When I saw a headline stating that candy canes were verboten at a public school because they were a Christian symbol, I assumed it was fake news invented by some right-wing troll. I assumed wrong. A well-meaning principal at Manchester Elementary School in Nebraska had tried to help her staff by sending a list clarifying what items could and could not be displayed in classrooms around the holidays. The secular “nice” list included gingerbread people, penguins, and yetis, while the religious “naughty” list included Christmas carols, Santa, and candy canes. Regarding candy canes, the memo explained that, “Historically, the shape is a ‘J’ for Jesus. The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection. This would also include different colored candy canes.” The memo drew the ire of the Liberty Counsel and may fuel claims of a “War on Christmas” for years to come.
Public schools often do violate the establishment clause around this time of year (when I worked at a public high school, a fellow teacher put a poster outside her classroom that read “Remember JESUS is the reason for the season!”). But in this case, even atheist blogger Hemant Mehta felt the principal had been overzealous. To me, the principal’s mistake was not her goal of a strict separation of church and state, but rather failing to understand the underlining constitutional principles or explaining them to staff.
Teachers who care about the First Amendment refer to the holidays as “The December Dilemma.” Obviously, a public school cannot mandate students to celebrate a religious holiday. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District (1980) that schools may recognize religious holidays as long as the purpose is educational and not to promote religion. Is it bad pedagogy to avoid all discussion of a major religious holiday? When does learning about a religious tradition elide into practicing that tradition? And is Christmas even religious? In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court ruled that Christmas can be either religious or secular and that things like reindeer and Santa represent “secular” Christmas.
These are legally complicated issues. Elkhorn School District, where Manchester is located, offers guidance that outlines the underlying principles as well as the three prongs of the “Lemon Test.” The first mistake of the “candy cane memo” is that while it links to the district’s guidelines, it frames the issue primarily in terms of comfort. (Words like “uncomfortable,” “comfort,” and “discomfort” appear four times.) A pernicious myth about the separation of church and state is that such practices as mandatory prayer in schools ended not because the courts found they violated the establishment clause, but because certain people complained that these practices made them “uncomfortable.” This myth obscures the constitutional principles at stake. It also shifts resentment toward minorities by wrongly suggesting these practices would be legal if only they had been “comfortable” with them. At worst, it implies that schools should prioritize avoiding discomfort over pedagogy.
The second mistake of the memo is that it attempts to unilaterally categorize specific symbols as either religious or secular. (I say unilaterally because Elkhorn’s district guidelines specifically list Santa as secular symbol, while the memo places Santa on the “unacceptable” list.) Cases often get silly when courts are asked to rule whether a specific symbol denotes a state endorsement of religion. As law professor Jay Wexler wrote, “The endorsement test makes judges render decisions that are more like interior decorating than constitutional law.” In this case, the attempt to maintain the separation of church and state by creating these lists arguably violated that separation by using the authority of the state to dictate what these symbols “really mean.”
In addition, Snopes thoroughly debunked historical claims that candy canes were invented as a symbol of Jesus, tracing the spread of this idea to a series of Christian books published in the mid-90s. Ironically, many people (including myself) were taught this myth about the origin of candy canes for the first time by this memo. In a sense, candy canes became a religious symbol through the principal’s warning that they’re religious. Gingerbread people, which were deemed “acceptable,” have been just as easily imbued with Christian symbolism, though the Christian-ization of this particular symbol has not yet been endorsed by a principal. This is a great example of John Lardas Modern’s statement that, “When you talk about religion—believe in it, promote it, explain it, condemn it, historicize it—you are making religion up. You are giving weight and shape to it in the world.” Pronouncing something “religious” is not a task to be taken lightly.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to our tendency to be ignorant of our own ignorance. To people on both the left and the right, adjudicating the establishment clause can seem like a matter of “common sense” that only the truly ignorant or unreasonable fail to understand. And with so many other issues school administrators need to deal with, learning the jurisprudence on these issues can seem like a luxury. But the “candy cane memo” is a great example of why we all need to brush up on what the establishment clause is and what it means for public schools.