Santa Claus Isn't Comin' to Town Christmas Symbols Brings Controversy to Nation's Schools

Article excerpt

AT a glance, it seems laughable. Grown men and women here in Franklin, N.H., are locked in a fist-waving debate over a fat guy in a red suit who doesn't really exist.

Santa Claus, meet Murphy Brown.

Yet for the 8,000 residents of Franklin, and in cities and towns across America, the question of how public schools observe religious holidays is anything but frivolous.

Critics say Christmas tidings in the classroom alienate the growing number of American children, 15 percent by some estimates, who do not celebrate the holiday. Supporters say Santa is a secular symbol unjustly targeted by the pundits of political correctness.

"It seems like a minor issue, but it's symbolic of a great many frustrations people have with the schools," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First-Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. "What people are really saying is: 'Whose schools are these?' and 'What kind of a nation do we want to be?"'

Since the United States Supreme Court outlawed school-sponsored prayer in 1962, schools have dealt with Christmas in a variety of ways. Many have jettisoned everything, including Santa, trees, and carols with Christian references like "O Come All Ye Faithful." Some have kept them, but added Kwaanza and Hanukkah to the holiday menu. Still others have refused to change, risking lawsuits from civil liberties groups.

"Some parents want to bring in Christmas trees, and others don't want any mention of the word 'Christmas' at all," Mr. Haynes says. "School officials get caught in the middle."

The current imbroglio in Franklin began early this month when Pam Henderson, principal of Bessie Rowell Elementary, vetoed an appearance by Santa Claus at the school's traditional holiday concert.

The move sparked a series of shoulder-bumping school committee meetings in which the majority of attendees came to Santa's defense.

"I see Santa Claus not as a thing of religion but as a tradition," Franklin mayor Tom Matzke said, sporting a red-and-white Santa cap at the gathering. "You cannot change a tradition."

Although Ms. Henderson has refused to comment, Franklin school superintendent Edgar Melanson came to her defense: "The point is not to do away with Santa Claus," he explains, "it's about creating an even balance for the sake of diversity."

Since at least 95 percent of Franklin's schoolchildren celebrate Christmas at home, Melanson says teachers have a responsibility to educate them about different cultures.

"What's happening here is that educators are realizing that this is no longer a white, Christian, Puritan New England; that we now have a significant population that does not share that heritage," says Clare Ebel, director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. Because the public schools are an arm of government, she says, "they ought not to reflect any religious tradition. …