My husband and I bought a house in a good school district in the Bay Area because, as most parents, we wanted the best for our children. Needless to say, we were in shock to find out about some upcoming assignments that were about to take place in our daughter’s kindergarten class.
We were told that all three kindergarten classes were going to spend two writing workshops writing a letter to Santa Claus. A third day would be spent on a field trip walking over to the local coffee shop to meet Santa and deliver their letters to him. The rest of the month, the students would be learning about reindeer, and there would be an end of the year “Reindeer Party.”
This did not sound like the school we thought we knew, with a mission statement that declared itself a caring community which valued global diversity.
I did not grow up with fairy tales of Santa Claus and presents. I grew up hearing real stories of how my grandparents suffered on this holiday due to the yearly pogroms on Jews, falsely accused of killing Jesus. This was my family’s connection to Christmas, and although I was OK with my daughter learning about the holiday, I was not OK with her celebrating it.
So after finding out about these assignments, I wrote an email to the teacher that night and met with her the next morning, suggesting all inclusive assignments where students could write letters to a local food bank or a foster child asking what others needed, instead of what “I wanted,” since this was more about the holiday spirit than anything else. Unfortunately, this idea was rejected. The solution given to me was my daughter could write an alternate letter to a grandparent and stay home from the field trip.
I did not like the idea of my 5-year-old feeling left out of an assignment, being that she is the only Jewish student in the class. How would she feel when she sees her classmates excited about a religious holiday’s tradition that she could not connect to? And I certainly did not like the suggestion given to me that my daughter could “just not come” on the field trip.
As a credentialed teacher myself, I have always been taught that assignments must be inclusive to all students of all backgrounds and religions. And after reaching out to some former advisers in education and experts in religious freedom, my feelings were confirmed: This was not OK. I also did some research of my own and found multiple sources that outlined the psychological and emotional impact that Christmas celebrations in the classroom have on minority children.
My husband and I made a joint appointment with the teacher and principal. I figured since we lived in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area, he was sure to understand. Instead, he had the audacity to look us straight in the eye and say, “Santa isn’t Christmas. He’s folklore.” Now everything has its origins, and Santa may be secular, but one cannot argue that St. Nicholas is directly related to the way the religious holiday of Christmas is celebrated today. Ask any child in that classroom what Santa is to them, and they are not going to say “Thanksgiving.”
At that moment, I knew I couldn’t have a rational discussion with this person. I knew I had to go to the board.
The following week, I attended my first board meeting. Nervous, trembling, but with my husband, my parents, and some friends there for support, I presented them with the same information I had given the teacher and principal. The entire time, I held up a picture of my daughter. I wanted them to see her face, that there was a real child with real feelings being impacted. It is not the board’s policy to comment, so they just listened, stoically. I left them some additional research and went home that night, hoping for the best.
The next morning, I received an email from the district’s superintendent declaring that she had already met with the principal of my daughter’s school to recommend a more balanced holiday curriculum. The next day, the principal called to tell me the writing assignment was replaced with a “thank you” to the owner of the coffee shop, who would be giving all the children free hot chocolate on their field trip. He also told me that Santa would not be there during school hours, but would make himself available after school hours for anyone who wanted to come back. The “Reindeer Party” was replaced with a “Winter Party” where parents could bring in a game or craft representing their culture, with an important note stating that their custom or holiday did not have to fall in the month of December.
So instead of just reindeer, the kindergarteners learned about one boy’s Korean culture, another’s Polish culture, the way two of the kindergarteners celebrate the Diwali festival, the way one student’s father celebrated Christmas growing up in Great Britian, and how my child celebrates Hanukkah.
Unfortunately, some parents from another kindergarten class did not like the idea of removing Santa from the field trip, so they staged a “walk out” protest to meet Santa. They contacted the media, and once the press got a hold of the story, it was reported locally, nationally, and internationally as a “Jewish parent” who got a field trip to Santa canceled.
In my toughest moments throughout this whole ordeal, all I had to do was think about my grandparents and what they went through, and compare it to what I was going through. It certainly helped put things into perspective when I compared a couple of angry moms to brutal beatings, death chambers, and loosing one’s entire family. As we know through history, lots of important causes received plenty of resistance—from slavery and segregation in schools to hanging the confederate flag over South Carolina government buildings and marriage equality.
Even though I was portrayed as the “grinch” in the media, I am proud that long-term progress will be made. I have faith in our superintendent, and I know that from now on, every child who enters that school will feel included in the curriculum. No child will ever be told to “opt out” like mine was.