Illinois School District Nixes Christmas and Jello

So long Halloween parade. Farewell Santa’s gift shop.

The long-celebrated holiday traditions are facing elimination in some Oak Lawn schools this year after complaints the activities are offensive, particularly to Muslim students.

Final decisions on which of the festivities will be axed will fall to the principals at each of Ridgeland School District 122’s five schools, Supt. Tom Smyth said.

Parents expect the announcement to add to the tension that’s been building since school administrators agreed earlier this month to change the lunch menu to exclude items containing pork to accommodate Muslim students. News that Jell-O was struck from the menu caused such a stir that officials since have agreed to bring the popular dessert back.

That controversy appears to have been been dwarfed by the holiday debate, which became so acrimonious Wednesday that police were called to Columbus Manor to intervene in a shouting match among parents.

“It got heated,” Division Chief Mike Kaufmann said of the disturbance call.

No charges were filed, and one police officer defused the argument. Officers left school officials to settle the matter, he said. One Muslim family was cautioned not to attend a PTA-sponsored activity later that night because tensions ran so high.

“It’s difficult when you change the school’s culture,” said Columbus Manor School Principal Sandy Robertson, who predicts the holiday changes will be even tougher to stomach than the thought of losing Jell-O.

Elizabeth Zahdan, a mother of three District 122 students, says she took her concerns to the school board this month not because she wanted to do away with the traditions but rather to make them more inclusive.

“I only wanted them modified to represent everyone,” she said.

Nixing them isn’t the response she was looking for.

“Now the kids are not being educated about other people,” she said.

There’s just not time in the six-hour school day to celebrate every holiday, said Smyth, who personally sent the message to principals that they need to “tone down” the activities that he sees as eating into too much instructional time already.

“We have to think about our purpose,” Smyth added. “Are we about teaching reading, writing and math or for parties or fundraising during the day?”

Robertson is hoping to strike some compromises that will keep traditions alive and be culturally acceptable to all students – nearly half of whom are of Arab descent at Columbus Manor, she says. Just fewer than one-third of students district-wide are Arabic, according to Smyth (though all Arabs are not Muslims and all Muslims are not Arabs).

Following the example of Lieb Elementary School, Columbus Manor will exchange the annual Halloween parade for a fall festival next month; kids still can wear costumes, but only in the classroom. The holiday gift bazaars at both schools also will remain, but they’ll likely be moved to the PTA-sponsored after-school winter festival. And Santa’s annual visit probably will occur on a Saturday.

Such compromises, however, don’t appear to be a crowd-pleaser – at least initially.

Parents such as Donna Carvelli, who has two students enrolled at Columbus Manor, are in an uproar about the news.

“These are important traditions, and they’re for everybody,” she said. “I just want everything to be left the way it is.”

But changes in school traditions are occurring already, albeit slowly. Previous district-wide decisions – to rename the annual Christmas party a holiday festival and Halloween party a fall social – were conscious efforts to make the celebrations more inclusive and culturally sensitive. Last year, the district also began paying closer attention to dietary restrictions and started serving two lunch options, one of which excluded pork products.

“We have to be cognizant of who is at our school … to make sure we’re not eliminating or excluding,” Robertson said.

Zahdan says the changes have been noted but don’t go far enough.

“The title changed, but the theme is the same,” she said pointing to the annual holiday gift shop as a half-hearted attempt at cultural sensitivity.

All students may have been invited, but any message of inclusiveness was drowned out by the Christmas music last year, she said.

“We want the school to be neutral for everybody,” Zahdan said. “These children are all American and should be treated equally.”

(By Angela Caputo,

California City Removes Christmas

The Encinitas, California City Council voted 3-2 Wednesday to strip the name Christmas from its December parade.

After spending two years as the “Encinitas Christmas Parade,” the Dec. 1 event will return to the name it had used since the city began producing the event in 1993: The Encinitas Holiday Parade.

In 2005, then-Mayor Dan Dalager unilaterally switched the name.

Dalager and Deputy Mayor Jerome Stocks voted against Encinitas Holiday Parade as the name for an event that attracts nearly 100 entries and thousands of spectators.

Dalager said his choice of names wasn’t about religion.

“I’m not much of a churchgoer,” he said. “If this was a religious thing, I’d be the first one against it. I see this, the use of that (Christmas) name, I see it as being as religious as the name of the federal holiday.”

He said his choice of names would be the Santa Claus Parade, or the St. Nick Parade, “which I think is a little more representative of the season.”

Stocks said he favored the name Encinitas Parade.

“This has turned into Christmas versus holiday, the left versus the right — it shouldn’t be that way,” Stocks said. “I think that we should take that under consideration and have an Encinitas Parade.”

Two speakers seemed to personify how the issue has split the community.

Joan Richman told the council she was a grandmother who wanted to keep traditions of Christmas going.

“We’re losing our special holidays,” she said, noting that she visited a Home Depot store where Christmas trees were not called by that name. “Keep the traditional Christmas parade as it is. To water it down to the generic term of Holiday Parade is very depressing. I don’t understand why a few disgruntled people are so offended by the word Christmas.”

Resident Al Rodbell told Richman that he appreciated her comments. He went on to say that he is Jewish and that Irving Berlin — “he was one of my tribe” — penned the classic White Christmas.

“We enjoy Christmas carols, we enjoy the whole experience, I agree with you, it would be a great loss if the variety of what Christmas has come to mean in this country were eliminated.

“I think in this case, having a name that’s more neutral, this is a case where it’s appropriate and it makes for a better world.”

Christmas Left Off School Calendars

When parents and PTA members of Monroe-Woodbury took the district to task last week for identifying some religious holidays in its calendar and not others, they were not alone.

Officials of Clarkstown School District in Rockland County (New York) said that it plans to reprint all of its calendars after it was discovered that Christmas had been left out. Clarkstown Superintendent Meg Keller-Cogan said the mistake — an error at the printer — triggered calls from angry parents, as well as discussions among church leaders.

“People thought it was a religious statement, and not what it was, which was a printing error,” she said.

The district usually makes it a point to include the names of most religious holidays so as not to offend anyone in its diverse population, Keller-Cogan said. The printer has volunteered to reprint the 20,000 calendars, as well as waive the $5,800 cost.

Clarkstown’s case became a point of reference for Monroe-Woodbury parents, some of whom were demanding last week that their district also reprint its calendars after an editing error.

Monroe-Woodbury officials said the district usually takes out the names of all religious or cultural holidays, except Rosh Hashana, which some might not readily recognize as a day off from school. The thinking is that Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are well-known. This year, however, Passover also was left in the Monroe-Woodbury calendar, sparking concerns by Christians that the district was favoring the Jewish faith.

Monroe-Woodbury Superintendent Joe DiLorenzo said yesterday that he planned to publish an explanation and apology on the district’s Web site rather than have taxpayers foot the cost of reprinting the 15,000 calendars. A cost estimate was unavailable yesterday.

“I don’t think any district intentionally sets out to get anyone upset,” DiLorenzo said. “But sometimes things might happen; sometimes things get overlooked.”

School calendars are a potential flash point of controversy for many school districts, which take enormous pains to ensure their community will approve of the publications before they go to print, said Elise Markowitz, the public relations consultant who oversees the printing of the calendars in Clarkstown.

“It’s an extraordinary investment of time and energy,” she said. “There’s nothing you can put in or leave out that people won’t notice.”

A survey of some online calendars for Orange County school districts show that Warwick and Port Jervis identify the most religious celebrations, including Yom Kippur, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Passover. Some districts, such as Goshen, don’t mention any of the holidays by name, even leaving out Rosh Hashana, which is included in most districts.

Some districts also offer two days off for Rosh Hashana, while others, such as Port Jervis, don’t offer any.

“Every district has different traditions,” said Terrence Olivo, the chief operating officer for Orange-Ulster BOCES, which produces the draft of the calendars in conjunction with the districts’ superintendents.

Reverberations from the Monroe-Woodbury controversy were felt across the county last week, especially in districts shell-shocked by past controversies over political correctness.

“When I saw the article (about Monroe-Woodbury), I made sure that we didn’t slip up on our calendar, as well,” said Frank Greenhall, superintendent of Warwick Valley Central Schools.

Sonoma California Re-Ignites Christmas Controversy

Some people were already calling it the “Creche War” before Wednesday night’s City Council convened. There were expectations that angry words would fill the air.

But by the time a succession of concerned citizens had each finished their allotted three minutes at the podium during an 80-minute public hearing, there was a minimum of verbal bloodshed and a lot of thoughtful soul-searching.

The subject was a proposed revision in city policy governing the presence of religious displays on the Plaza. New Councilmember August Sebastiani, a Catholic who made clear his intention to re-open the issue before taking office last December, requested a legal opinion from city attorney Tom Curry to determine if a traditional Christmas crèche, or any other religious display, could be legally accommodated on public property.

Curry’s carefully crafted opinion confirmed that a constitutionally defensible policy could be adopted, but not without “the high risk of litigation.”
In a prepared statement at the start of the public hearing, Sebastiani insisted his proposed policy would not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. “By no means does it attempt to establish any religion,” he read. “By no means does it prohibit the free exercise or enjoyment of religion. To the contrary, it strives to provide our community with an outlet to express and celebrate its beliefs, whatever they are.”

And in anticipation of threatened lawsuits, Sebastiani added, “It is not our job to live in fear of legal action. It is not our job to live in fear of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).”

As if rising to the challenge, frequent council critic Dave Henderson read from a four-page prepared statement critiquing the proposed policy and concluding with the promise he would “formally request,” that ACLU attorneys review any policy adopted by the Council, “and if constitutional problems are found, to proceed with litigation.”

Henderson also questioned why the proposed policy was labeled a “Holiday Display Policy,” when it appeared to refer only to a time of year when Christian (and Jewish) holidays occur. He also questioned whether Sebastiani’s preferred display site – on the horseshoe in front of City Hall – wouldn’t indicate city sponsorship.
Of the 20 speakers to address the council, eight clearly supported Sebastiani’s proposal, 11 opposed it, and the rest expressed painfully mixed feelings.

They included Steve McHan, pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of the Sonoma Valley Ministerial Association. McHan reported that members of the group held “a diverse range of opinion. We are not united as yet.”

Speaking for himself, said McHan, “I’m conflicted and I wish I weren’t.” McHan said a part of him “is extremely cautious about how we use our freedom and the belief there could be unanticipated consequences were we to open the Plaza.”
Retired minister David McCracken who explained he was pastoring in 1990 when the last crèche controversy erupted, said, “I don’t want to go through this whole thing again. It was very divisive.” McCracken added he would “behoove the council to have someone meet with the ministerial association,” before adopting a new policy.

One of the more passionate podium voices belonged to Don Sebastiani, the wine entrepreneur and father of August, who earlier commissioned a private and controversial survey of Sonomans that revealed 72 percent of respondents favored a policy allowing religious displays on the Plaza.

Don Sebastiani argued that without the Plaza there is no common ground for Sonomans to visit where they can join in celebrating Christmas. “If they can’t go down to the town commons to celebrate their faith, where can they do it?” he asked. “If you take away the right of freedom of religious expression, what will you take away next?”
Some speakers had less reverent and more caustic reactions to the Plaza proposal. Fred Berger suggested people who want a public crèche should put one on a flatbed truck. You could have, he said, “a crechemobile, You call a number and the crèche will come to your house.”

Beverly Calkovsky asked if there is a clear separation between church and state, “Why are city offices closed on Christmas Day? Where is the separation then?”

Sam Digiacomo said he was a practicing Catholic who attends daily Mass, “But I have no dog in this hunt. I don’t worship statues.”
On the other side of the issue, Tom Keaney, a member of the Knights of Columbus who attempted unsuccessfully to submit a permit request for a Christmas display, said “There can be a miracle on the Plaza if you have the courage to hear the voice of over 70 percent of the people who say … let it be done.”

The council response seemed to almost surprise the members of the council. Ken Brown, after worrying aloud about the cost of potential litigation, observed that “Every Christmas Santa comes in a firetruck – there’s a Christmas tree on City Hall every year – that reflects a Christian heritage. We have an Easter Egg hunt on the Plaza – that reflects Christian belief … Things only come into conflict if we allow them to … If we have an open heart and an open mind, we can figure this out.”

To one degree or another that spirit prevailed. Joanne Sanders confessed she had come prepared to oppose the policy but that she was also deeply conflicted. “Not one person addressed us that I didn’t agree with. Every comment that was made resonated.”
Only Mayor Stanley Cohen came down firmly against the proposal. “I think the crèche is a religious symbol,” he said.

Ultimately, on a quiet 4-1 vote, the council instructed Curry to fashion another draft of the proposed policy reflecting the expressed concerns for future council review.

The crèche war turned out to be a skirmish that may yet give birth to a policy.

Sad Santas Decry PC Christmas Rules

It is the time of the year when thousands of children look forward to perching on Santa’s knee, but a growing number of men who bring the smiles to their faces want to call it quits this year because they believe political correctness is ruining the magic of Christmas.

One of WA’s longest serving Father Christmases, Kevan Hook, 68,was aghast when told that after 10 years in the job he must have both hands showing to protect him from allegations of child abuse.

He was also told that asking if children have been well behaved for “mummy and daddy” must now be replaced with “have you been good for your folks” in case the child has same sex parents.

During one season, Mr Hook was ticked off seven times by senior staff at Perth shopping centres for minor slip-ups, which he said were later proved unfounded.

There were just too many rules for everyone involved to remember.

At the time, the allegations were extremely hurtful and he said it almost dashed his confidence despite spending a decade in the role as Santa. “It was far more casual in the old days but now it has become Americanised and over the top with political correctness and formality,” Mr Hook said.

“On the whole, I love the job and to be honest it would take a lot for me to pull the pin, but sometimes you have to ask yourself is it really worth it.” He said watching the children’s faces light up when they whisper what they want for Christmas would make it hard for him to leave.

Cameron Lissner of Westaff, the country’s largest recruiter of Santas, said he was struggling to fill the grottos this year. The company normally hires 500 Santas to spread the Christmas cheer around the country’s shopping centres, but despite a weekend wage of $27 an hour, he had received 150 fewer applications this year.

He believes it is partly because of a lack of suitable advertising, but acknowledged that some retirees could be disillusioned by the growing number of regulations imposed by recruitment agencies and shopping centres to guard against legal action.

Mr Lissner said Santas were even being discouraged from chuckling Ho, Ho, Ho because it was considered offensive to women. “You can’t ask if they are “naughty or nice” because it implies they haven’t been good. Everything needs to have a positive spin on it. Many rules have come out of the US.”