A San Jose kindergarten class’s field trip to visit Santa was abruptly canceled this week, launching a Christmas controversy that has left a slew of hurt feelings and a planned protest in which parents will take their children to visit St. Nick anyway.
Sartorette Elementary School students were slated to walk to a nearby coffee shop on Friday morning to sip hot chocolate and sit on Santa’s lap, as they have for the past 10 years. But that tradition is over – at least for this year – after a Jewish mother said she didn’t want her 5-year-old daughter to participate.
Now, plenty of parents are mad at the woman, calling her out and unfriending her on Facebook. She says one parent volunteer shouted at her on Wednesday morning: "You’re the one who started the war on Christmas."
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Talia, a certified California teacher herself who requested her last name not be used, says she didn’t like the fact that one religion, Christianity, was the focus of most of the December teachings in school. Specifically, she didn’t like her daughter writing letters to the North Pole for two days in a row, dressing up as reindeer, and a big annual field trip to the local coffee shop where the kids sit on Santa’s lap and ask for presents.
After she wrote letters, voiced her concern at a Dec. 1 school board meeting and met with the school superintendent, it was decided, out of fairness, the field trip to Big E Café on Branham Lane would be canceled.
Both sides say the other is fostering a culture of intolerance.
"This is not a Jewish issue for me," Talia said on Wednesday. "It’s an inclusion issue. We can’t spend five days on just one culture. That’s fostering intolerance. When Christmas is given the same time, or less time, than American holidays, like Veterans Day, then kids don’t feel as American."
Talia says her daughter is the only Jewish student in the class, which also comprises a half-dozen other cultures, which Talia said also aren’t fairly represented during the winter holiday time. In Talia’s family, her grandparents told stories at Christmastime of getting beaten for being Jewish in Poland prior to the Holocaust.
But Joanne Tashiro represents many other parents who are upset with "one parent, who along with a rash board decision, ripped apart the community by forcing the school to remove a much-revered field trip by fighting religious imbalance in the curriculum."
Tashiro said that Talia is trying to "scrub down our school and devoid it of any cultural teaching or tolerance." She added: "In striving for tolerance, this person is stripping our school of any exposure to culture."
Tashiro and other parents said they plan to keep their children out of school on Friday and visit Santa at the Big E Café despite the field trip’s cancellation.
Before the field trip was officially canceled, Talia had worked out a compromise with the school to write "thank you" letters to the coffee shop owner, instead of writing Santa, and walking to the café to drink hot chocolate, as long as Santa showed up after school hours for parents to visit on their own. She signed a permission slip for her daughter to attend.
But Big E Café owner Ernesto May said he opens his shop to many schools in the neighborhood, and couldn’t alter Santa’s hours to accommodate Sartorette students.
"I can’t get rid of Santa," he said. "It’s an unfortunate situation. Last year, we had 160 children come by to decorate the place, drop letters off to Santa and families donated toys."
May said he thinks the children, whether they celebrate Christmas or not, should be able to sit on Santa’s lap. "What are they going to cancel next?" he asked. "I know she means well, but we can’t shield our children from everything. When is it going to stop?"
Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., said he feels that stopping the Santa visit was the right thing to do. Talia used Haynes’ supporting material to present to the school board this month.
"This assignment is inappropriate in a public school," he said. "What is legal is not always right. At the very least, this is ill advised. You shouldn’t have a holiday experience that privileges just one particular religion."
And it was with that spirit that Cambrian School Superintendent Carrie Andrews said she stands by this year’s decision to cancel the Santa field trip.
"Our biggest commitment is inclusion," she said. "This isn’t about Santa. Santa is everywhere, he’s all around town. But during school, we have to represent and reflect our community to make sure we’re inclusive of all beliefs."
California Department of Education guidelines, Andrews pointed out, are supposed to focus on more than one religious belief.
Andrews is rounding up a group of parents and community leaders to see if and how they can make changes for next year.
"This is an opportunity to have a discussion," she said. And as for the school walkout, she added: "I truly hope that doesn’t occur."