‘December Dilemma’ : Education: Schools adopt multicultural approach to celebrations as student population becomes more diverse.


Children performing Hanukkah dances are sharing the stage with youngsters singing “White Christmas,” as schools around Ventura County strive to celebrate religious holidays without emphasizing any one religion.

Aware that a growing number of county students come from families that are Jewish, Islamic or of other non-Christian faiths, schools are taking a more multicultural tack toward marking this time of year.

Christmas vacation is now called winter break.

Explicitly religious songs such as “The First Noel” are forbidden; secular ditties such as “Jingle Bells” are allowed.


And holiday performances are as likely to include Caribbean calypso music as American tunes about sleigh rides.

“We try very hard not to be sending religious messages,” said Phil Parish, principal of Manzanita School in Thousand Oaks. “We don’t do any of the traditional Christmas songs, not because it would be wrong but because we try to be more open-minded.”

Or as Santa Rosa School Principal Pat Fitzgerald put it: “What we’re really trying to do is give every kid a feeling of worth, a feeling of value. We don’t want to obviously celebrate one side over the other.”

But even this pluralistic approach can leave some children out in the cold.

Some religious traditions, such as those of Jehovah’s Witnesses, have no holidays at this time of year.

Monty Murray, a presiding overseer of a Ventura congregation of Witnesses, said scholars generally agree that early European Christians established Christmas on Dec. 25 because the date corresponded to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

“We don’t recognize Christmas as Christ’s birth because it isn’t,” Murray said. “The Christmas holiday in itself is based on a pagan festival.”


So teachers know to give children of Witnesses alternatives to some traditional holiday activities.

While other youngsters are drawing pictures of Santa Claus or menorahs, children of Witnesses may be doing Native American-type crafts.

“It’s awkward for them,” said Jeffrey Davies, principal of Blanche Reynolds School in Ventura. “Just the season is difficult. Everything they see on TV and everywhere else” has to do with Christmas.

Students whose families are Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or from other non-Christian backgrounds also may feel left out of the seasonal fanfare.

Manzanita School has probably half a dozen students of the Islamic faith, Parish said. But the school has so far not come up with any songs or activities to commemorate Muslim religious observances, which fall at various times during the year.

“We frankly haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” he said.

Children who are not Christian may feel uncomfortably aware of being members of a minority at this time of year, school officials said.


“Some kids feel pretty sensitive about not being Christian,” said George Coyle, principal of Banyan School in Thousand Oaks. “Kids in general don’t want to look different. There’s all that peer pressure. They all want to look the same.”

So, Coyle said, some Jewish children decline teachers’ suggestions that they bring menorahs to class and give presentations on Hanukkah.

“We call it the ‘December dilemma,’ ” said Rabbi Shimon Paskow of Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. “With all the Christmas stuff, what do Jewish kids do? They feel kind of left out.”

But Paskow said he has no qualms about schools commemorating Christian celebrations, as long as they also recognize Jewish holidays.

When Paskow’s own daughter was attending school in Thousand Oaks, she came home one day singing “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian--a tune she learned from a teacher of Hawaiian descent.

“It didn’t bother me,” Paskow said. “I thought it was cute. And now my daughter’s a rabbi.”


Adherents of Islam also have no problem with their children singing Christmas ditties or participating in other holiday activities at school, said Abdullah Dawoodjee, a member of the Islamic Center of the Conejo Valley.

“We just don’t want them to do it at home,” he said.

But some Christians lament the absence of traditional Christmas hymns, such as “Silent Night” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” from school holiday programs.

“I would like to see Christian religious songs, the old carols,” said Pastor Roger Nolan of East Ventura Foursquare Church.

Nolan added, however, that he has no objection to including Hanukkah songs. “The Jewish thing’s OK too.”

Even while schools shun explicitly religious songs and symbols, many teachers use the Christmas theme as an opportunity to teach the Christmas spirit--including such virtues as charity and generosity.

At Glenwood School in Thousand Oaks, Juan Bowen directs his first-graders every year in a play about a boy who is transformed into a snow boy when he tries to steal Santa’s hat. The boy is freed from the spell only when he learns to say the magic words-- please and thank you.


Although the skit has a Christmas theme, Bowen said he has had Jewish children in the past who have acted in it.

“I kind of leave it up to the kids,” he said. “They know what they feel comfortable with.”

At the other end of the spectrum are groups of mostly non-Jewish children performing traditional Jewish dances and folk songs.

A chorus of Manzanita School students, who gave separate performances this week for parents and children, did a rendition of the Jewish folk song “Do-Di-Li” as 10 children danced the hora.

And a fifth-grade class from Blanche Reynolds School sang and danced two Hanukkah songs before a crowd of hundreds at the Ventura High School auditorium.

Some students in the class said that even though they are Christian, they enjoyed performing the Jewish songs and dances.

“I kind of like it,” 10-year-old Shane Birchfield said. “It’s like celebrating for other people.”


Or as 11-year-old Joey Bowles put it: “You get to do stuff you never do.”