Christmas music in American public schools: a genealogical inquiry
Koperniak, Matthew Ryan
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The purpose of this study is to examine how the regular practice of Christmas music in the American public schools came to be. If we understand the historical evolution of this practice, we can better understand our conditions of possibility for the future. Christmas in America is both a religious and cultural holiday. The sacred/secular binary, often used as a lens for analysis, is problematic due to the multitude of religious and cultural meanings that constitute the American Christmas. I utilize genealogical methods to trace the relationships between elements that have conditioned and constrained the practice of Christmas music in the public schools. These elements include the lack of established Christmas traditions and music at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the development of a regular canon of Christmas music in the churches, Sabbath school Christmas exhibitions, and public examinations as a technology of eighteenth century education. I contextualize these elements amongst the cultural history of the American Christmas, which includes a focus on the family, children, gift giving, goodwill, and community. This cultural history is set against a backdrop of nostalgia and ritual that frames Christmas practices. From this perspective, I trace varied examples of Christmas music in the public schools, starting with the nineteenth century end-of-term exercises. Into the twentieth century, I describe different practices, including Christmas music as worship service, variations on the sacred/secular binary, and public school music in the community. Based on this inquiry, I suggest reflexive questions for music teachers when considering Christmas music in the public schools. I also recommend suggestions in place of the current NAfME position statement. I propose that Christmas music be considered a postsecular genre in America. Applying a postsecular lens allows for acknowledgement of the persistence of the sacred/secular divide, in relation to the wide array of other elements that results in a blurriness of the dichotomy. Through application of this lens, the practice of Christmas music in the American public schools becomes both more difficult and more thoughtful.