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Yuletide Harmony : Red-Nosed Reindeer Are In, Carols Out as Many Schools Celebrate Neutral 'Winter Holiday'

December 19, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

"Silent Night" and "The First Noel" will be among the traditional carols sung at the annual Christmas program in the El Segundo High School auditorium tonight.

And "Joy to the World" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" can still be heard in some other public schools in the South Bay.

But in response to a series of court decisions over the past two decades, administrators say, most schools are eliminating carols from their Christmas programs, or blending them with songs of other faiths, to avoid possible legal challenges.

The trend also reflects a greater sensitivity to the needs of a growing number of immigrants who have brought their own customs and beliefs to this country, the administrators say.

Holiday programs in schools that have dropped carols feature such nonreligious songs as "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Silver Bells" and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

'Winter Holiday'

And to help establish the schools' neutral position in religious matters, the period around Dec. 25 is often referred to as the "Winter Holiday," rather than Christmas. Administrators say that designation also recognizes the fact that other religious observances, such as the Jewish Hanukkah, occur near the end of the year.

Gone with the carols in most schools are the once-familiar Christmas displays and symbols that depicted the Nativity, the Cross and the Star of Bethlehem. They are generally prohibited as decorations on Christmas trees or in classrooms.

However, according to holiday guidelines issued by the Los Angeles Unified School District, Christmas displays may be used "when they are a necessary and integral part of the study of subjects in the curriculum, such as art or history."

"We must follow the law of the land," said Robert Grossman, a spokesman for the county Office of Education, referring to Supreme Court decisions that bar public schools from promoting religious beliefs.

But the decisions, dating back to rulings in the early 1960s that banned school prayers, do not necessarily make it illegal to sing Christmas carols in public schools, said Richard K. Mason, a deputy county counsel who advises the schools on church-state issues.

Christmas concerts can pass constitutional muster, he said, if they have "a secular educational purpose . . . and an overall context that neither advances nor inhibits religion."

American Traditions

He said the educational purpose could be to acquaint students with American traditions that have been observed for generations. "Our position is that the singing of carols in a traditional, non-religious setting is permissible," Mason said.

South Bay schools interpret the requirement for a "traditional, non-religious setting" in a variety of ways. In El Segundo, for example, the emphasis is on continuing Christmas traditions that are almost universally observed and accepted in the community.

"We're a small district that hasn't changed much in terms of customs and ethnic backgrounds," said Supt. Richard Bertain.

Inglewood schools also observe Christmas in the old ways that apparently reflect the predominantly Christian background of the community, said spokeswoman Evangeline Hill.

"You can hear 'Silent Night' in some of our programs," she said. "I'm not aware of any statements of concern about it."

Non-Religious Setting

Schools in Torrance, Hermosa Beach and most other cities establish a non-religious setting largely by avoiding or minimizing the use of songs and other material that may be objectionable to minority groups.

"We have to be prudent in what we use," said Torrance administrator Arnold Plank. "Holiday programs should respect different backgrounds and beliefs."

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which has substantial numbers of Jewish, Asian and other non-Christian families, administrators say the schools seek a neutral balance between Christmas carols and songs expressing other beliefs.

"This is a very diverse community," said administrator Richard Cooney, "and we want to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of all the children and their parents. If the kids sing 'Silent Night,' then we might balance that, for example, with some Hanukkah songs."

Last month, Cooney sent an internal memorandum to elementary school principals reporting the results of a review of music textbooks by a school committee of the Women's Conference of Jewish Federation. The memo listed 14 carols that the committee found to be "objectionable to the Jewish community."

Examples of the objections were the phrases, "Born is the king of Israel," in "The First Noel" and "Christ the Savior is born" in "Silent Night."

'Ease Tensions'

"Any use you can make of this list to ease any tensions at the Holiday season will be appreciated," Cooney wrote.

In an interview, Cooney said, "If a child does not observe Christmas and he is asked to sing something that is not in accord with his beliefs, he may feel ill at ease."

Supt. Jack Price said the memo was not intended to ban any of the listed carols, but rather to "increase awareness of the need for sensitivity and balance" in planning holiday programs.

"Christmas is no longer a religious observance in public schools, nor should it be," Price said. "It is not in the province of schools to promote one type of religion over any others."

He likened the district's "balanced sensitivity for everyone" to "one small candle in a world torn apart by religious strife."

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