Everywhere else, the seasonal frenzy has begun, but in the local schools, officials are trying, as delicately as possible, ignore that "Winter Holiday Observance" known elsewhere as Christmas.
Under strict constitutional and legal strictures to be "religiously neutral," most area school jurisdictions are trying not to "embarrass, punish, penalize or promote" any specific attitudes toward Christmas through generalized memoranda and "a lot of hoping for the best," as one official put it.
"How do we deal with it?" sighed a spokesman for the Montgomery County school system. "Tenderly. That's how do it. We just try to stay away from legalistic language, depend on people's sensitivities and judgement, and hope there won't be any creches on the school lawn."
In the District and in Prince George's County, school officials distribute long memorandums to school principals reminding them of "religious neutrality" and "pluralistic societies" ans in Fairfax County, each school comes equiped with a parent-teacher committee on religion to help in planning any holiday observances.
In Montgomery County and in Arlington, school officials send out a set of "Guidelines on Religion and the Public Schools" drawn up by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and Arlington throws in for good measure a magazine article entitled "Taking the Crisis Out of Christmas." In at least one Arlington school, however the crisis seemed determined to stay put.
At Arlington's Washington-Lee High School, rumors were flying faster than snowflakes that this years' door decorating contest could include no religious symbols whatsoever and that carols would be banned from the "Winter Holiday" choir program.
Protest banners were beginning to sprout and more drastic action was being planned when school principal William J. Sharbaugh took to the public address system yesterday morning to quell the fears.
Somehow or other there was a big misinterpretation," Sharbaugh said. "I had no intention of ending the usual traditional practices - Christmas trees are fine, and so are signs saying Merry Christmas and the door decorating is encouraged. I simply want there to be a concern for the rights of others."
At Arlington's Key Elementary School, however, where 40 per cent of the school's 600 students speak English as a second language, the concern over Christmas expressed itself differently. "Our staff was very eager this year to get away from too secular a principal of Key School. "Everybody had had enough of Santa Claus."
This year, students, parents and teachers at Key School are presenting an international Christmas, with food, song and customs from the countries represented at the school. "The minute you say Christmas tree, it becomes a Christian celebration," Sheldon said. "But almost all cultures have some sort of winter holiday, so we decided to approach it that way."
"There's no question that 10 years ago there was too much Christmas in the schools," said Ken Muir, spokesman for Montgomery County schools. "Some of the school programs sounded like church services."
Now, Muir said, the county tries to take a "micale-of-the road approach, Although some schools try to play it safe by ignoring the whole thing."
Not the Prince Georges County. There, the directive is firm. Quoting from a 1964 publication of the American Association of School Administrators, it states: "A public school may not observe Christmas as though it were a church or a combination of churches. On the other hand, an educational institution for children may not, consistent with proven educational principles of readiness and interest, ignore Christmas."
In the 1960s, the instructions were "a lot more specific," a Prince George's County spokeman said. "They spelled out things like no representations of the infant Jesus, that sort thing. Now we feel that we're able to rely more on the individual judgements of the principals, once they're given the philosophical undergriding."
Actually, said one music director, "what all that relying on individual judgement stuff means is that you hear a lot of choruses of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" just to play it safe. People don't even want to touch handel's Messiah anymore."
The less "Messiah" the better, as far as Daniel Mann. the executive director of the Jewish Community COuncil of Greater Washington, is concerned. "I love Handel's Messiah," Mann said."But if it's great music, why can't they teach it in May, not December?"