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Christmas Is Everywhere but It's Not for Everyone

December 17, 1989

A red-suited Santa Claus, evergreens with tinsel and lights, festive music, brightly wrapped gifts--all are a part of this holiday season. But as festivities get into high gear this week, it is well to remember something easily forgotten: Christmas is not for everyone. Nor should it have to be.

Christmas has its roots in the celebration of the birth of Christ. That has made its festivities, however secularized, discomforting for some people of other religions or of no particular faith at all. For them, the predominance of the holiday in stores, schools, offices and neighborhoods almost forces people to participate or feel left out. Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday celebrated this time of year, includes some of the same gift-giving customs as Christmas. Other ethnic groups also enjoy winter holidays. But there is a magical allure in Christmas and Santa that is hard to deny, especially for children.

Schools, in particular, can help put things into perspective for children by explaining that Christmas is one of many holidays celebrated by people around the world. Instead of Christmas activities, some schools now celebrate winter solstice or hold generic peace programs, replacing carols and other songs that have a religious connotation with "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Others study various cultures including the manner in which they celebrate religious or other holidays. In this way and in others in recent years, Orange County educators have become more sensitive to the ethnic diversity of their students. For example, the Jewish Federation of Orange County said that complaints from Jews about Christmas practices in schools were markedly down this year and last.

On a broader public policy scale, of course, the Constitution separates church and state. This has formed the basis of litigation that continues to this day to define the limits of religious celebrations and symbols in schools and government offices. But well short of lawsuits, people can be sensitive to other cultures while enjoying their own customs and traditions. Even wishing "Happy Holidays" to friends of other religions instead of "Merry Christmas" can be a sign of respect and an inclusive way to share the spirit of the season.

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