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A Visit From St. Nick: Two Views

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outside the Lindley Avenue Baptist Church and School in Tarzana, a picket in a red suit and false beard has appeared every school day since Friday on behalf of Santa Claus, whose representation has been banished from classrooms.

The picket, the father of a student at the school, is challenging the policy. At issue is whether Santa Claus has a place in holiday decorations at the church school, which emphasizes the birth of Jesus as the origin of Christmas.

The Rev. James Dean, pastor of the congregation affiliated with the mainline American Baptist Churches, and parent Bob Buckley of Reseda, who vows to picket the church daily until Christmas Eve, were interviewed Tuesday by Times Staff Writer John Dart on their views.

Rev. James Dean

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Q. What’s wrong with allowing pictures of Santa Claus in a church school?

A. The basic idea behind our policy is that as a church, our responsibility is to focus on the story of the Christ child. Pictures of Santa dilute our emphasis on the Nativity. The Santa Claus aspect of Christmas is very well covered by society.

Q. But is there any harm in just leaving the pictures up?

A. Well, it’s just been a longstanding policy not to have them.

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Q. Is the church worried that the bearded figure of Santa Claus may have pagan origins?

A. There is no anti-Santa feeling or association of him with pagan or alien sources. That isn’t part of our church tradition. We do not preach against Santa Claus or say that people can’t talk about him or have depictions of him in their homes.

Q. Some parents contend there is an inconsistency because other elements of secular Christmas lore have been seen at the school.

A. The Christmas symbols we show are the ones that are factual. Snowmen are factual; stars are factual. So are Christmas trees and candy canes. The Nativity is factual. But flying reindeer are not factual. Nor are elves, and I don’t know of any pictures of Rudolph.

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Q. Doesn’t a school bulletin board showing Christmas scenes depict reindeer flying over a house?

A. That was up earlier, but it has been removed. As a result of this episode, we have looked more carefully at this policy and removed the inconsistencies. We have the Buckleys to thank for that. And we support their right to express their opinion.

Q. What kind of support have you received in this stance?

A. Our education department board voted unanimously to reaffirm the policy and our church council agreed in meetings Monday night. We’ve also received calls of support from Texas, San Clemente, all over, saying, “We’re so glad you’re doing this.” We’ve only had three or four crank calls.

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Bob Buckley

Q. Why are you objecting to the elimination of Santa Claus pictures at a church school?

A. My wife and I think there is room for both. But we object primarily to the way this unfolded. Last year, there were Santa pictures that were taken down right in front of the children, and that started the confusion in my son’s mind. It is wrong for anybody to think that children don’t notice that all the non-religious Christmas trappings are present except Santa Claus.

Q. Why isn’t it proper for a church school to focus on the Nativity story and keep Santa Claus out?

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A. It has never been our intent to say the focus shouldn’t be on the birth of the Christ child. I think absolutely the church should do that, and in any Christian home that should be the central focus, as it is in ours.

Q. Isn’t there a danger that if stories of the baby Jesus and Santa Claus are told together, both will be regarded as fanciful tales to be dismissed as you grow up?

A. The school board members setting policy for educators need to be sensitive to the fact that it is absolutely necessary for a 3- or 4-year-old to fantasize freely. Then, if parental guidance and the guidance that a child receives in an educational situation are consistent, I think that when the time arrives, they will have no problem comprehending the distinctions between the two.

Q. Do you think that children could be taught in a way that relates the Santa lore to the religious aspects of Christmas?

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A. I was taught Santa represents St. Nicholas. If they taught children about St. Nicholas, that in turn would lead them back to learning more about Jesus. When a television reporter asked our 4-year-old son, “Why does Santa bring presents at Christmastime?” he answered, “To celebrate the birth of God’s only son Jesus.”

Q. What kind of support have you received in this stance?

A. There were seven other parents out picketing with us this morning. And of all our calls from parents, only one opposed what we were doing.

Someone else called to criticize us, but after hearing all of the facts, she was 100% behind us.

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