Christmas a conundrum in most classrooms
EAGLE COUNTY- The final school bell of the day had rung, and most children had cleared out of Avon Elementary School. But upstairs in the art room, Willy Fair carefully spread icing on the roof of his gingerbread house. Fair then painstakingly stacked pastel Necco wafer candies like shingles on the roof. The art room was full of students working on gingerbread constructions – houses, barns and even a village complete with a hot tub – in hopes of winning a contest and a few movie tickets as a prize. While making gingerbread houses is a traditional activity for many children, this extracurricular activity is the most Avon Elementary students will see of the holidays in art teacher Michael Salomone’s class. Sticking to a stricter art curriculum, even Salomone’s kindergartners are emulating Van Gogh rather than cutting paper snowflakes.”I don’t do anything to do with the holidays,” Salomone said.Solstice sing-a-longAccording to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, public schools are prohibited from promoting religion or observing religious holidays. Over the years, Christmas break has morphed into winter break, and the country has watched religion flee from the classroom. However, public schools may continue to teach about different religions and their celebrations.
As the margin of what qualifies as politically correct becomes ever slimmer, schools are juggling with how to educate students and acknowledge Christmas time without crossing the line. With vague guidelines in place, different public schools are taking varying degrees of involvement in the holidays. “It was much more Christmas-oriented 26 years ago,” said Nancy Ricci, principal of Red Sandstone Elementary School, who has spent more than a quarter of a century educating children in Eagle County. “We used to sing “Silent Night.’ That was just a typical favorite. Those things, they don’t happen anymore.”I would say the times have changed. And we have to go with the times, with what the culture today is accepting of,” she said. “We try to do the best we can without stepping on anyone’s toes.”Not stepping on toes includes hosting a holiday concert void of religious songs though, Ricci said, “Occasionally, we’ll put in a song in terms of Hanukkah, but no ‘Oh Holy Night’ songs.”Instead of a Christmas tree, Red Sandstone has a “holiday tree” decorated with snowflakes. And in the preschool classroom, students have printed their names on evergreen tree cutouts. Whether the cutouts are evergreens, Christmas trees or holiday trees is up for debate.”We stay away from educating kids about religions,” she said “We are not bringing up the birth of Christ. We focus on history and culture”One class does discuss St. Nicholas and how he influenced German culture and another class learns about a Christian celebration in Greece. “We don’t spend a lot of time on it,” Ricci said. “There’s just way too many things that you could get in trouble for. “And it is hard – this is knowledge, it’s culture,” she added. “People have gone so far the other way, you have to be so careful.”At Meadow Mountain Elementary School in Eagle-Vail, principal Kathy Cummings said there is “definitely a spirit of giving and sharing and wearing the colors of the holiday” in her school as some children don Santa hats and garlands decorate the school office. Instead of ornaments, the Christmas tree in the school is decorated with wishes from teachers that parents can fulfill if they want to get a teacher a gift.
In Meadow Mountain’s effort to be politically correct, it will host a winter solstice sing-along. The celebration of the natural cycle predates organized religion. Still, the school also bears the decorations of different religions, Cummings said. “We’re not trying to exclude,” she said. “We’re just trying to be a public school that allows kids to learn. We don’t teach about the religions.”Frosty & Rudolph are OKEdwards Elementary School principal Heidi Hanssen said part of her school’s curriculum is “teaching diverse beliefs and celebrations – as long as it’s not promoting one religion.” Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas are all defined for the children but not celebrated. As the only Spanish-English immersion school in the valley, the school also teaches about events like Posada, a Hispanic-Catholic celebration prior to Christmas, but solely for the cultural aspects, Hanssen said. Avon Elementary School takes a more cautious route hosting a Winter Holiday Celebration, in which each class will sing and dance for their peers and parents. “The songs cannot be religious,” said vice principal Gay Cotter. “It can be ‘Frosty the Snowman’ or ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ but not ‘Oh Holy Night.'”Despite the lack of religion during the holiday celebration, Avon Elementary does have a “Christmas tree,” Cotter said. “It’s just a tree; it’s not a formal dialogue with a sign that says ‘Christmas tree,'” Cotter said. “If I look at it and think it’s a Christmas tree, then it is.”
While Cotter said the school understands “that we need to promote more of the festival of winter, rather than one specific view point or practice,” she said a Christmas tree was representative of the school’s population – 92 percent of students are Hispanic, and thus predominantly Catholic. “We have a few Jewish students, and they all celebrate Christmas,” Cotter said. “It’s the gift giving and whatever.”Mum’s the word at Minturn Middle School where instructor Simon Hayes said the school recognizes the holiday season with some lights in the office, but no tree, no lessons and no decorations.”We don’t talk about it,” he said. What about world peace? As school continue to scrutinize what they can or can’t do, some parents are saying they’re not really bothered by it.”I don’t think the school necessarily needs to do anything to celebrate,” said Sallyann Bluhm, who has two children at Minturn Middle School. “I think it’s all a little blown out of proportion. Saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is perfectly acceptable. Christians and non-Christians still celebrate Christmas in one way or another.”Betsy Laughlin, who has two children at Meadow Mountain and Minturn Middle School, said all the political correctness is upsetting to her.”It’s just annoying,” she said. “People should find other things to be worried about.”
Laughlin pointed out that her daughter will sing Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs, despite the lack of children who celebrate Kwanzaa at Meadow Mountain. She added while Christmas is relatively ignored, the school celebrates St. Patrick’s Day.”They sort of pick and choose what they want to celebrate,” Laughlin said. With three children in public school and one at Vail Christian High School, Karen Eyrich said she’d expect her daughter at Vail Christian to learn about the birth of Jesus. But she neither wants nor expects her children in public schools to receive lessons in theology.”I don’t think (public) schools are a place to teach religion,” she said. “I kind of look at it as a place to promote tolerance.”Harry Gray, who has three children in Battle Mountain and Minturn Middle School, remembered that while growing up on the East Coast, most religious education took place in church, rather than in school.”I wish that’s all we had to worry about in this world — the correctness of ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Merry Christmas,'” Gray said. “It makes one think that things are well with the world, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry. Let’s worry about world peace a little more and less about what we call the winter solstice holiday.” Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado