, that’s not really the point is it? I should not have to defend myself by assuring anyone I approve of Christmas music. Rather, a public school should reasonably be expected to honor the traditions and beliefs of the diversity of their student body and the greater community within the context of their holiday concerts, especially if that is how they describe such events.

I sat there wondering how many of the approximately 200 students in the choral department were not represented in song. Although not a nation founded on Christian principles or doctrine, the United States is a majority Christian society, so it is entirely reasonable to assume the vast majority of the students on the stage were Christian. My school district is particularly homogeneous, but I find it highly likely a smattering of other faiths and non-theists were belting out praises to the baby Jesus last night. Would it really have harmed anyone to acknowledge the presence of these individuals and respect their beliefs by including several songs from other faith traditions?

When I hear the phrase “winter concert,” I tend to assume traditional favorites such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow” and “Sleigh Ride.” A holiday concert might include such pieces as “Light the Candle” or “Maoz Tzur” for Hanukkah and “Yule Carol” by Darragh Nagel for the winter solstice. Teddy Pendergrass recorded a song entitled “Happy Kwanzaa” that would probably make a beautiful choral piece in the hands of a competent arranger. While it’s true the other holidays and observances lack the quantity of music from which to choose compared to Christmas, there still remain enough quality pieces to construct a meaningful program. I know, I’ve seen it done.

Christmas is a secular holiday every bit as much as a religious one. I would be disingenuous if I failed to acknowledge the four secular pieces included in the hour and a half concert. I suppose it could be said the nontheists had greater representation than did minority faiths in this respect.

Sadly, two of the secular songs espouse relational values I find abhorrent as a humanist. I would be quite content to live out the rest of my life without having to hear the words to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” ever again. As a humanist parent, one of the values I cherish and therefore wish to instill in my children is the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. When reindeer bullying ceases only when Rudolph receives the mark of approval by an authority figure and serves some useful purpose, I positively bristle. I appreciate the message of each individual being unique and our supposed flaws sometimes being our greatest gifts, but somehow that piece of the ethical puzzle always seems to be overshadowed by the exploitation. If I seem a bit tied up by a reindeer, please keep in mind the power such metaphors exert on our society.

Likewise, the omniscience of Santa Claus and the promise of material gain in exchange for good behavior have always struck me as disturbing, placing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” low on my Christmas hit parade as well. My husband and I represented the Santa myth as a symbol of unconditional love rather than stick-and-carrot to our children. The boys would respond with puzzled expressions to strangers who asked them if they had been naughty or nice and therefore could expect coal or presents. When our sons developed beyond the Santa stage, the transition to parents as the source of holiday largesse subsequently made perfect sense.

While I was disenchanted with the content of the concert, I have decided not to raise the issue with the school administration. This may disturb some secularists who feel my silence does no one any good. However, I live in an area where one must pick separation of church and state battles wisely. I will likely seek a friendly opportunity to make constructive suggestions to the choral director for next year, but in the grander scheme of first amendment abridgments this hardly rates alerting the ACLU or generating media frenzy. I see this as an opportunity for productive dialogue at the personal level and often that may very well be the best way to strive for peace on earth, good will to all humankind.

Rev. Ann Fuller is a community minister serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard in Brevard County, Florida. She received her Ph.D. in divinity studies from Columbus University. She is a graduate of Class 15 and co-mentor of Class 18 of The Humanist Institute.

This article first appeared on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard. Used with permission by the author.