When a school declares a religion

On my first day at Catholic school, a nun in an actual black habit with a severe white head covering escorted me up four flights of stairs and into a tenth-grade classroom. 

I grew up in rural Eastern Oregon and I had never even seen a real nun decked out in traditional garb. I also wasn't Catholic or even a Christian. 

The grim-faced nun said something to a harried teacher. I could only pick up a word or two in their sloshy Hessen-flavored German. The teacher nodded toward the empty seat nearest the door. A brown-haired girl stood up from the seat that shared my new desk and grinned at me.

Creative Commons image by Sofie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Sofie of Flickr.com

I have rarely been so grateful for a ready welcome. 

During the first break, I asked my seatmate in shaky German if everyone at the school was Catholic. She shook her head sympathetically. She knew a little English and between the two languages she conveyed that a few students were Protestant and I was seated with her because we were both among the Protestant minority. My mouth went a little dry, as she explained that only official Catholics and Protestants could attend our elite school. 

Slowly I untangled what had happened to bring me to be the only Pagan kid at a German Catholic school. I was an exchange student, but my family had never had the money for excessive luxuries like that.

A year earlier I had come up with the notion that I wanted to study abroad and had applied for scholarships relentlessly until I received one from the bland-sounding Educational Foundation. My mother and I had fundraised the rest of the money, largely by selling Fimo jewelry that we made ourselves. 

One of the last hurdles to my dream had been an intimidating packet of papers to be filled out by parents to detail my background. I remembered the evening when my mother, bent over the stack of papers, had asked me which religion she should put me down for.

The dilemma did not need to be spelled out. We had our beliefs but they were quiet and not made public in any way in our rural corner of early 1990s America. 

"Other," I suggested. "Or none." 

"There is no 'other' or 'none' box," she said. As it turned out there were only four options, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Buddhist. I was sorely tempted to check Buddhist just to mess with them. But cooler heads--i.e. my mother's--prevailed. She had been raised Protestant after all, so that option would have to do.

That was only the beginning though. When I arrived in Germany, I discovered that the EF staff had not communicated to my prospective school or even the host family that I am legally blind. I can see enough to tell what color the nun's habit is or that my seatmate is smiling when she's right up in my face, but even that's a stretch. 

At the time, regulations in Germany did not allow for the integration of students with physical disabilities into standard schools, so the school I was supposed to attend rejected me at the last minute. I was scheduled to leave the host family and live at a highly restrictive residential school for the blind for my much-dreamed year abroad.  But then this rigorous Catholic school had intervened and accepted me. 

I was suitably relieved, though worried to find out that the reason I was accepted was that false checkmark in the religion section of my paperwork. My papers made me a Protestant and the only thing that saved me from expulsion was the fact that I couldn't speak German well enough to give away my immense ignorance of all things Christian. And by the time I learned German, my Protestant seatmate had become my co-conspirator in avoiding detection, instructing me on how to cross myself backwards the way German Protestants apparently did and other niceties.

Despite the initial shock though, the rest of my year at Catholic school was surprisingly untroubled. There were a few incidents with students or teachers who resented me because of my vision impairment but no trouble over religion.

I had to attend Protestant religion classes once a week, but these mostly resembled a specialized history class. Otherwise, the school was as free-thinking as any school I had ever attended in rural Oregon. 

Instead of standing for the pledge of allegiance in the mornings, we stood and crossed ourselves while reciting a simple prayer. I did not find the experience much different from the mandatory patriotism of American schools.

The nuns were no doubt strict, but I managed to stay out of trouble, so I never really found out. And on the one occasion when political events intervened at school and students all over the country staged walkouts to protest anti-immigrant violence, the nuns handed out free candles and joined us. 

Today as controversy rages in the United States over religion in schools, I can't help but compare my experience in Catholic school to my experiences in supposedly secular schools in the United States.

As a kid, I never had to be told not to come out of the broom closet at school. Kids bullied other kids just because they didn't go to the same church. There was never a school holiday program that wasn't specifically Christian in theme, history books always took the Christian side of conflicts and several teachers lectured us on being good Christians throughout my school career. 

Today when I hear calls for faith-based schools in the US, I'm not entirely sure they would be worse. At the very least, one would know what one was getting into, as I had with the Catholic school in Germany. There would likely be less proselytizing because everyone would already assume the students had the "correct" religion. Religion classes would likely be added,

My own children attend a public, secular school in the Czech Republic. (Yes, that's next door to Germany, and yes, I did end up here as an indirect result of that year abroad in high school.) The Czech Republic is statistically the most atheist country in the world and while our local Catholic church rings its bells on Sundays, it remains almost entirely empty. Still my children come home with Christian songs to memorize for school and their holiday programs retain an assumption of religious conformity--atheist with an unconscious gloss of Christian culture.

My religious background is not as controversial in this time and place as it was in my childhood but both atheism and Christian culture are still overwhelming. My children routinely come hom declaring that this or that holiday or Pagan practice is "not real" or "made up." 

I have in fact considered enrolling my children in a church school in the city, because it is more open-minded both academically and socially as well as more progressive when it comes to children with learning disabilities. And at least there when my children came home and said our practice or beliefs are wrong, I could simply explain that the school leadership follows a different faith and that I don't see them as wrong, just different. It's harder when the dogmatism is there but unacknowledged.

As a result, I watch the vehement wars over faith in the schools with some bemusement. Of course, I do not wish to see heavy-handed religious orthodoxy in schools. I don't want to see families left with no choice but to send their kids to a school where they will be a declared outsider, or even less that children will be turned away from schools because they don't follow the right religion.

But as for letting churches sponsor schools or allowing some children to choose religious education classes, i see this acknowledgement of spirituality as a progressive step. I hope that one day schools will foster spiritual development just as they now endeavor to develop the intellectual, physical and social fields. Just as there are schools that specialize in mathematics or languages, it would be lovely to be able to choose classes in Pagan, Christian, Muslim or atheist practice and concepts. 

When schools are run by small-minded and exclusionary thinking, it doesn't matter if they have an official religion or not. Unacknowledged Christian or atheist dogmatism is still restrictive and exclusionary, even when it isn't discussed.

Atheism entails a leap of faith beyond science, as all religions do, and it can be repressive if it is dogmatically imposed on children. Atheism is not a synonym of secularism, which is an openness to all faiths and an official embrace of spiritual diversity.

Open-minded, inclusive leadership can and does make for a good environment even when the faith of that leadership is openly declared. My experience in Catholic school did not make me any less of a Pagan or in any way weaken my own path. If anything, it helped me to understand why I think the way I do. And it gave me an appreciation for those who can declare fully their beliefs without forcing those beliefs of others. 

Identity for children in Pagan and mixed households

When I was a child, it bugged me every time someone asked me, "What are you?" meaning "What religion do you follow?" That wasn't because I didn't want to be asked. It bugged me even more, when they just assumed I was Christian like 95 percent of everyone in the community around us.

It bugged be because I had no words for it. 

I grew up in a time and place where earth-centered spirituality was kept under wraps and publicly admitting it could very well lead to employment problems and/or an investigation by Child Protective Services. It was probably a good thing that I had no words for the little rituals, rune drawing, Tarot cards and quarter calling that I participated in with my mother's circle. And I survived the quiet longing for something more openly stated pretty well. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But today most Neopagans have no such external restraints on giving our children a spiritual identity. Instead we are caught in the dilemma of whether and how much to hand our kids the ready-made Pagan identity. 

This goes beyond the concern that some adult Pagan events don't or can't reasonably include children. There are plenty of ways a child can be involved in earth-centered or even specific Neopagan practice. The feasts of the Wheel of the Year provide plenty of kid-friendly fun, inspiration and tradition, even if that is all a child is exposed to. 

But many earth-centered parents have either seen friends undergo or undergone themselves the forcing of a religious identity in childhood. The major religions today, other than Paganism, insist that children born within them should be held to them. Many Pagans who weren't born into an earth-centered path are Pagans specifically because they fled the oppressive atmosphere of religions that force an identity and practice on children.

So naturally we don't want to become just as bad as what so many of us struggled to free ourselves from. And the issue of how much to develop family-centered traditions permeates Pagan parenting discussions.

In my family, that dilemma intersects with another long-standing controversy in Neopaganism--the issue of ethnic identity. There are many mixed-race families in Paganism today. I've run into Norse-tradition Heathens who are half-Scandinavian and half-African but naturally to Europeans look more African than Scandinavian. There are Irish-East Indians. a great many people with mixed European and Native American background and many Pagans whose ancestry is all over the map.

And in my family and several others, there is the issue of inter-ethnic adoption. Life takes us down unexpected paths and ours led my husband and I to adopt two children who happen to be of a different ethnicity. They are Romani (ethnic Gypsies) and as such there is some debate over whether or not they qualify as ethnic Europeans, since their ancestors came to Europe from India somewhat more recently than most Europeans. 

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

This type of thing isn't a controversy because we believe that one must follow the Pagan tradition of one's genetic ancestors. There have certainly been plenty of non-Celtic Wiccans while other Wiccans claimed some connection between Wicca and ancient Celtic traditions. But it is uncommon to find a Slavic reconstructionist Pagan who doesn't have at least some Slavic genetic background. And when it comes to children, it is particularly important to honor their own unique genetic heritage.

It's an unarguable fact that most earth-centered traditions share a deep connection with ancestors and the land on which ancestors lived. Certainly we can and do honor ancestors connected to us by our tradition, craft or beliefs as well as those of blood and nation. But it is hard to entirely ignore the issue without some doubts of authenticity creeping in.

There is very little scholarly work to be found documenting original Romani spirituality. There are always rumors and plenty of people who will claim their Romani grandmother passed great Pagan spiritual traditions down to them. But Romani people still living in the Romani communities today usually vehemently deny much of what these revelations claim. While the Roma as a people have held on to their language and culture far more fiercely than most other small, landless ethnic groups, they are chameleons when it comes to religion. 

Wherever Romani communities are found today, they match the religion of the majority society. In Muslim areas, they are Muslim. in Catholic areas they are Catholic and in Orthodox areas they are Orthodox. Whatever is left of their original spiritual traditions is well buried. 

And so I not only stand in the usual dilemma of most Pagan parents today, but also on an ethnic divide, where one side is almost entirely unavailable. I feel a strong connection to the ancestors and spirit of the Central European landscape where I now live and to Celtic traditions. But neither of those seems to have much to do with my children. My altar carries ancestral symbols for everyone in our household--Celtic, Norse, Romani and Slavic. And when I honor ancestors of blood, I honor them all.

But I am hesitant to tell my children what they should be. 

I tell them they are Romani and teach them to be proud and not to hide it. I tell them their citizenship in two countries. I tell them about Romani ancestry and about mine and that of my husband. I tell them that the spiritual traditions we practice are sometimes called Pagan. 

But there is a line where I stop. I don't tell my children they should call themselves Pagan.

I have pointed out when someone identifies as Christian or Pagan or Muslim, explaining what it means to identify yourself that way. But I leave their own identity open to them with enough words and experience imparted that when they do want to choose i hope they will know something about what they are choosing.

So far, my nine-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with spirituality. She refuses to enter churches and avoids my altars and Tarot cards, and she always has. My seven-year-old son, on the other hand, often asks to light a candle on the altar, colors pictures from Pooka Pages, asks to draw a Tarot card, spontaneously says a Pagan morning prayer sometimes and requests Pagan songs for his piano lessons. These are all things he is exposed to because of adults around him.  

This is the wavering line I've decided to walk in parenting between too mysterious an identity and forced identity. 

We read myths and other stories from a Pagan worldview. I have even authored several Pagan children's books, illustrated by the children's grandmother. I don't hide my rituals or altars and I sing a short blessing song before important meals (though not before all meals). We occasionally meet up with another Pagan family with young children for holidays.

We celebrate the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year as a family with specific earth-centered traditions. My husband enjoys the traditions and the focus on nature but isn't particularly spiritually inclined. So some of the holidays aren't overtly spiritual. It's just what we do and it adds a pleasant, natural rhythm to the year. 

There are many different paths to walk in Pagan parenting and it is beyond my station to say what is right or wrong in it. The Shanna books (Shanna and the Raven, Shanna and the Pentacle and Shanna and the Water Fairy) portray a single-parent household that is somewhat more overtly Pagan than mine. The children in the story are older than my kids and have a more developed sense of their identity.

But much of the conversation and holiday traditions practiced by the fictional family of the story is similar to what our family and many others do. The second book, Shanna and the Pentacle, weaves a story around the issues of identity that kids in middle childhood often face.

In this spring-equinox themed story, eleven-year-old Shanna has to consciously acknowledge what her pentacle necklace means, though she previously thought of it mainly as a gift from a friend. And she has to learn to stand up for herself in the face of pressure in a society where Pagans aren't the majority. The story is one that is close to home for most kids in Pagan families and Shanna's adventures along the way prepare her to make her own decisions about identity. 

I wrote that story and the others as part of my quest to find the right balance of information, experience and freedom of choice for my kids. My parenting is a work in progress and I love to hear from other parents dealing with related issues. Please leave comments below if you are inspired.

How do you approach passing on your values and beliefs to your children? Is your family mixed? How do you approach holidays with extended family that may have different traditions? What is the hardest part of parenting children in an earth-centered spiritual tradition? What's the easiest or most fun part? I look forward to reading your experiences.

Why I don't call it Christmas

I could sense the palpable relief in my children's Jewish piano teacher when I wished her a happy new year in October. Now she smiles bemusedly at our tree calendar that only goes up to the 21st of December and says, "It's not that I mind Christmas music really. I just wish we didn't have to play the same songs non-stop for a month every year at every concert."

She is very good at playing and teaching both English and American Christmas music but she is relieved that I don't necessarily want her to teach my children the standard Czech Christmas carols on the piano. Instead I printed out the sheet music for Yule song and she was delighted. Anything as long as it's a change.

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

I don't have anything against Christmas either. In fact, I rather like Christmas music, even some of the very religious carols. They are beautiful and expressive of the joy and hope of the season. I'm more than happy to wish my Christian friends "Merry Christmas" but I don't celebrate the mass of Christ.

There is no "war on Christmas" here. Quite the opposite.

I stand by my Christian friends who find spiritual solace in Christmas. That is what it should be about. Calling everything in the season Christmas, and primarily the big commercial bonanza of December being called "Christmas" is what truly dilutes and distracts from Christmas. Sure, joy, gifts and frivolity are part of Christmas, much as they are part of Yule and Winter Solstice celebrations. I'm not saying one must be solemn to have real Christmas.

But I hear Christians saying that there is more to Christmas than the commercialism. There is a spiritual core that they struggle to make the center of their homes at this time. That's worth supporting.

And part of that for me is avoiding the temptation to just call it Christmas when in mixed company, when I mean my own family celebrations, which are so clearly not Christmas, or even when referring to secular community events. I don't really want to have a long drawn-out conversation about my spirituality and culture every time I try to wish someone a good holiday.

So, I feel the pressure to conform too. Just say, "Merry Christmas" and just call it a "Christmas tree" in front of other people. So much simpler. 

Except that every time I give in to the impulse, I feel like I steal from my children, cheapen my own spirituality and disrespect my Christian friends--even if some Christians demand that people call everything that isn't Christmas "Christmas."

I grew up with earth-based spirituality, but we still called the winter holiday Christmas and the celebrations in my family were almost entirely secular. I know not all children are spiritually inclined but I always felt an uncomfortable shame about it. I knew we didn't do "real Christmas" and that seemed to mean that we were fakes.  

Our house was an idyllic cabin in the mountains with snow usually piled all around it, a tree with colored lights and home-made ornaments. There was an assortment of my mom's cookies and the delicious excitement of Santa Clause. But there was also a sharp yearning for something more, something with a deeper meaning. 

I sang Christmas carols at school and always felt guilty about taking joy in the story of Christ's birth, as if I had no right to it. But oh, it was a beautiful story and the tunes made my chest ache. Something was reborn. That I knew.

My mother did tell me about the solstice, but we still called it "Christmas" and celebrated on the 25th. When I realized that I had a choice, that I could call it Solstice and celebrate on the 21st, I finally felt truly free. It is unquestionably the right thing for me. But I'll admit that it hasn't always been easy dealing with the rest of the world. 

Even my own brothers make a bit of fun at my expense during the holidays because of my constant use of Solstice and Yule terminology. Even though they aren't any more Christian than I am. They seem to feel that I am demanding something extra from them.

But I don't mind how they celebrate. I can work an extended family celebration on the 24th or 25th into my Yule just fine. I'm glad we aren't all the same. I'm not trying to spoil Christmas or make anyone's life more difficult. 

I am simply trying to be real and respectful, while focusing on the meanings that are deeper than strategic gift buying. I joyfully accept a lot of "Merry Christmas" wishes in my community and don't care too much. But it does matter to me if someone takes the time to say Happy Solstice or Merry Yule to me. It means you are thinking about the deeper meanings of the holiday too.

I do wish that the drumbeat of " Christmas"  was less prominent at school, because my children have already internalized the belief that there is something shameful about our family celebrations. That's why when I'm out and about, you might here me refer to the school holiday program as a Solstice program or the town tree as a Solstice tree. Yet when something really is connected to the celebrations of Christians, I am happy to call it "Christmas." 

Happy Hanukkah! Blessed Solstice and merry Yule! Merry Christmas! Good Festival of Lights! Joyous Mawlid un-Nabi! Lovely Lohri! Bright wishes of joy and peace to all!