A nativity scene on campus?

A simple solution for the Christmas controversy blues


Photo by kevin dooley on Flickr

Last year around this time I was startled to notice a small nativity scene set up in our university cafeteria. I considered making a formal complaint to the effect that at a public university such overtly religious symbols should be avoided. But it was only a little one, and even my great and growing peevishness has its limits.

Still, it’s easy to see why Christmas poses such a problem for educational institutions. On one hand, it is a venerable annual tradition for millions, with a seemingly endless store of symbols and songs to draw upon. On the other hand, for many, it is among the holiest days of the year, and one still hears a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” where “true meaning” is meant to suggest the religious meaning.

And so it is no surprise that controversy and indignation has become one of our new favourite holiday traditions.

The issue seems especially pressing in the US, where levels of religious commitment are somewhat higher than in Canada. Last year, a Nevada high school was the center of controversy when teachers, it was said, were told to stop saying “Merry Christmas” at school. And a few years before that, Oklahoma University allegedly banned the use of the word “Christmas” only to reverse its decision, presumably after senior administrators were visited by four ghosts in the night.

But Canada is no stranger to such controversy. Just last week in Ottawa, a public school raised eyebrows when it cancelled an annual Christmas concert in favour of a more generic winter festival. Conversely, over at McGill, two students are making the case for saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” (an issue I addressed last year, taking the contrary view). Even my friends over at Trinity Western University, a proudly Christian school, have not been immune: a few years back, there was a fuss over whether it was appropriate for their Christmas festivities to be sponsored by a local winery (Why? Jesus himself made wine when the need arose, did he not?).

I find all of this conflict a bit frustrating because the compromise position is an obvious and easy one. After all, Christmas has at least three distinct elements: the totally secular (Dasher, Dancer), the largely secular (Santa Claus) and the religious (baby Jesus in the manger). This tripartite division—which I admit could be more complicated, but let’s keep our eye on the snowball, shall we—yields a simple policy: decorate for Christmas, but stick to the first two categories.

Put Santas and Christmas trees in your schools as a recognition that whether you are a Christian or not (I myself am not), they are part of long-standing cultural traditions that have become part of secular culture. Have your school Christmas pageants but make them about Frosty and Rudolph, not Mary and Joseph. Heck, I’ll even lighten up on the “Merry Christmas” thing, so long as you mean “Merry Secular Christmas.” Leave the overtly religious for churches and Sunday school pageants.

Today—since every one of my Hour Hand blog posts is meticulously researched—I made a special trip to look for that nativity scene and found it had been replaced with holly and snowflakes.

My plan is working already.

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.


A nativity scene on campus?

  1. I don’t think you would have the gall to tell a Jewish person to not outwardly celebrate Hanukah would you? Didn’t think so. And just because my skin in white and I am a Christian it does not mean you can discriminate against me either. I’m sick of having to tip toe around my beliefs so I don’t “offend” the beliefs of atheists. I am tolerant towards others , nor do I never push my beliefs on others and I deserve the same courtesy. I believe in the “true meaning of Christmas” as you put it, and I have every right to celebrate it ….IN PUBLIC! It is people like you who give atheists a bad name. Just because you are an atheist doesn’t mean you have to be intolerant or hypersensitive, I know plenty who aren’t. In closing, Merry Christmas and may God bless you.

  2. Individuals may say whatever they like. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Ramadan, Happy Ashura, but the greetings of public institutions must remain, above all, secular. This is done, in most cases, to include people of all faiths and avoid painting everyone with the same (religious) brush. If you include a Christian nativity scene, then you must include a manorah, a statue to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a secular plaque, and any and all other religious symbolism anybody decides they want to erect. Instead of cluttering public space with the possibly hundreds of religious symbols, isn’t it easier to keep that space secular?

  3. Dasher and Dancer might be secular symbols of Christmas, but Frosty melted for our sins.

    (He’ll be back again someday.)

  4. @ Caper

    I totally agree with Prof. Pettigrew.

    I do not care what you do as an individual in private, in your place of worship, on the sidewalk outside, in the shopping mall, etc., etc. You, as an individual, are not a representative of the State. Therefore, the separation of church and state does not apply to you. You are protected (rightfully so) by democratic values such as freedom of expression, religion and association.

    That being said, what a public institution does in fact does concern me. If a public institution places religious symbols (as opposed to secular ones like holly and trees and a fat man in red, which are pagan symbols which have lost their religious meaning over time) in a public place, there’s a problem. This is because the separation of church and state is a democratic value that applies to the State.

    In other words, no one is trying to keep you from celebrating your religion. They are, however, trying to keep the State from celebrating your religion.

  5. Well, this is the old entitlement thinking at its best.

    “We want all that Christmas can give us without any of the obligations.”

    We want the vacation and all of the good fun it brings (presents), but we do not want any of the “old” obligations surrounding that vacation – no thinking of God, Christ, how what they said and asked us to be relates to our lives, our duties to our fellow beings (relief of suffering, care for the needy, etc.).

    Instead, let us replace all of that with commercial icons focused on the fun part (gift-giving and getting). Talk about mindless commercially-driven greed. Grown-ups acting worse than children.

    The purpose of Christmas was to help us remember every year who God is and what his place in ours lives was and is to be. Oh, I know it was patterned after a Roman holiday, but that was to avoid persecution for the early Christians. Christmas could theoretically happen at anytime of the year, but it is where it is, so let us just leave it at that.

    If you do not want the obligations that Christmas entails that are listed above, fine, BUT THEN GIVE UP THE ENTIRE HOLIDAY!

    NO days off. NO gift-giving or getting. NO singing of Carols or other Christmas songs, even the “secular”, commercial ones.

    If you want to opt-out, opt all the way out. Leave the Christians to their festival, with all that it entails.

    Go ahead … I dare you.

  6. @ Lance Macho

    I’m Jewish and would love to give up my entire holiday in exchange for the Jewish holidays off. I have no interest in thinking about Jesus. Given that the university that I work at closes (and largely turns off the heating in the building in which I work), though, I don’t really have much of a choice to do what you propose.

  7. It’s Christ’s Mass, for crying out loud. I fail to see how the “true meaning of Christmas” isn’t religious.

  8. In a country that’s largely Christian, and more specifically a part of the country that is largely Christian, I believe it would be more inappropriate to not recognize the “holiday season” as Christmas. Every religion has its own celebrations, but if a person celebrates Christmas, they should be willing to accept the fact that it is based on religion and Christianity. I grew up Catholic and in Cape Breton, I go to StFX and there’s a beautiful nativity scene set up on campus every Christmas. People accept it, they respect it, and it’s a part of North American society – Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, it’s not just about Santa and his reindeer, and I think it’s disrespectful to Christians to ask us to take down displays of worship. Christmas is a huge occasion in multiple faiths, and setting up a nativity to show cultural and religious support is far from offensive, unless one is too blind and too stubborn to accept the beliefs of others. I don’t believe in pushing religion down people’s throats, but is having a nativity scene on campus really going to affect anyone except those who acknowledge the birth of Christ? For students with a Christian affiliation a nativity scene could easily be viewed as comforting and homey, bringing back memories and easing exam stress. CBU found its roots in StFX, it was known as Little X for ages, and it makes perfect sense, then, that its religious affiliation would be Catholic, as StFX is strongly affiliated with Catholicism. People of other religions celebrate their religious holidays, but in North America, in this culture, Christmas is a holiday because it deserves respect and observation; if Christianity were not so predominant in our culture perhaps Christmas and religious displays would not be so important and visible. As it is though, this is Canada. I am Christian and proud of it, and I want my school, my community and my neighbours to embrace and respect my religion. I respect theirs, I have no problem with religious displays that are harmless and happy, so why should my Christmas be taboo?

  9. Dear Prof. Pettigrew

    I am astounded at your calousness as to how you address the most important Christian celebration of the year- The coming of Christ into a broken, cold, unbelieving world. To be frank you are entitled to your opinion – but we are entitled to our Faith and we canadian Christians are entitled to live it publicly..
    We are also entitled to put up Manager Scenes – as this is how Christ came to this dark world. ‘Christmas’ means Christ’s mass..

    Noone is asking you either to become involved or either.. but then why take our days off which are /were meant for Christians to take part in our christian religious celebrations.

    The world has taken what it wants from our Feast Days — it makes lots of money from them.. and throws all kinds of parties (noone remembers for who..) and yet it forget the One who this is all for.
    We forgive your calousness, coldness, and disregard for the Faith for which so many died. We dont expect you to embrace it. We do expect you to let us celebrate in our country — as we wish.
    We do not need any more opinions ..

    • Maria, I think you’ll find that most Christian experts see Easter as the most important Christian celebration of the year, since it is the death of Christ (inasmuch as it redeems humanity from the sin incurred in the Fall of Adam and Eve) that is the central element of Christian theology, not his birth.

      But more to your point, my suggestion was only that explicitly religious celebrations are not appropriate in public institutions. I would strongly defend the right of a church or a private individual to display a nativity scene, for instance.

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