I once had an elementary school teacher who tried a multicultural approach to the holiday season. She told my class about Hanukkah, which she described as being a kind of “Jewish Christmas.” This fascinated us until we discovered that the gift-giving aspect of Hanukkah was spread out over several days. As fans of Santa Claus, we couldn’t help thinking that Jewish kids must have it tough.
Today’s teachers are – hopefully – a bit more informed on religious matters. They certainly have more and better resources for exploring world religions. Teaching Tolerance offers some guides to discussing religious holidays in class and helps show what it’s like to be a religious outsider.
Teachers who start religious discussions obviously enter a minefield of sensitivities. On one hand, there may be students who – religiously, anyway – see December as just another month. They can include Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other hand, there are religious minorities who see their December observances widely ignored.
The latter group includes Wiccans, who observe Yule, or the Winter solstice, in December. This is the Wiccan celebration of the rebirth of the sun (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere). One reason that Yule gets short shrift in classrooms – compared to Christmas or Hanukkah – is that Wiccans are not a monolithic group. The term Wicca embraces a wide range of overlapping beliefs tied to nature worship and paganism.
But Wiccans are in good company, numerically speaking. In 2008, a survey of U.S. religions found that 0.4 percent of Americans identified themselves as “New Age” (which included Wiccan and other categories). Sounds tiny, right? Not when you consider that Hindus made up 0.4 percent, and both Muslims and Orthodox Christians each made up just 0.6 percent.
One big reason that Wiccans can’t get any yuletide respect is that many people – wrongly – tie their religion to Satan worship. But the bigger problem is that many people simply have not heard of Wicca. That is changing, especially among young people. Teachers who haven’t heard of this religion likely will – from students who feel left out of year-end activities, and from parents who are tired of seeing their religion ignored.