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?


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.

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