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Expelling Santa from school? Holiday observance in a politically correct age

Symbols of the Christmas season  even secularized ones  can cause controversy in public schools.
Symbols of the Christmas season even secularized ones can cause controversy in public schools.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A popular Christmas tune proclaims December the “hap-hap-happiest time of the year,” but the month has a different reputation among some public school leaders. For principals and teachers trying to keep parents and students hap-hap-happy in an increasingly diverse society, the annual December dilemma is here.

Even secularized holiday icons can spark controversy at school. Santa Claus — the chubby guy who brings the toys — isn’t immune. After the poem “T’was the night before Christmas” appeared in print in 1823, the red-suited guy who slides down chimneys supplanted the pious Christian St. Nicholas in American consciousness.

No matter. However secularized he is, Santa still unloads his pack on the day of one of Christianity’s signal holidays. About one-fifth of Americans do not identify themselves as Christians, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. In some school districts around the nation, particularly those serving Asian immigrant populations, the percentages of non-Christians are even higher.

Santa doesn't spark as much controversy at school as use of overtly religious symbols, such as Nativity scenes and menorahs. Federal courts uphold their temporary use in teaching children about world religions providing that no religious tradition receives preferential treatment. But Santa comes to town packing his own set of challenges for school leaders.

Expelling Santa

Even among some Christian families, Santa’s presence at school is not always welcome, school administrator Linda Buchman said in an online webinar. Some Christian parents don’t want schools turning their sacred holiday over to a guy they see as a reindeer-wrangling icon of rampant consumerism. And among parents who like Santa just fine, some prefer to deal with traditions surrounding him in their own way. They don’t appreciate divergent messages imposed on their children at school.

Moreoever, some parents question whether Santa-themed activities serve any educational purpose, Buchman said. And among parents who don’t observe Santa Claus traditions — including many Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses (a Christian faith) — some say that Santa’s ubiquitous image in schoolrooms leaves their children out of the fun. After all, he’s not bringing toys to their houses.

Buchman, a Houston mother and educator who is Jewish, has waded into all of these issues, she said in an Anti-Defamation League webinar designed to help school leaders across the nation deal with the December dilemma. In her school district, Buchman works to help school leaders find ways to make symbols of the holiday season part of a teaching opportunity that welcomes all students — without banning Santa from the classroom.

In some areas of the U.S., though, Santa and other beloved holiday symbols have been expelled from school — at least temporarily. In December 2011, a public elementary school in Stockton, Calif., banned Christmas decorations, including Santa Claus and Christmas trees. Images relating to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr were also banned from the school, all in an effort to avoid discriminating against anyone, according to a story in the Christian Post.

A few days later, school district leaders took Santa off the “naughty” list, lifting the ban. Other attempts to kick Santa out of U.S. public schools have ended similarly. That’s because federal court rulings deem Santa Claus-themed activities and decorations as secular, not religious, and therefore not unlawful. Some administrators simply don’t understand that, in the eyes of the law, Santa is not religious.

Beyond the law

“Our public schools are for all children, regardless of background and religion,” said David Barkey, Anti-Defamation League’s religious freedom counsel. “If a school does everything associated with Christmas — Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer — that can be done in a secular and neutral way that is not indoctrinating. But it does convey a message of exclusion to children who don’t observe Christmas. It’s better to be inclusive than exclusive.”

Not necessarily, said David French, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“’Inclusivity’ is a funny word,” French said. “It’s a word people use to describe their own set of values. Policymakers have to choose between competing ideas, and someone is always unhappy. No one has the right to coerce religious activity. On the other hand, there is no legal right that protects you from feeling offended or excluded.”

French said parents who are displeased by lawful holiday images and activities in schools can try to persuade principals or school boards to make changes.

“But if they try to persuade and fail, that is not the same as having rights violated,” he said.

Graciousness toward others can go a long way toward keeping everyone comfortable during December’s dilemmas, said Evonne Lack, a mother and freelance writer from North Carolina. Lack is Jewish; her husband is Catholic. Santa Claus is not part of Christmas traditions in their home, but Lack teaches her children to be pleasant and polite when well-meaning adults ask them what they want him to bring for Christmas.

“’Just smile, I tell them,” Lack said. “If you are going to be a minority, things like that will happen.”

Lack isn’t bothered by Christmas decorations and carols at malls and other privately owned places. She doesn’t think Santa needs to be banned from school. But if Santa and other Christmas symbols are used in government-owned schools, she expects there to be an educational purpose and equal treatment for other traditions.

Lack, a lifelong American, said the same in a column she wrote for and was surprised by the vitriolic responses readers posted. “This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, go back to your country,” is one that stuck in her mind.

Finding fairness

With just a little twist, holiday school assignments that favor a single tradition can be made more inclusive, said Buchman, the Texas school administrator. She remembers the confusion her daughter felt when, as a fourth-grader, she was assigned to write a letter to Santa Claus, who plays no part in the Buchman family’s holiday celebrations.

Children could be assigned instead to write about their family’s December traditions, she said. There is no legal problem with schoolchildren responding to such an assignment by writing about Santa Claus, Nativity programs featuring baby Jesus, Hanukkah observance, sledding parties — whatever their families enjoy. Legal and sensitivity issues arise only when a school is perceived to be favoring or promoting a particular religion tradition.

A little tolerance on all sides helps, Buchman said. She counseled friends who brought traditional Jewish treats to their children’s school for a lesson on Hanukkah to stop complaining about the Christmas tree at a classroom holiday party.

“They didn’t understand that they couldn’t have it both ways,” she said. “Nor did they understand what was and wasn’t permissible under the law.”

There is no need to expel Santa, or any other secular holiday symbol, from schools. Some careful consideration about how they are used can head off problems, though. Buchman’s suggestions to help school staff navigate the December dilemma include:

Build strong, positive relationships with parents before touchy issues arise

Take a constructive, solution-based approach to challenges

Know both the law and the spirit of the law

Tie holiday references to educational purposes whenever possible

Favor activities that give students choices that honor their own traditions

Email: Twitter: @celiarbaker