Elementary schools in Northern Virginia are decorated this week with snowflakes, wreaths and snowmen. A few cutouts of Santa Claus ride the walls. But in many of the schools, the word Christmas is hard to find.
The deletion is deliberate, say school officials, who are attempting to make the "holiday season" as nonreligious as possible. Part of that effort is the result of Supreme Court rulings that ordered religion out of public schools. Another reason for downplaying Christmas is the increasing sensitivity on the part of school administrators to the many non-Christian students.
"For so long Christmas was celebrated in our schools instead of being discussed objectively," says Bob Tripp, a human relations counselor for Fairfax County schools. "More recently, our consciousness has been raised."
Superintendents in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax have issued memorandums stating that care should be taken not to cause embarrassment to students of any, or no, religion during holiday programs. The interpretation of those guidelines has varied, even within the same school system. But the general trend has been to, as one school official put it, "Take Christ out of Christmas."
Parents of Jewish and other non-Christian students have complained for years that the "Christmas" programs in public schools have, in effect, been celebrations of Christianity. Now Christian parents are arguing that the movement away from religious symbolism has gone too far.
"We've gotten about 100 phone calls on both sides of the issues," said Dan Jackson, coordinator of the Fairfax County school human relations office, after attending a PTA meeting last week at Laurel Ridge Elementary School.
The meeting was called to discuss a dispute over the interpretation of county regulations for holiday programs at Laurel Ridge, one of the largest schools in the county with 1,077 students.
Some parents were upset because they feared students would not be allowed to decorate the school or sing holiday songs. Students were even more upset. Three hundred students signed a petition, started by fifth grader Sharon Presley, which asked the administration to "leave Christmas and Hanukah in our school."
"Our biggest concern is not that one religious belief or another will be overemphasized but that all of them will be pushed away from our kids," said Jack Sheehan, father of four children at Laurel Ridge. "We're ignoring (religion) because we don't know how to handle it."
Laurel Ridge principal Ed Barker told those at the meeting his interpretation of the county guidelines had been misunderstood. Songs, decorations and trees would be allowed, he said. And teachers were free to say "Merry Christmas."
"Any art work or songs that come from the students are entirely appropriate," said Barker, "but we should not be in the position of promoting religious observances."
In another incident involving a Fairfax County school, the holiday program at Olde Creek Elementary was canceled after parents of a Jewish student complained that some of the songs were actually religious hymns. An official at the school said a holiday concert would be rescheduled in February.
Spokesmen for Arlington and Alexandria schools say they receive annual complaints about religious symbols, or the lack of them, in holiday programs.
As a result, many schools no longer conduct holiday program. The schools that do have programs usually try to make them as "ecumenical" as possible.
"We have Buddhists, Moslems, Christians and Jews," said Margery Tracy, principal of Arlington's Long Branch Elementary School. "Our program displays all those symbols. We try to do everything in context of understanding differences."
At Devonshire Elementary School in fairfax last week, students and their parents gathered to sing holiday songs and decorate a tree with international ornaments Students or their parents explained the holiday customs of Czechoslovakia, Vietnam and Greece. A Jewish family was supposted to talk about Hanukah but failed to appear.
In Alexandria, the school administration held a seminar for teachers last year to redraft guidelines for holiday celebrations.
"Schools in Alexandria traditionally dealt with the holidays as Christmas alone. Once in a while they'd throw in Hanukah. It kept a lot of children in the schools from participating," said Diane Gould, president of the city PTA Council.
Betty Jo Middleton, a religious educator who has two children in Alexandria public schools, provided the teachers at the seminar with a six-page bibliography of books dealing with alternative holiday programs. The list included books about religious celebrations of primitive people, American Indians and Nordic cultures.
"Most religions and cultures have holidays that coincide with the winter solstice," Middleton said. "You can do things relating to a lot of different holidays at this time of year so you don't observe just one.
"There are people who become very upset at the suggestion that there is something inappropriate about teaching Christmas as a religious holiday in schools."
Middleton, who once presented her views on holiday programs at a PTA meeting, was castigated by a parent who said, "This is supposed to be a Christian nation."
Middleton is a Christian, but she thinks schools are the wrong place for religion. She includes Santa Claus in her list of symbols that should not be overemphasized at Christmas.
Suzanne Speck, who attended the seminar as a representative of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, agrees that teachers who promote Santa Claus can cause guilt feelings among their non-Christian students.
"In order not to step on (religous) toes, teachers sometimes go the Santa Claus route. That can be hurtful to children who don't get presents from Santa," said Speck.
The guidelines issued by Alexandria Superintendent John L. Bristol after that seminar are very much like the regulations in Arlington and Fairfax County. The guidelines read in part, "The proper role that religion plays in the public schools is its educational value rather than its observance or celebration. It is necessary that principals and teachers think out their own roles, because identification with one's own beliefs can lead to unconscious insensitivity.
"Activities in connection with the winter holiday season should focus on the brotherhood of man, peace on earth and those in our schools . . . who are less fortunate than we are."