A 5-year-old girl comes home from kindergarten happily carrying a paper bag filled with symbols of the season--a Christmas tree for coloring, a paper chain to help count down the days until Christmas and a short Christmas poem.
The child's mother, who is Jewish, is offended but wonders if she is being "oversensitive."
Still, the Pacific Palisades parent is upset enough to call the Los Angeles Jewish Federation's Annette Lawrence, a veteran crisis manager of what is sometimes called "the December dilemma."
The quandary of the 5-year-old's mother typifies the ambivalence that ensnares many non-Christian parents during the holiday season, Lawrence says.
"The best thing we can do in these kind of situations is explain our concerns in an attempt to elevate the teacher's sensitivity," she recalls telling the mother. Later, Lawrence learned that "the teacher was astonished when (the mother) brought her concerns to her."
The perennial clash between the dominant Christian culture and members of other faiths most often occurs in the public schools, say Lawrence and others who deal with the fallout. It continues despite decades of court rulings requiring strict separation of church and state and often despite the best intentions of all concerned.
The principal predicament today is not a question of constitutional rights but of cultural sensitivity, of increasing awareness that Santa Claus is not just a secular guy in a red suit--as some courts have ruled.
These commonplace but painful Christmas confrontations occur against a background of formal policies and procedures to deal with them.
The Jewish Federation has a four-page paper titled "Guidelines on Holiday Observances and Religion in the Public Schools." Citing legal precedents, it advises that although public schools may teach religion, they also must be religiously neutral. The document also offers "Six Suggested Public School Practices," including the advice that students should never be singled out in any way because of their religion.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Bulletin No. 25 on planning and presenting holiday programs covers four pages and stresses "multicultural considerations" when planning holiday events. District legal adviser Ron Apperson says the basic policy has been in place for well over a decade.
Among its provisions, the bulletin declares that students and staff must be excused from participating "in any holiday program without penalty or bias."
A check of several elementary schools in Los Angeles found that schools shun the word Christmas to describe holiday events, usually referring to celebrations as their "winter program."
Moreover, school spokesmen say that such observances include aspects of Jewish and Christian holidays and sometimes instruction about seasonal observances in other countries. These seem to have promoted the intended effect. At least, spokesmen for Muslim, American-Arab and Hindu organizations said they have had no complaints from parents this year and that complaints have been rare in the past.
But court rulings and school policies don't eliminate alienation, says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee. "For non-Christians it suddenly starts to feel as if this country is excluding you everywhere you turn," he says of the Christmas season.
Perhaps because procedures for multicultural holiday observances have been formalized, those who protest or question a practice move reluctantly.
Last week Lawrence received an anonymous letter from a teacher who questioned a recommendation made at a staff meeting that "Mary Had a Baby," a song about the birth of Jesus Christ, was appropriate for the classroom. The writer explained that "some of us felt that it violated the separation of church and state and was insensitive to the sizable non-Christian community." The teacher concluded, "I prefer not to sign my name because of possible reprisals."
At Superior Elementary School in Chatsworth, sixth-grade teacher Scott Mandel has similar concerns.
Mandel, who is Jewish, has taught at Superior for six years. He says that until this year he tolerated a PTA-sponsored Santa who made brief visits to classrooms to pass out candy canes. He still doesn't object to the school Christmas tree in the auditorium, adding that each year he has placed a dreidel next to the tree.
But this December, Mandel feels forced to speak out, even though he fears it may be a bad move professionally.
"I've gotten the feeling in the last week or two that everybody supports minorities until they stand up for their rights," he says.
Mandel makes the comment in a classroom barren of any sign of Christmas or Hanukkah, a decoration scheme that he says avoids offending anyone in his class, which is about 85% Christian, 10% Jewish and 5% other faiths.