Generic Holiday Sought by Some : Christmas Observance in Schools Draws Non-Christian Criticisms

Times Staff Writer

When the administrators at Harold Ambuehl Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano invited Santa Claus to visit, they asked him to chortle, “Ho, ho, ho, Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In class, teachers asked students to write letters to Santa--but only if they didn’t object. And the principal diplomatically described the donated pine tree in the school lobby as a symbol not of Christmas but of “the winter holidays in general.”

Many county public schools like Ambuehl have tried to de-emphasize the religious trappings of the season, but to Jewish parent Carol Tuch, far too many Christian symbols remain in the public schools.

Tuch said that when she complained this year to Ambuehl Principal David Gerhard and the PTA president, they replied that “Santa has become commercialized and is not religious. I look at them and think I must be living on Mars. Christmas is a Christian holiday. A Jewish person, a Muslim or a Buddhist doesn’t write letters to Santa.”

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision 6 years ago allowing schools in Sioux Falls, S.D., to celebrate holidays with a “religious and secular basis,” defining exactly what teachers and administrators should do each December is “still kind of fluid,” said Roger Wolfertz, assistant chief counsel of the California Department of Education.


“Some courts say, ‘Fine, go ahead. It’s primarily secular rather than sectarian’; others say, ‘No way, you can’t display anything.’ ”

That leaves it up to public school bureaucrats to make judgment calls and decide whether First Amendment rights are being violated, he said.

Hinda Beral, area director of the American Jewish Committee, said: “It’s a sensitive area and a thin line but an important line. And the point of consideration is how individual children feel. We have come some way, but there is still a question of the majority’s sensitivity to the minority.”

In Orange County, where ethnic and religious groups are multiplying swiftly, many schools tread that line, creating a careful mix of Christmas, Hanukkah and generic peace programs in the weeks before what is now mostly called winter recess. Many use district guidelines stating that programs should eschew evangelism and stress the cultural and historical aspects of the holidays, and each devises its own solution:


- At Arroyo Elementary School in Tustin, the mostly Anglo fourth graders sang “Silent Night” in Spanish as well as a Hanukkah song in Hebrew at their holiday program. Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Jewish students described to fellow students how they celebrate their own holidays.

- At Hopkinson Elementary School in Los Alamitos, kindergartners each spent a week learning about Las Posadas, a Mexican Christmas pilgrimage; Hanukkah, and Christmas. Detailed guidelines from the Los Alamitos Unified School District “try to ensure balance in the classroom,” said Lorie Gonia, director of instruction.

- In winter classroom programs for parents at El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine, students hold candles and sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” All join in a schoolwide program to sing “Silent Night.” “We still are a nation under God,” Principal Eugene Bedley said. “I see the Bible or the Torah as a resource, as any other text would be in finding truths that help mankind. I draw the line at anything that gets into preaching.”

- At Heritage Elementary School in Santa Ana, where the enrollment is 65% Latino and 20% Asian, teachers buy Christmas trees for their classrooms. “We’re not into subgroups; we’re into pulling together,” Principal Bob Gresham said. “We think to be American is to have a Christmas program at school.”


Countywide, complaints are down this year from previous years, said Chelle Friedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, which along with the American Jewish Committee fields questions and grievances about school practices.

Phone calls to her office usually increase dramatically at this time of year and during the Passover-Easter season, said Friedman, who does not keep statistics.

“But it doesn’t mean the problem is not there,” she said. “Some parents say, ‘I’ve complained for 5 years. Each year there’s a different teacher, but the same problem.’ ”

One high school teacher in the central county provoked complaints 4 years in a row by threatening to fail her non-Christian students who could not be heard singing Christmas carols. The students had been mouthing the words without singing them. The teacher was reprimanded every year until she retired, Friedman said.


The Jewish community is divided over whether both Hanukkah and Christmas should be celebrated in the public schools--particularly because the holidays are not comparable, Friedman said. Hanukkah is essentially a celebration of victory over oppression, while Christmas is a holy day.

“There are so few religious Hanukkah songs. There’s no way to compare them with truly religious Christmas carols,” Friedman said. “ ‘I have a Little Dreidel’ can’t compare to ‘Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.’ They are religious songs, and there’s no getting around them.”

Both the federation and the American Jewish Committee prefer that all religious celebrations and symbols--Santas as well as menorahs--be limited to home or the religious community.

“We don’t have an objection to children learning about each other’s holidays or how different cultures express themselves,” said Beral of the American Jewish Committee. “It’s only when the situation gets to where you cross that line between learning about something and doing it. In that case, the minority child becomes uncomfortable and is made to feel different.”


In recent years, concerned Jews have been joined by other non-Christians as well as some ultra-religious Christians in believing that “Santa marching through school has gotten out of hand,” Friedman said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, often take their children out of school in the last few days before winter vacation, when teachers may be holding Christmas parties. Based on the Scriptures, said Kevin Kennedy, 39, a Jehovah’s Witness from Capistrano Beach, the origins of the modern Christmas celebration are pagan, not Christian.

“It’s very difficult for any child to take a personal stand on something,” he said. “They simply don’t have the depth of understanding.”

Rather than try to change the system, Kennedy said, “we learn to live with it.”


Older, conservative Buddhists might also take their children out of school, but “the new thinking is that they should take part in these national events,” so they will not be isolated in U.S. society, said Havanapola Ratanasara, president of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California. He would like to see the public schools celebrate Buddha’s birthday in May.

Many Muslim families are torn at this time of year, said Muzamil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Center of Orange County. Despite the schools’ stated goal of not promoting one religion over another, the monthlong preparations for Christmas make it seem as if “the majority religion is trying to dominate the people,” he said. “If you take them (the children) out, they’re missing their friends and fun. If you put them there, somehow it crushes their identity.”

Siddiqi said religious celebrations should be limited to the religious community.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, which includes Ambuehl School, Supt. Jerome R. Thornsley said two legal advisers have assured him that trees and Santa cannot be construed as religious symbols.


“The last few years, we’ve really zeroed in on this,” he said, by skipping Nativity scenes and trying to avoid even “Christmas Around the World” programs, which compare other nations’ yuletide celebrations.

“Now, Mrs. Tuch is the only person complaining,” Thornsley said.

While district officials wish to offend no one, he said, “You reach a certain point where you say, ‘Thank you for your opinion. We respect your right to take that opinion. We don’t concur on it.’ ”

Tuch has been complaining to the school since her son, Zach, 7, came home from kindergarten thinking that because his classmates were singing carols and making red-and-green calendars, he had been sent to a Christian school, she said.


It’s not that she is against Christmas, she said: “I love Christmas--the lights and the tree and the idea of opening up all these presents and having your family there. A part of me would like to celebrate; it looks like so much fun.”

But the emphasis on Christmas brings out strong feelings about being Jewish, she said. “I’m more insistent on letting people know I am Jewish and not Christian, and I’m OK because I’m Jewish and my values are good values. What we teach in temple is peace and love and good will towards our family and mankind.”

Maybe if her son went to a school where there were more than a dozen Jewish families, the response to her complaints would be different, she said.

But this year, Zach came home with a poem about how many days were left until Christmas, and the tree she had complained about last year was up again.


By now, she said, she feels overwhelmed and tired: “I realized there was nothing I could do. I said I wouldn’t make an issue of it. I’m just very disappointed.”