World War II had just ended. Germany had surrendered in May. Japan in August. African-American troops were returning only to find that the freedoms they had fought and died for abroad were still denied them at home. Jews and the rest of the world were learning of the full horror of Hitler’s final solution. Six million parents, cousins, sons, and daughters had perished.
Washington, DC, the capital of the Free World, was overseen by a man named Theodore Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist, proud member of the KKK, and author of a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. And the one place where the younger generation might have a chance to learn from their elder’s mistakes was non-existent, as all the schools in the District—public, private, and parochial—were segregated, either by law or custom.
Into this maelstrom stepped seven families, two Jewish, two African-American, and three white, to put a stake in the ground, a stake that said that their children would go to school together; they would learn with and from one another; they would be safe; they would be valued, and their deepest traditions would be recognized and honored.
Georgetown Day School, the school those visionary families established, would be an inclusive school, one where all children regardless of race, class, or religion would be welcome. Christmas would be celebrated, as would Pesach. Aggie O’Neil, the first head of school, made clear why a secular school would do that. She wrote, “It is most important that we should try to understand each other. One of the best ways is through participation in each other’s days of joy. We are not trying to impose religious belief on anyone; only to show them the beauty of other nationalities and religions.”
Gladys Stern, GDS’s third head of school, added “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’s birthday express universal messages of peace, freedom, and the dignity of the human spirit.”
And so we celebrate Christmas as we have for 72 years, and remember that once upon a time, a homeless couple wandered through the Middle East looking for a place where their child could be born—hoping that in that place, peace could be found.