San Antonio Schools Celebrate Christmas While Other Texas Schools Argue

At Hopkins Elementary, students recently dressed up as Christmas trees as part of the Judson Independent School District school’s annual holiday musical. Several held up signs spelling out “Merry Christmas.”

This week at North East ISD’s Huebner Elementary, fourth-grade students gave presentations about their family’s holiday traditions. A row of children’s books about Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa lined a nearby shelf.

And in many other schools in San Antonio, Santa Claus has been spotted roaming hallways adorned with Christmas trees, wreaths, festive garlands draped near images of snowmen and reindeer, all the while greeting kids and sometimes distributing gifts.

But exactly how public school children celebrate Christmas has become a matter of public debate. Two recent incidents in which school officials in Beaumont and Fort Worth tried to set guidelines on how Christmas could be celebrated — or not — made national headlines.

And a political ad by Gov. Rick Perry claiming kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas in school also fanned the political firestorm.

But in San Antonio, the spirit of Christmas seems to mostly be alive and well.

Even though state law prohibits public schools from using the holiday to promote any one religion, most local school districts have no ban on Christmas-related events and say that students are allowed to openly celebrate Christmas in school, according to an informal San Antonio Express-News survey.

“We let the kids sing Christmas carols as they were written at our events,” Harlandale ISD Superintendent Robert Jaklich said. “It’s more of a cultural celebration and we don’t intend to impose any kind of religion.”

Still, because Texas law doesn’t provide strict, detailed guidelines on the issue, school districts acknowledge Christmas differently — even, for example, in how they use the word “Christmas.”

East Central ISD calls the time off around the holidays “Christmas break.” But at Northside ISD, the city’s largest, it’s called “winter break.”

As a whole, larger districts in Texas with more diverse populations tend to go as secular as possible when describing the time off around Christmas or events touching on Christmas.

Rural or smaller districts with a more religiously homogenous student population, such as the Catholic or Christian strongholds in South San Antonio, more openly celebrate Christmas.

By law, public school officials are barred from advancing a religion, making children pray, or celebrate solely the Christian aspects of Christmas, according to the Texas Education Agency.

But there’s no federal or state law that prohibits a student from praying or celebrating Christmas in school by distributing gifts at school outside of class time, as those actions are protected under the First Amendment.

Christmas actually can be discussed in class as long as it’s for academic purposes, said TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman.

“We discourage anything done where the instructional period be interrupted, but each district is left to resolve how it handles Christmas,” Marchman said.

Last week in the Beaumont area, students singing “Joy to the World” replaced “the Lord has come” with “my shopping’s done.” They sang “the first snow ball” instead of “The First Noel” at an elementary school’s annual Christmas pageant to avoid using religious references, the Beaumont Enterprise reported.

And earlier this month in the Fort Worth ISD, the school district’s attorney told staff that students should not be allowed to exchange gifts or “distribute personal holiday messages” during class. Santa Claus was also banned.

The next day, after a media firestorm, the district issued a statement with the headline “Fort Worth ISD Loves Santa Claus,” clarifying that these activities could be done before or after school or during lunch — but not during class.

While some saw Perry’s ad as an inflammatory overstatement, others point to those examples as evidence that there may very well be a so-called “War on Christmas.”

One Texas-based organization, The Liberty Institute, has launched a website called StopScrooge.com where people can submit complaints about Christmas-related prohibitions in schools.

Most districts do ban decorations using religious imagery such as a Nativity depicting the birth of Jesus Christ or the Star of David, said Tim Carroll, Allen ISD spokesman and president of the Texas School Public Relations Association.

However, Christmas trees and Santa Claus are seen more as iconic figures and not religious, Carroll said.

Edgewood ISD spokesman Maclovio Perez said districts walk a tightrope with concern that they could get sued for either being too lenient or too strict on guidelines regarding Christmas.

In one of Texas’ best-known examples, the “Candy Cane Case,” the issue has dragged on in the courts for more than eight years.

After administrators at an elementary school in Plano stopped an 8-year-old boy in 2003 from distributing candy cane pens with religious messages on them, several parents sued the district on free speech grounds.

Usually, controversy over how a school or district handles Christmas doesn’t arise until a parent or community member publicly voices concern, which then can lead to a change in policy, said Sylvester Vasquez, a Southwest ISD trustee and immediate past president of the Texas Association of School Boards.

“I don’t recall having that problem locally, or really too often around the state,” Vasquez said, noting his school board prays before meetings. “I think it depends on the culture of the area.”

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