A Holiday for All : Education: L.A. public schools strive to follow federal law by making Christmas a cultural lesson instead of a religious celebration. It’s a narrow path with many possible pitfalls.
Re-enactments of Christ’s birth in the manger are out, but renditions of “Silent Night"--which tells the tale of that event--are OK, especially if sung in another language or buried amid more secular music.
Those are this year’s practical interpretations of Los Angeles public school policy, which seeks to echo federal law by making Christmas a cultural lesson instead of a religious observation.
School productions formerly called Christmas pageants are now “winter programs” and “holiday celebrations.” Music selections lean heavily on the marginally secular: “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas"--with a token Hanukkah song thrown in for good measure.
At the Broad Avenue Elementary School winter program in Wilmington last week, first-graders decked in handmade reindeer antlers gyrated to an upbeat “Reindeer Twist” and second-graders donned grass skirts and leis to sing a Hawaiian Christmas song.
“Generally speaking, we do Christmas around the world. . . . It doesn’t include everybody every year, but within three years we do most of the countries,” said Broad Avenue Principal Lydia Shors, who characterized the school as about 85% Latino, with significant populations of Eastern Europeans, Samoans, Asians and African Americans.
“Occasionally we’ll have someone who felt left out or felt that too much was spent on one particular ethnicity,” Shors said. “But any comment like that is very rare.”
While acknowledging the need to reflect a wider diversity, school music teacher Connie-Lu Berg remained a little wistful about the old days, when manger scenes and Christian carols were commonplace.
“It sort of bothers me because some of the best songs are religious,” she said.
Some religious organizations go even further, saying the trend away from Christmas pageants deprives children--Christian or not--of a memorable experience.
“We’re allowing our children to grow up without the beauty, the warmth--Christmas is such a beautiful thing,” said Sara DiVito Hardman, state director of the Christian Coalition, the political arm of broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Los Angeles Unified has based its holiday celebration rules on a 1980 federal court case involving the Sioux Falls, S.D., school district, which established guidelines for marking religious holidays.
The ruling, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, found that holidays with both religious and secular foundations could be observed in schools if taught in terms of their history and origins.
Those who have worked hardest to make schools aware of the exclusivity of Christmas pageants say Los Angeles Unified has applied the ruling better than many districts, but needs to be vigilant to ensure teachers do not substitute celebration of multiple religions for no religious observations.
“Just adding a Muslim song and a Jewish song doesn’t do it--that just makes it more religious,” said Heather Rothman, a director with the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Los Angeles. “The idea is not to be inclusive, it’s to be secular.”
Yet teachers and administrators say they find the Christmas season an ideal time to teach about religion and cultural heritage, a lesson they believe helps students respect each others’ differences.
At the children’s day-care center affiliated with Vanalden Avenue School in Reseda, a holiday crafts workshop for parents and children includes projects reflecting Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration observed by some African Americans, as well as Christmas.
At Bellagio Newcomer School in Brentwood, where students newly arrived from other countries spend their first year, nearly every major holiday around the world is celebrated near its actual day. In mid-December, Christmas becomes a lesson in American tradition.
Teacher Cheri Katz said that even though most of Bellagio’s students do celebrate some form of Christmas at home, Santa Claus is a new phenomenon for many.
“I bring in a model of a chimney to explain it,” Katz said. “When I started telling them about Santa Claus going down the chimney, I had some . . . kids looking at me like I was crazy.”
This year, one of Bellagio’s classes will sing Silent Night, in Korean, and nearly 100 fourth- and fifth-graders will sing a song about lighting candles at Hanukkah.
The history behind the Jewish festival of lights, which commemorates the Jews’ reclaiming of a temple from the Greeks, seemed to have been lost on 10-year-old Joshua Muhammab of Indonesia. He responded to the question, ‘What is Hanukkah?’ by holding up one of nine flashlights topped with red cellophane.
“It’s this, this ,” he said, turning the light off and on by pounding it into his palm. “It’s candlelight.”
Nationwide, complaints about overly religious celebrations in schools have steadily declined in the past 10 years, said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress in New York.
Most church-state separation advocates agree that they rarely receive reports now of overt faux pas-- like the call Stern received from a Midwest woman who was distraught that her son had been cast as Jesus in the Christmas play because he was the only Jew in his school.
But Los Angeles Jewish activists worry that a drop in reports may simply be evidence of middle-class flight from the inner city and from public schools.
“We still get complaints from non-immigrant schools, because they know one can and should complain,” said Carol Plotkin, director of the Jewish Congress’ Pacific Southwest region. “Immigrants are not going to want to rock the boat that much. . . . We don’t have the built-in watchdog in Los Angeles anymore.”
Typically these days, the few complaints about programs with too much religious music arise in smaller, suburban school districts, Plotkin said, and usually are solved by sending a letter requesting a copy of the district’s holiday policy.
Some suggest the simplest solution would be to forgo a December program altogether.
“It’s quite appropriate for schools to do nothing, to leave religious observances at home with the family,” said Albert J. Menendez, author of The December Wars: Religious Symbols and Ceremonies in the Public Square.
But teachers and principals in Los Angeles Unified say that would hurt the poorest students the most, because the school’s winter program may be their only celebration of whatever holiday they observe this time of year.