School Yuletide Observances Shift Into Neutral

Times Staff Writers

Beverly Hills elementary school students pretended to travel around the world to show how holidays are celebrated in China, Israel and Mexico. In Del Mar, students at a “Winterfest” program sang “Frosty the Snowman” but not “Silent Night.” And at an Altadena elementary school, students performed “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Feliz Navidad” and “Oh Hanukkah.”

In many parts of the country over the last month, conservative Christian groups have lashed out against what they say are practices that dilute Christmas from a profound religious celebration to a bland “holiday season.”

But across Southern California, school officials say the combination of ever-more-diverse student populations and the threat of lawsuits by all sides leaves them little choice.


“It’s the ‘December Dilemma,’ ” said Lucy Arajuo-Cook, spokeswoman for Santa Ana Unified School District. “People do get super-paranoid about this time of year, and, over the years, we have neutered the holidays. Schools are so fearful that they will be attacked ... that they’d rather stick to singing ‘Jingle Bells’ than risk a problem.”

At Lampson Elementary in Garden Grove, Principal Lynn Matassarin said she and her teachers go out of their way not to offend anyone on a campus that includes significant numbers of Latino and Asian students and smaller numbers of other ethnic and religious groups.

“We try to keep it pretty generic and just leave it at ‘winter’ and ‘Santa Claus,’ ” Matassarin said. “We have Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate any of the holidays, we have Jewish students, students who celebrate Kwanzaa -- the whole gamut.”

Hanan Brown, principal at Clara Barton Elementary in Anaheim, also took a clearly secular approach to the holidays. The school held a literacy-themed “Polar Express” pajama party, which culminated in a reading of the popular children’s book.

And north of San Diego, the 3,800-student Del Mar Union School District recently began cracking down on religious Christmas symbols, said Supt. Thomas Bishop.

The growing student enrollment was becoming more diverse, and school officials “don’t want to advocate any religion,” he said.


“What are we doing here if we load up our assemblies with Christian advocacy songs?” he asked.

The district does not approve of religious symbols -- a category in which it includes Santa Claus -- in classrooms or on hallway bulletin boards, he said. Its Christmas programs are now called “Winterfest” celebrations.

Some parents say they approve of the efforts school districts have made. At Barton Elementary, Rita Bhatt, a Hindu who moved from India 15 years ago, said she was not worried about talk of Christmas in her children’s classrooms, as long as it remained religion-neutral.

“We are in America, and I think it’s a good thing that they’re learning the traditions of the culture here,” she said.

Others, however, take offense at the changes their schools have made.

Two years ago, Del Mar’s Sage Canyon Elementary School barred a parent, Patrice Reynolds, from displaying a Nativity scene and reading stories from the Bible to her daughter’s class, even though she had given the presentation in the district several times.

After protesting the district decision in 2002, Reynolds decided to enroll her four children in private Christian schools.


“We felt like the environment was becoming hostile toward Christianity and celebrating our cultural heritage of Christmas,” she said in a recent interview.

Yolanda Fieberg, a parent at Barton who described herself as a devout Christian, shared Reynolds’ sentiment.

“We have to have respect for everyone, but it is being pushed too far,” she said. “They can’t even call them Christmas trees anymore. We have to call them holiday trees. I want my kids to understand the real meaning of Christmas.”

As with many phenomena in American society, the changes in holiday celebrations have been spurred by fear of lawsuits.

This month, the Anti-Defamation League sent letters to school administrators throughout Southern California asking them to “be cautious in how they choose to employ religious symbols and teach about the holidays,” and to include religious information in holiday activities only if it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

On the other side, Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group based in Sacramento, objected that “teachers are sometimes unlawfully prohibited from acknowledging holidays such as Christmas.”


“Schools can’t just arbitrarily say, ‘We want to be hostile toward the religious aspects of a holiday.’ When they do so, they are opening themselves up to lawsuits,” he said.

Dacus’ organization took action this month on behalf of a San Jose middle school teacher who complained that her principal forbade such Christmas songs as “Silent Night,” “The First Noel” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at a holiday concert.

The group wrote a letter advising the school of its view of the law and is still waiting for a response, he said.

The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal group, wrote more than 5,000 school districts nationwide to explain that the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that public schools must ban the singing of religious Christmas carols or prohibit the distribution of candy canes or Christmas cards.

This month, the group filed suit in federal court against the Plano Independent School District in Texas alleging that school officials wrongly banned red and green Christmas colors in schools and prohibited students from writing “Merry Christmas” to U.S. soldiers.

Daniel Alter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League in New York, said that the organization does not oppose school concerts featuring religious songs, for example, as long as they are sensitive to all students.


“We’ve embraced the notion that the overriding principle is ... to strike a tone of inclusiveness,” he said. “It’s very much a balancing act.”

Sometimes, however, efforts to strike that balance lead to unusual results. Two years ago, for example, the United States Justice Foundation sued McNear Elementary School in Petaluma on behalf of a parent who said students should not be allowed to celebrate “El Dia de los Muertos” -- the Day of the Dead -- because the holiday was religious.

Richard Ackerman, attorney for the foundation and president of the Pro-Family Law Center based in Temecula, said the woman he represented was upset because the school supported the Day of the Dead celebration even as it forbade Christmas programs.

A Sonoma County Superior Court judge ruled that Day of the Dead was acceptable to celebrate as a cultural event. “In the end,” Ackerman said, “Christmas got banned, and Day of the Dead went forward.”

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.