The December Dilemma – Part 2

Note:  As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.

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Photo from the ADL

As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take.  Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.

It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.

I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.

Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.

Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.

“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.

We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.

The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.

The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.

The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.

“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.

“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.

This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.

The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.

As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.

I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.

The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.

One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?

Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.

The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.

It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.

It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.

6 thoughts on “The December Dilemma – Part 2

  1. Endeavors to increase sensitivity should not be viewed as fruitless. You enlighten a few people and that will have an effect not visible to you.

    The preschool issue is a good deal less concerning as to what happens there than post preschool. Not sure that a Santa costume as opposed to a big bird costume or a clown will have a long term impact.

    And as you mention – if the issue is framed that most 2 -3 year olds would be terrified of these types of costumes the question of having Christian symbols foisted on all children is probably avoided.

    I think as we move forward the most effective way to address the issue is to INCLUDE as part of the education of children knowledge of ALL types of religions and cultures as opposed to trying to focus on any particular religious symbol. That is our best hope for the future.

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  2. I agree with Uncle Mark on this one, inclusion is key. If there had been a Hanukkah celebration to accompany the Christmas celebration would Santa still have made you so uncomfortable? If other parents wouldn’t let their children participate in the Hanukkah festivities, how would you have felt? What would have happened if the focus was adding more education and activities about other types of cultural/religious celebrations rather than removing them? Is there truly an impact on the children or are they too young to remember/understand anyway?

    I remember “celebrating” Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza in elementary school. None seemed to be specifically linked to religion, and, to kids, the more holidays the better! I would posit that its the adults that haven’t made progress, the kids are just fine at acceptance until they start taking after their parents.

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    1. Thanks, Nicolette for your thoughts. I’m good with education about religious traditions – and I imagine it would have been somewhat better if Hanukkah and other holidays had been celebrated, as well. Unfortunately, though, I think it is more complicated than that. When one group is in the majority, it is a nice gesture to include others, but it can be fraught. If teachers actually know little about other faith traditions, it can come off as tokenism or condescending. I actually think the better course is to teach about religion and its traditions, but not to actually celebrate them in public school settings. I see a difference between learning about something and being asked to participate in a celebration/observance. I have no doubt that adults mess things up – perhaps all the more reason to simply not go there.

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  3. After all these years and after a two week, exquisitely written, blog post, somehow I am still not quite certain how to synthesize my thoughts about what happened those many years ago. We all know what it was that we witnessed, in a rather naked although a not physically violent form.
    And, while I agree that education is important, some of this is not about education and I fear not remediable through education. Some of it is about power and tribalism.
    While I am proud of the times we have stood up and shown our outrage over injustices suffered by others, I believe we should not be unwilling to express that same outrage on our own behalf. After all, we too have the right to exist and it is our country too.
    Thank you for this challenging and difficult slice of reality and for awakening us to aspects of our society and of human nature that we would not ordinarily want to think about.

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    1. I think part of the reason I wanted to write the blog piece, as I think about it now, is to explore how hard it was to pursue it – and knowing that we (or I) didn’t handle it perfectly. Thanks for your support.

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