The foreign visitors to the elementary school happened to visit on Halloween. It was time for the afternoon party and the students were having a costume parade. That night there was a PTA-sponsored party at the school. There were carnival booths, a spook alley and a dunking machine, and students and parents bobbed for apples.

The guests were surprised that the school celebrated holidays and especially surprised that the teachers would participate. In this school the teachers wore costumes throughout the day. Even the principal was barely recognizable.Celebrating holidays in schools is not, however, without critics who point out that activities are time consuming and distracting.

Others are critical of celebrating religious holidays because students who do not share common beliefs may be offended.

Last year there were reports that some schools outside Utah had been forced to cancel Christmas pageants that included references to Christ. Christmas songs in some schools had to be "secular" rather then "religious."

Some communities have determined that government sponsorship of nativity scenes is not appropriate because of the constitutional separation of church and state. Perhaps because of this, schools have become more sensitive to different beliefs.

It may be that schools that do not want to offend the beliefs of students could consider another option rather than canceling the annual Christmas program or turning the event into a secular celebration. Perhaps Christmas offers an opportunity to study a significant world holiday, other cultures, history and religion. It may be that the celebration could be a bit less of a celebration and more of a study that includes a celebration.

It may be that most students don't know that the Feast of St. Nicholas is a children's festival celebrated on Dec. 6 and that the saint was a bishop who lived in Asia Minor in about the third century. St. Nicholas has been the patron saint of children since the Middle Ages. It was on the evening before the feast, Dec. 5, that children filled their shoes with straw and carrots for St. Nicholas' horse. The next morning small toys had replaced the straw and carrots.

Students may not understand that the first mention of the celebration of Christmas actually occurred in A.D. 336 on the Roman calendar and probably coincided with some pagan festivals.

It may be that the year-end celebrations honoring Saturn and Mithras, the gods of harvest and light, were the ancient celebrations that have become Christmas celebrations today.

Because of these possible pagan beginnings, there were times during the 1600s when Protestant reform led to a prohibition of Christmas in England.

There is plenty to study. Why was Bishop Nicholas made a saint? What does being made a saint mean? How did the tradition of St. Nicholas become Santa Claus, or did this American tradition come from somewhere else? What compelling religious event would cause a celebration even 2,000 years after it happened, and why has the event become such an important celebration in so many countries? How is this event celebrated in other countries and in other cultures?

It may be that other important religious holidays should be an excuse for study and celebration. It occurs to me that I exchanged Valentine cards in school for at least 12 years without learning who St. Valentine was. It also occurs to me that it was outside of school that I learned about the celebrations of the Jewish tradition.

Perhaps celebrating holidays in schools doesn't waste precious time. Perhaps the celebration can become a meaningful educational experience. It certainly doesn't violate the separation of church and state to help students better understand the traditions of various countries and cultures.

- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84626