Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Yessiree ladies and gents, it's that time again. Time for the annual TC Festival of Anger and Resentment, which you all call the Christmas season.

Last year, E's first year in elementary school, the 'holidays' were so difficult for us to get through that I ended up writing a note to the principal. This is what it said:

"Dear Ms. P:

I am the mother of E, a kindergartner in Mrs. F's class. I am writing to you to air some of my feelings about the way the holidays were handled at VV Elementary, in the hope that it might affect the planning in the years to come.

For the record, our family is Jewish. I don’t know how many children at VV are Jewish (or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or…), and so I don’t know whether my experience was common or rare. But too often, this December, I was put in a position where I had to either compromise my beliefs or disappoint my child. That is not unusual during the holiday season, when you’re not a member of the majority religion. But to be put into that position by a public school—a school that is supposed to be without religious affiliation—was upsetting.

Our family’s take on Christmas is that it’s fun and respectful to help our Christian friends celebrate their holiday in whatever way they do, but that we don’t celebrate it in our own home—just as we invite non-Jewish friends to our Passover seder, for instance, but don’t expect them to go home and change their plates and throw out all their bread. E seems to understand; I hope my two-year-old, N, will too as he gets older.

And so I didn’t much mind the stockings and computer-art Christmas trees and such. I was somewhat disappointed that the ‘family art project’ for the month was a Christmas tree, but handled it by explaining that since we don’t decorate Christmas trees in our house, we would just make ours a regular winter tree. E grumbled—“but all my friends did theirs like a Christmas tree!”—but complied. I was a bit more disappointed that my daughter never brought home a single Chanukah-themed project—not even a secular symbol of the holiday like a dreidel. Nor were any of the other winter holidays mentioned, best I can tell.

Then came the visit from Santa. I’m not sure how I feel about Santa being ‘available’ after school on school grounds, but I know that I was not at all pleased to hear that he was personally visiting the kindergarten classrooms—and taking ‘wishes’ from the children. This put me in a horrible position—I could tell my daughter that she couldn’t talk to Santa (which would have crushed her, as she believes “Santa cares about Jewish kids, too, Mom. He loves me even if I am Jewish.”) or I could do as I did, and permit it at the expense of my own personal beliefs. It was not a comfortable decision for me.

There was one other incident, which I include only to explain to you that my daughter was not unaffected by all of this. When she brought home the presents the kids made for their parents, E repeated told me she was “a little worried” about mine. I couldn’t get her to tell me why—she said it would spoil the surprise. When I opened it—a beautifully done Christmas tree clay ornament—I think I did a pretty good job of simply praising her for her hard work, and telling her how beautiful it was, etc. However, she promptly burst into tears. When I was finally able to quiet her, she said, “I was afraid you’d give it away to [family friends who are Christian] because it’s a Christmas tree and we can’t have Christmas trees in our house.” It almost broke my heart that my daughter spent a couple of weeks worrying that I would reject her present. Having the class make snowman “winter” decorations rather than Christmas trees would have been a simple solution that wouldn’t have left any of the children feeling different or excluded or anxious.

I’m writing to you rather than to Mrs. F because my complaint—such as it is—is with the overall decision to put the admittedly secular symbols of just one holiday forward so pervasively, rather than with any individual projects that might be completed in a kindergarten classroom. Feel free to share this note with anyone you feel might benefit from it. I don’t know who made the decision to bring Santa to school—if it was you, the PTA, the Education Foundation, or some combination thereof—but I hope that in the future, alternative viewpoints will be considered. It makes me feel horribly Scrooge-like to ask you all to not do things that undoubtedly bring great glee to so many of the kids. But it would make me feel horribly hypocritical if I didn’t say something about it. Again, it seems unfair to have been put in this position by my public school.

Please know that I recognize this is a relatively small issue. I am beyond thrilled with VV, with Mrs. F, and with the strides that my daughter is making in your school. We moved here a year ago specifically to afford our children the opportunity to attend a top-notch public school, and we have been in no way disappointed with that decision. I hope you take my comments in the spirit in which they were intended, and know that I appreciate your taking the time to hear me out.



I got a great response to this letter; a note from the principal and a call from--and long talk with--the PTA president, whose organization had sponsored the Santa visit. It was that experience that got me involved in the PTA, and I wound up on the board this year. I'm pretty sure Santa won't be coming to town.

So, fast-forward a bit. E's first-grade teacher, clearly having received a heads-up from someone, comes to me early in the year and asks me to come and talk to the class about Chanukah in December, and has since talked with me several times about projects planned for the classroom, to be sure none of them will be somehow upsetting to me or E. Wonderful.

So why she neglected to mention the CHRISTMAS CHAIN they made in class yesterday, with 24 red and green links and a poem at the top about how this is Emily's Christmas chain and we should hang it up and take off a link each day and when we get to the final, gold link it will be Christmas day...

Baroy called me fuming, because when he saw the chain and told E that we wouldn't be hanging it up in our house, she started crying, and started saying how she hates being Jewish because nobody else is Jewish, etc. I would have gotten equally upset if I'd been there, but since I was at my office, and I didn't see her upset and crying, I was able to be calm about it. I told Baroy to tell E that I would fix the problem when I got home. And I did. I took the chain, cut off five links, crossed out the word Christmas each time it appeared and wrote in the word Chanukah. Et voila! A Chanukah chain.

But you can be sure I'll be talking to the teacher today. I'm going to be kind, even a bit disingenuous. I'm simply going to ask her if there were going to be any kinds of mentions of the chain, like math lessons asking how many links were left, because I'd had to change E's into a Chanukah chain. I know this woman. She's wonderful. And she's going to 'get it' right away, and realize what happened, and I'll get an apology and all will be well.

But it won't really be well, because my kid feels marginalized at this time of year, and even if I understand where that comes from, it's a hard thing to teach a young child.

And that's my problem. You want to focus on Christmas this time of year? You go, girl or boy. You're the majority. You've got the right to do whatever you want to do. You want to even focus on it in the classroom? I'm not going to argue with you there, though I'd appreciate a nod to all the other traditions of the season. But don't ask me to take Christmas into my home. Have E make a stocking to hang up in class; don't have her bring home a Christmas chain. It seems so clear cut to me, and yet, it's clearly not.

I hate being Scrooge, but Scrooge I am, and Scrooge I probably always will be.

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