First Noel Comes Last in Schools: Holidays Marked without Religion

Article excerpt

At James K. Polk Elementary School in Alexandria, fifth-graders this month tore up the old words to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and crooned instead about "the 12 days of the holidays."

Another Polk student gave classmates a karate demonstration to the sweet strains of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."

Welcome to the holidays in the area's public schools.

Jesus is out. The fighting Maccabees of Hanukkah - ancient history.

"Everything has a nonreligious basis to it," said Sherry Liebes, the principal of Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary in Cheverly. "We emphasize winter and seasonal celebrations."

With a trinity of seasonal celebrations - Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa - in December, plus holiday variations such as St. Lucia's feast and Los Pasados, area educators and students are feverishly involved in a profusion of extracurricular activities.

But don't expect to find much religious discourse or education.

According to a survey of more than 40 area schools, most educators avoid discussing the origins of Hanukkah and Christmas the way a gentleman might shun bootleg hooch, and for the same reasons - fear of running afoul of the law.

Snowflakes and sleigh bells, wreaths and reindeer, Jack Frost and Santa Claus have become the cultural icons of the classroom. School parties, door-decorating contests and choral assemblies stress the theme of December as a "winter wonderland." The holidays are lumped together and described as a "season of giving." Multiculturalism is the watchword.

"We call it our international winter celebration," said Darnell Wise Lightbourn, a second-grade teacher at Jamestown Elementary in Arlington.

"We kind of call it a time of sharing and caring," said Mary Barker, the principal of Fairfax's Beech Tree Elementary.

The constitutional language detailing the separation of church and state seems simple enough, but decades of battles in the courtroom between religious groups and civil liberties activists have left many educators confused about what they may and may not say about religion in the classroom.

In their effort to avoid being accused of preaching instead of teaching, many teachers are skipping the subject of how the holidays began, creating a lack of understanding among students of different backgrounds even as teachers stress multicultural themes, critics say.

"Some of them won't even use the word `Christmas,' " said Bill Mowers, the president of the Fairfax County chapter of the American Family Association. "In some cases they'd rather not mention it at all for fear of lawsuits."

After years of cases involving creches on public property, prayers at baccalaureate ceremonies and Bible study on school grounds, the courts have concluded that there is a place in school - though limited - for instruction about religion.

Students may sing traditional Christmas carols such as "Silent Night," but only as long as the intent is to impart knowledge about society's cultural and religious heritage. The song must be part of a bigger program that includes secular songs such as "Jingle Bells" or songs representing other religions, like "Oh Hanukkah. …