For nearly 50 years in Saugus, Mass., a firefighter has donned a Santa suit with green mittens and delivered coloring books to elementary students at school.
On the surface, this tradition in the town of 27,000 north of Boston sounds charming. Santa arrives on a fire truck, and the custom is so ingrained that every Saugus child knows Santa as that man with the green mittens.
In this Dec. 17, 2011 photo, Bill Trochil, portraying Santa Claus, hugs Samantha Munden, 1, both of Manitowoc, as they pose for pictures at the Manitowoc Public Library in Manitowoc, Wis.
Earlier this year, however, the Saugus School Committee reviewed how it should handle Santa’s visit. In December, the superintendent had tried to ban the event after principals complained about some families’ discomfort. The school board decided to continue Santa’s visits, but allow parents to have their children opt out of the experience. Those children would do another “appropriate activity” while Santa made the rounds.
“I think we covered all of the bases,” said Arthur Grabowski, a Saugus School Committee member, in a recent telephone interview. “Life isn’t fair for everybody. Do we have to penalize the 95 percent of the majority for 5 percent of the minority?”
Now Easter is approaching. Should Saugus schools welcome the Easter Bunny, I asked? “Absolutely. It’s a secular thing that the Easter Bunny leaves eggs,” Grabowski said.
The battle in Saugus over whether Santa deserves a place in the classroom should remind the nation how important it is not to simply bow to the majority’s will on anything remotely connected to religion. Home and religious institutions – not schools — are the place to celebrate holidays in diverse America.
Grabowski argues that the Supreme Court has ruled that Santa is secular so it’s okay to embrace the jolly guy in public schools. But the Supreme Court’s interpretation, which referred to town square holiday displays, is not that clear, says Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. Also, the court has not addressed the touchier subject of having Santa or the Easter Bunny present in school.
“Just because it might win in court, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” said Haynes, adding that non-Christians tend to have similar reactions to seeing Santa at school: “Oh, this school is celebrating Christmas. This school is for the majority faith.”
For that matter, not all Christians embrace the Easter Bunny or Saint Nick.
To be sure, one could argue that Saugus cares about the minority. It created an opt-out policy. Parents will get advance notice.
I counter that an opt-out policy can make a bad situation worse. I know from first-hand experience.
When I was young, my family was the only Jewish one in our public school system in rural Ohio. New to the area, we opted out of the public school’s tradition – weekly visits by a church volunteer to teach Christian Bible stories and hymns to elementary students. Weekly, I was ushered from class to the library during religious instruction. I remember how my classmates’ eyes followed me with curiosity. I remember, though it happened nearly 40 years ago, feeling like the permanent outsider in my own school.
In the 1963 Supreme Court decision
Abington v. Schempp
, justices made it clear that letting children opt out of school-sponsored prayer did not “cure the constitutional problem,” notes Haynes. Edward Schempp, the father whose complaint led to prayer’s expulsion from public schools, testified that he decided against excusing his children partly because he feared the exclusion would affect the youngsters’ relationship with teachers and peers.
The debate in Saugus is far from over, says Wendy Reed, the school committee chairman. She plans to revisit the issue once the furor dies down.
“As long as the tradition continues, someone will be excluded,” she says. “It does not make me feel good.”
The Easter Bunny, thankfully, in my view, does not make annual visits to Saugus public schools, but it does visit schools around the country annually. Many school Web sites this month are advertising upcoming Easter Bunny breakfasts. One Pell City, Ala., school includes a graphic of the bunny as it alerts parents that they will soon receive an invitation to have their child come and eat breakfast with the Easter Bunny. In Fitchburg, Mass., the Easter Bunny arrives on a fire truck at a local elementary school for an annual breakfast.
Bunny breakfasts, like Santa in Saugus, are darling traditions. Most are held on Saturdays, but even they lose their charm when they are connected to a public school instead of a church. The Tiverton, RI, schools superintendent five years ago told organizers of a school craft fair to change the visiting Easter Bunny’s name to Peter Rabbit. His point: Not everyone observes the same traditions or religious holidays. He, like the Saugus superintendent, drew ridicule and anger. But both were trying to do the right thing.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist and The Boston Globe’s former education editor, is writing a memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to her faith. Find her on Twitter @lindakwert.