National Edition

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

Published: Friday, Dec. 6 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Symbols of the Christmas season even secularized ones can cause controversy in public schools.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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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

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