Hundreds Petition School Board to Save Christmas Concert

The New Hyde Park/Garden City Park School Board meeting, held last Monday at the Manor Oaks School, was overflowing with concerned residents of the school district.

Clearly more than 250 people jammed every nook and corner of the main meeting room and as the evening wore on the temperature quickly rose to close to 90 degrees. Thankfully, the board held the public comments of the controversy at the beginning of the meeting, holding off the agenda of the meeting until the end, which turned out to end close to 1 a.m.

The discussion centered about the fact that at the end of the June meeting a woman, in traditional Muslim dress, came to the podium and requested that the Annual Christmas Concert be changed to a “holiday concert” because, she said, the Christmas Concert “offended many children” in the district.

At the time, school board president Patricia Rudd said that the suggestion would be taken under advisory and the meeting ended.

At the July meeting, the subject was brought up, by Rudd, under new business. It was not listed on the agenda and the board, after a lively discussion, voted to keep the concert a “Christmas Concert,” but then appointed an Advisory Committee “to look into it.”

After that vote, Superintendent Dr. Regina Cohn issued a statement stating how disappointed she was in the vote and how “offensive” it was to have a concert called a “Christmas Concert” for non-Christians and how she even, at one point in her career, had to work on Christmas day.

The report of that meeting in the Illustrated News set off a firestorm of letters in support of retaining the tradition of a “Christmas Concert” and further prompted the crowd to gather at the meeting.

Rudd asked for a 3-minute limit for each person and the marathon of speakers, 75 to be exact, came to the podium expressing distress about changing the “tradition” of a Christmas concert to a holiday concert. Only two in the crowd were in favor of changing the name of the concert.

Many speakers cited the fact that Christmas was a federal holiday. A nurse said that she, too, had to work on Christmas Day, because that was what her shift at a hospital asked of her.

Many of the speakers were longtime residents of New Hyde Park who said the reason they chose the community was its sense of tradition and one of those traditions was the Christmas concert.

Those were also the sentiments of some of the newer residents, who said they researched the area and the school prior to buying a house and felt it offered the same “values” they wanted for their children.

Michelle Chambers, who has been very vocal regarding the retention of a Christmas Concert submitted to the school board clerk Diana Biehayn more than 1,400 petitions asking the board not to change the name of the Christmas Concert.

Chambers, as part of her statement said, “We challenge the board to provide a listing of children who have not participated in our Christmas Concert solely because it is called a Christmas Concert.

“An amazing thing happened when our treasured tradition was challenged. More than 1,000 people joined the effort to petition the superintendent and the school board. Outrage rang throughout the district and we banded together to rally against those who thought they could dismiss us.

“People chose this town for what it is. Cohn did not move her family to New Hyde Park because this was not a town that followed her values. She wants to move the concert and celebrate our children by renaming the Christmas Concert and have a winter concert at the end of January or February. At that time our decorations are put away for next year and Valentine hearts have already filled the stores. So, what does that celebrate?

“Its been easy to be complacent and to not attend board meetings and put decisions into the hands of others, and it boggles our minds to realize that our superintendent and our school board, those neighbors that we voted in, even considered changing the Christmas Concert. How can a superintendent and school board represent our best interests if they don’t represent what the community believes in? We understand that Dr. Cohn is the root of this offense. We understand that she has applied pressure on the board members to make this non-educational, offensive change for at least 10 months. We now see her true colors and we hope these are not the true colors of our elected school board members.

“We now feel it’s time for Dr. Cohn to move on. It’s time to return our superintendent’s office to a person with integrity. A person who represents what our community believes in. We need a voice of the people, as I am the voice of the people making this request.

“Thank you for shaking one of our core values and spurring us into action. We are over a thousand voices strong and we will be heard!”

Next up to the microphone was Richard Wozniak who said, “The community has recognized Christmas, in our homes, on our streets and in our schools since the very first home, store and school was erected. Our observance of Christmas is and always has been part of America’s cultural as well as religious heritage.

“Christmas is one of the most sacred of our American traditions as it represents a vast majority of the people that make up this great nation. Christmas stands for peace on earth, goodwill toward men, charity, love, compassion, redemption, kindness, forgiveness and everything related to the goodness of one’s heart.

“We do not enforce this faith on others, yet we as a nation embrace all people of all faiths in this great country and invite them to celebrate in a religious and cultural heritage that from the beginning has been the foundation of the freedoms we enjoy.

“Who can be offended by this message, for one who is offended by this message most certainly will be offended by the very Judeo-Christian principles that this country was built on.

“The Congress in Washington continues to recognize Christmas as a legal public holiday in America. The United States Supreme Court has also acknowledged with approval our nation’s longstanding recognition of religiously significant holidays such as Christmas. It is not illegal for either school or government officials to continue to refer to December 25 as Christmas or to refer to the vacations days and concerts that surround that date as Christmas Vacation or Christmas Concert.

“Tonight it is the will of the people to not simply walk away victorious, but instead to see that this issue is never again brought forward in the manner that it was. Up to now the only two reasons that I have been given regarding the board’s proposal to change the name and the date of our cherished Christmas concert is that some children had to be pulled out of the convert as they and their families are offended, and we are the only district that still calls it a Christmas Concert. To the first, I would like to know just how many people are offended and would like to see enough documentation supporting this fact that would warrant such an extreme change, and to the latter I say thank God our community has chosen not to be silent.”

One woman, an educator, but not in the district, said she thought it would be a good idea to hold a Christmas Concert, but to also hold a multi-cultural celebration of other ethnic holidays that fall in the same general time of the year such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa with dances and perhaps foods of the other backgrounds and then everyone would be involved.

Resident Sue Viscardi said, “I’m sorry and angry that I was not at the last board meeting. Sometimes I wish I knew, in advance, what is on the agenda. I am here to comment on the Illustrated News article. First, I don’t think it’s correct protocol to have an item under new business that can be discussed and voted on the same night. It should be discussed and then opened to the floor for comment and then voted on as an agenda item at a future meeting.

“When you use the argument that Christmas Day is a national holiday and that it is everywhere you are right but that’s commercialization, not education.

“The children in our schools take part in the chorus and they are told what to sing and the parents attend and are so proud of their children and that brings them to the concert.

“I am a Christian and practice my faith quite openly, mostly trying to make the choice between good and evil, right and wrong. If you want to say that the Christmas Concert is about one word and it has nothing to do with religion than I am offended. Please, do not take Christ out of Christmas. That one word is recognized to be as important as the Bible, the Cross, the Star of David, the Koran, the Crescent and many others. So when I go to a Christmas Concert I want to hear traditional songs and carols but that’s my faith and it has nothing to do with what our public school district should be playing.

“So, please don’t use the First Amendment. Maybe I’ve confused some of you because I haven’t stated what I feel our December concert should be called. Would it really matter now? Based on the article, it came across that some board members are confusing their personal choices and just choices in general without representing the entire community. Back to my opinion, and that of a few families unable to be here, based mostly upon fear. Our public school concert held in December around winter solstice should be called Winterfest.”

There was just one other woman who spoke and she, too, felt that the Christmas Concert should be renamed.

Time after time questions were asked of the board, but Rudd held true to her original statement that the board was just listening, not commenting. Finally, at the end of the 75 speakers, a man came to the microphone and said since the board would not answer any of the many questions asked of it, would they consider holding a meeting just on this one topic in the form of a round table, and sit with people to answer some of the questions that have been asked. One such question was if an Advisory Committee was still going to be appointed.

Rudd said that was a possibility and she would examine the calendar to see when there would be time to schedule such a meeting.

That portion of the meeting finally ended. The board took a brief break and returned the agenda of the evening.

Manchester Pa. Light Display Seeks Compromise

Some Manchester Township residents are a little leery of the Christmas season this year, and a neighbor’s seasonal light display, they say, is the reason.
This past season, a light and music show – Witte Wonderland – attracted drivers to Burning Tree Court.

When people visited the wonderland, vehicles lined the cul-de-sac and spilled around the corner to see the thousands of lights that filled Todd Witte’s yard.

Last year, the display boasted 21 mini-trees with 300 lights each, two 10-foot-tall PVC trees each with 6,400 lights, a 22-foot- tall tree, snowmen, 3,000 feet of lawn lights and numerous other lights and displays.

Also, the lights were synchronized to four songs that listeners could tune into on their vehicles’ radios.

Each show lasted about 20 minutes and repeated from 6 to 10 p.m. each night.

Since the Christmas season, some residents of the Outdoor Country Club neighborhood have been periodically visiting the Manchester Township supervisors meetings to ask for help with problems they said they experienced as a result of the show.

Neighbors complained of nightly traffic jams and driveways being blocked. Some complained that some drivers, after waiting in line for more than an hour, were unwilling to give up their places to let neighbors pass. Some spectators cursed and shouted at them, they said.

Witte said Friday that he had no idea that the show would take off to the level that it did.

He had hired a professional disc jockey in North Carolina to develop the show. The recorded portion of the show included language that participants should drive responsibly through the neighborhood, not block driveways, be courteous to neighbors and not leave trash, he said.

Witte was respectful of his neighbors by agreeing to requests to not to hold the show on three particular nights, including Christmas Eve, when they would be holding parties, he said.

Last week, two residents requested an update on what the township is doing to prevent problems this year.

Solicitor David Keiter said that case law has shown that municipalities do not have jurisdiction in this matter. However, case law also shows that, if the neighbors pursue a civil lawsuit, there can be success in regulating the degree of intensity of a show while not stopping it altogether, he said.

Supervisor Lawrence Young said that the township might be able to help with traffic control and request that the Northern York County Regional Police Department keep an eye on what’s going on in relation to the motor vehicle code. Also, more restrictive parking regulations could be put in place.

The township has requested that the light show be installed at Cousler Park. The event could benefit a charitable organization, such as the Northeastern Senior Center, whose representative appeared at the meeting to request support.

By moving the event to the park, people could view the show in an off-the-road setting, the event would benefit a larger audience, and the move would eliminate congestion on Burning Tree Court, manager David Raver said.

Witte said Friday that he plans to hold the show again this year and that it will run from about Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

He plans to revise the number of songs played and the length of the format to help alleviate traffic problems, he said.

Rather than having a 20-minute show with four songs, he plans to have only one song a night with a different song each night of the week. Each night, the show would repeat every two to three minutes, which would allow for drive-by viewing rather than sitting traffic.

Town Changes Decades Old Display Due to Legal Threats

Vernon, Connecticut has had a Christmas nativity display for decades. And it appears it will have one this year, too. But this year’s display will be different in that it will be smaller, relocated and surrounded by other winter religious symbols celebrating such holidays as Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, pagan winter solstice, or even atheist beliefs.

The policy is all-inclusive and reflects the diversity of Vernon residents, Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said. Marmer crafted the document along with Town Administrator Christopher Clark after claiming to seek input and meeting with representatives from area religious groups during the spring and summer.

Not so, claims the Republican Town Committee. “There are some fairly strong opinions on this issue, but she did it on her own and not with any input of Republican council members,” Daniel E. Anderson, a Republican Town Councilman said. Republicans agree with allowing for greater diversity, Anderson said, adding, “We see all these displays as being a cultural experience of the town, and I think that’s healthy, but this is a community issue and it needs to be debated by the greater community. There was no facilitating or getting of opinions here.”

The need for a change in policy became apparent last year after the town received a complaint from Dennis Paul Himes, the state director of the American Atheists, who threatened legal action, saying the town had violated the constitutional provision of separation of church and state by allowing the Christian crèche to be displayed on town property.

The new policy does allow for a nativity scene, but limits it to a 10-by-10-foot space, and the traditional crèche, which is owned jointly by area Christian churches, won’t fit that space.

“Everybody has a limited space and there are only a number of spaces available,” said Marmer, adding, “We had to allow for diversity and give everyone a chance to exhibit. We just wanted to make sure we were being fair. Either you do nothing or you give everyone equal footing.”

But Republican Town Councilman Daniel E. Anderson says only a few more feet would have been needed for the original nativity to fit.

“That’s irritated some people,” said Anderson, who has followed the issue closely and believes a space of 10-by-15 feet would be adequate to bring the old crèche back. The Christian churches are now “going to have to revisit what they display, and potentially buy another crèche.”

Niceville Sounds Anything But

Niceville, Florida sounds like a friendly enough place. But in discussing what should be done about the traffic generated by a popular home Christmas display things have reportedly gotten nasty in Niceville.

Resident Debbie Lewis, also known as the Christmas Lady, drew more than 5,000 people to her home last year to view her Christmas display. The display was shut down in 2006 due to liability and safety concerns. In an effort to revive the display, Lewis went before the city council to propose a shuttle bus that would take folks around Niceville for all city-wide Christmas events, including stops at her home.

But the city thinks it might be a better idea to just move her display from her home to a central city location that can handle the traffic and parking issues.

Complicating matters, a separate group known as the Niceville Community Guild is spearheading the Niceville Community Christmas event for 2007 — an arrangement already approved by the city council. Lewis proposed piggy-backing her shuttle stop to allow it to become an official part of those approved events.

Just one small problem: she failed to ask the group before presenting it to the city council. And that’s where things got nasty in Niceville.

“We do not wish to be drawn into Mrs. Lewis’ disagreement with the city,” Lynne Waltz, vice-president of the guild, told the council.

Council members urged cooperation between the two efforts. That might be a tall order because the sides seem to have different goals.

Guild members said the point of the Niceville Community Christmas was to set up at a central location at City Hall, not to bus people around town.

“Her vision is not our vision,” said organizer Connie Naftel. She said they wanted to work with Lewis to bring her display to City Hall, but Lewis wants to keep it at her home.

Will people play nice in Niceville? Will the Christmas Lady overcome the criticism to show her display once again? Can Christmas be Christmas at her home and will the city allow it?

These questions and more have yet to be answered with less than 130 days remaining until Christmas.
 

The (Light) Show Must Go On

Right on schedule, the public debates over Christmas lights on private property is intensifying. Today’s story comes from Manchester Township in York County Pennsylvania. This report from the York Dispatch tells the sordid tale:

Todd Witte’s winter wonderland in Manchester Township is not going silently into the night.

Despite objections by some neighbors to Witte’s spectacular Christmas light show on Burning Tree Court last year, township officials said this week that they can’t do much to stop Witte if he puts the show on at his home again in December.

Township manager and secretary David Raver said based on an opinion from the municipality’s solicitor, the township has limited jurisdiction over holiday light shows on private property.

“There’s not a lot that the board (of supervisors) can do about the light show,” Raver said yesterday.

Several neighbors of Witte have voiced concerns about Witte’s light show, which they say creates a safety hazard because of the large number of vehicles it attracts to the small cul-de-sac.

Witte’s light show is set in his front yard and on the façade of his house and the flashing lights are synchronized with the sounds of music that can be heard over a low-frequency FM radio station.

Witte ran the show from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. through most of the holiday season last year, and it drew hundreds of spectators, many of whom would stop in front of the house to take it all in.
Raver said the board of supervisors has also heard complaints from some of Witte’s neighbors that they can’t get in or out of their driveways during the holidays because of the cars parked on their street for the light show.

Christmas complaints in August: But Raver said the board hadn’t discussed the issue since the end of the holiday season until several of Witte’s neighbors brought it up again at the board’s meeting Tuesday.

Since January, Raver said the township has learned it doesn’t have much jurisdiction over the issue other than the ability to post no-parking signs on the small street.

Before the board could even post the signs, Raver said it would need a request from the residents.

Not interested in moving show: The township has made an offer to Witte to put up his light show at Cousler Park instead of his home as a way to ease the traffic pressure on the neighborhood.

“It was something we had offered as an attempt to keep everybody happy,” Raver said.

But Witte said he doesn’t want to move the show from his property.

“Now I have to load up my kids to go see my Christmas lights; it just doesn’t work for me,” Witte said.

Witte said while some of his neighbors have complained about his light show, he’s also received requests from several people to have the show again this year. He said he plans to put up the lights again this year.

Headed to court?: Raver said if neighbors still object to Witte’s show, they may have to seek private recourse, possibly through a civil suit.

If any of his neighbors decide to take him to court, Witte said he would welcome the opportunity to confront them.

He said he’s tried to accommodate his neighbors with his light show by posting signs asking his audience not to block driveways. On nights when his neighbors held holiday parties, Witte said he would even cancel the show.

Still, Witte said some of the neighbors complained about his lights.

“They don’t like the guy at the end of the street who has the Christmas lights and rides a Harley,” Witte said.

We have noted at least a half dozen similar stories in the media so far for Christmas 2007. In some locations, city councils are banning the display of Christmas lights on private property, citing safety concerns due to high volumes of car traffic on streets not designed to handle the flow.

What to do? How far will this go? Will we see violence erupt more often as it did last year in California?

Los Gatos Goes PC

The City of Los Gatos, California just can’t fight it any more. A citizen of that fair city has written DefendChristmas.com to inform us that the annual Los Gatos Christmas Parade will now be called the Children’s Holiday Parade.

We suspect that the emphasis on “children” is so that the rest of us possibly won’t notice the obvious exclusion of the word “Christmas”.

We’ll see if the citizenry of Los Gatos responds to the lack of “Christmas” in their community or if they will just fail now to show up to the traditional parade.

School Board Keeps Christmas But Suffers Wrath Anyway

NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y., Aug. 13 — The temperature in the room was over 90, and the crowd was angry. The topic at this regular August meeting of the school board: what else?

Christmas.

When most people complain about the Christmas season beginning earlier and earlier each year, they do not usually mean the kind of kick-start that took place in this Long Island town on Monday night when more than 250 people showed up to demand that the name of the annual Christmas Concert not be changed to Winter Concert.

And that was just to make a point — the board had already decided against making the change.

People were sweating visibly as they stood at the microphone and, one by one, railed at members of the school board and called for the firing of the district superintendent, Regina Cohn, who had suggested the change.

“In the private sector, a person who is out of touch with his bosses gets terminated, and we are the bosses here — not bin Laden over there,” said Brian Kerrane, gesturing toward Ms. Cohn. Mr. Kerrane, whose children attend one of the four elementary schools in the district, was cheered, just as the few people who stood to defend Ms. Cohn and the proposed change were loudly booed.

The small school district is one of the few in the New York region that continues to call its December program the Christmas Concert. Almost all the others have switched to the term holiday or winter concert, both to avoid seeming to exclude non-Christian families and to move toward the ideal of a level cultural playing field for pupils of every possible background.

Though the controversy here seems homegrown, it echoes the tensions in public debates across the country in recent years as an increasingly diverse population has sought to free itself from the cultural domination of Christmas in December, while conservative Christian organizations have pushed back against what they describe as the secularization of Christmas.

In New Hyde Park, the issue has arisen several times in the last decade, and the Christmas Concert has retained its name each time.

Most recently, at a regular meeting in June, an Indian-born parent told the board that many Asian and non-Christian families stayed away from the Christmas Concert, in part due to the song selection but mainly because of the name.

(Though the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s “Messiah” has been included in the program some years, most of what is played at the Christmas concert are songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Let It Snow,” plus some Hanukkah songs, school officials said.)

In response to the June complaint — and others in letters sent by district residents — Ms. Cohn recommended that the board once more consider changing the name; and at the board’s July meeting, Patricia Rudd, the board president, introduced a measure to call it the Winter Concert instead.

The change, which needed a majority to be approved, was defeated by a vote of 3 to 3, with 1 abstention.

But many in this Nassau County community of single-family homes just over the border from Queens did not let the matter go at that.

Angry letters filled the local newspapers for weeks. In the shorthand of the culture war in which much of this debate has been cast, many denounced school officials who would “cancel Christmas,” or “execute Baby Jesus in the arena of political correctness.”

Census data does not indicate what portion of the district’s population is Christian, but 33 percent of the children enrolled in the schools are of Asian descent, either Chinese-American or Indian-American. Students described as white are 51 percent of the population; Hispanic, 15 percent; and black, 1 percent.

“Our community has been changing. A little too rapidly? I’m not sure,” Mrs. Rudd, the board president, said in an interview. “But this issue has struck a nerve, and the people in this community, obviously, have a lot of spirit.”

At the regular August meeting on Monday night, people came to register their feelings even though the Christmas Concert issue was not on the board’s agenda. They filled the 180 seats, filled the aisles and the standing room, and spilled into the halls.

One woman said she could not understand how anyone could object to Christmas, “which is about tolerance, love for your fellow man. Who would be against that?”

James McHugh, a lawyer, described the move to change the concert’s name as “a form of religious discrimination at best, religious bigotry at worst.”

Three residents among the 75 who registered to speak expressed support for the idea that a school concert should be equally inviting to all members of its population. Susan Viscardi, who has two daughters, said she felt embarrassed by the accusatory tone of many remarks. She proposed renaming the concert Winterfest, as a way of recognizing “all the various traditions that celebrate the winter solstice in their different ways.”

More typical were the comments of Michele Chambers, a parent who challenged the notion that members of the school community were offended by the word “Christmas” in the name of the school concert. “I challenge the board to provide a list of the children who said they objected to the Christmas Concert solely because it was called the Christmas Concert,” she said.

Mrs. Viscardi, one of the supporters of changing the name, said she knew many Asian families who were “too intimidated” to come forward.

Efforts to reach the woman whose complaint prompted the recent move to change the concert name were unsuccessful. Though she was listed in the minutes of the June school board meeting, her phone, at the address she gave, had been disconnected.