Celebrating the Holidays at GDS

As we head into another round of celebrations, culminating with our Christmas festivals on December 18, the question has arisen why Christmas and by extension why Passover.

The answer to those questions goes back all the way to the founding of the School. From the very first days of the School, Christmas and Passover were celebrated. As Aggie O’Neil, our first director, stated, “It is most important that we should try in every way to understand each other. One of the best ways [to do so] is through participation in each other’s days of joy.”

Founded to be a racially and religiously inclusive school, GDS insisted that those days of joy would be commemorated authentically. The Christmas Festival would celebrate the birth of Jesus, not Frosty the Snowman. The Passover Festival would celebrate Passover, not spring, and certainly not the Easter Bunny. The celebrations would emphasize not the parochialism of those holy days, but their universality. Gladys Stern, our third director wrote, “At GDS we encourage a formal feeling of respect for the beliefs and values represented in our student body. The celebrations of Christmas, Passover, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday express universal messages of peace, freedom, and the dignity of the human spirit.”

As the great Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Phoeby, yuh got tuh go there tuh know there.” To water down the holidays so they become a mishmash would teach the students nothing. What Aggie wanted, and what we at GDS have wanted since 1945, is for our students and for each of us to know each other authentically. For Christian students to understand and celebrate Passover or Jewish students to sing “Adeste Fidelis” is not to ask them to shed any iota of their own cultural heritage, but to step willingly and knowledgeably into another’s world.

A moment that crystallized that hope occurred some years back at the High School Christmas Festival. From the balcony came a beautiful rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and I looked up to see one of the boys in the a cappella group wearing his tallit and singing with great gusto; he was happy to be singing about Jesus and proudly claiming his own religious identity, all at the same time.

Not all parents have been comfortable with our approach to celebrating the religious holy days. Philleo Nash, a founding parent and the first president of the Board of Trustees, used to recount a meeting where a parent stood up and wanted to know when we were going to get all this religion out of the school. The parent declared that she was a “free thinker” and was speaking for all the freethinking parents. Philleo responded, after some moments, “Well, we have given this matter a great deal of thought. You may not realize it, but we have a very, very carefully designed program, which includes something for everybody. For the free thinkers, we celebrate Halloween.”

As times have changed, we have added other celebrations that speak to the essence of who we are as a school and a community. The Free to Be Me Assembly at the Lower School and the Pride assemblies at the Middle School and High School have emerged as equally important and powerful annual celebrations that speak to the right of all people to love and be loved and to be free to bring forward their truest and best selves.

Twenty years hence, I suspect we will have added other festivals to mark the diversity within our community. Given the hateful rhetoric currently fouling the political air, I can think of at least one new festival that we should seriously consider adding to our roster. I am sure others of you have your own ideas.

Even as the School evolves, though, we will and should hold fast to those traditions that mark the founding of the School and the reason for that founding. Kline Price, one of our very first students back in the ’40s said, “Georgetown Day School was my first contact with whites. It was a protective environment. Completely different from the outside. Once you walked down that road [to Grasslands, the school’s first real home] you were in another world.”

Founded as World War II was ending, when as a country we were just learning the full extent of Hitler’s final solution and African Americans were learning all over again that shedding their blood in defense of their country did little or nothing to advance their rights, GDS dreamt of being a haven where blacks, whites, Jews, and Christians could come together to lay the groundwork for a better world. That better world has not yet arrived, but to our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim brothers and sisters, let us hope that the holidays and the New Year give us all some promise that it is not too far off. Merry Christmas, חנוכה שמחה, As-salamu alaykum.

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