What started out as a Jewish mom’s concern over a Christmas tradition at her child’s public elementary school turned into a Claus célèbre in the South Bay.For the last 10 years, Sartorette Elementary School in San Jose had sponsored a field trip for kindergarteners to visit a nearby café, drink hot cocoa and sit on Santa Claus’ lap. The experience also included having the children write letters to Santa ahead of time.
The visit for the school’s three kindergarten classes was set for Dec. 18.
However, the tradition didn’t sit right with the mother of one student. Talia (who has requested that media not use her last name) felt the letter-writing assignment, a reindeer-themed class party and the field trip favored one religion over others — inappropriate for a public school.
Talia’s complaints to Sartorette Principal Scott Johnson led to the school canceling the visit to see Santa, and once her identity and religion became known to the school community, she was hit with a torrent of angry feelings, vented mostly through social media. Talia felt some of the comments smacked of anti-Semitism.
The story also captured media attention, with stories running on TV newscasts and in newspapers across the country, and creating fodder for bloggers.
Many of the accounts hinted that Talia was the villain, using headline language such as “a Jewish mom’s complaint” was to blame for the field trip being canceled, and “Jewish San Jose mother accused of waging ‘war on Christmas.’ ”
“If I had a war on Christmas, I wouldn’t have organized two Christmas displays in the class holiday party,” Talia told J., describing a Dec. 17 party that she helped arrange, one that shined a light on winter holiday traditions from several cultures.
“Nor would I be buying my friends [Christmas] gifts,” she added. “I [didn’t] go into Starbucks and ask for a Hanukkah cup.”
The dust-up began in mid-November when Talia, a credentialed teacher herself, brought up the field trip with her daughter’s teacher and the principal, providing materials and research to support her assertion that a field trip to visit Santa Claus was inappropriate at a public school.
On Nov. 20, she met with the principal who, according to Talia, told her that Santa Claus was “mere folklore.”
At a Dec. 1 meeting of the Cambrian School District board, Talia addressed the members, saying, “We are not asking anyone to stop celebrating Christmas in their homes, churches or private schools. We will teach our daughter and son about our family history and we will also teach them that our Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and atheist friends and neighbors are good people. We want our children to learn about all the religions and cultures … Let’s do that at Sartorette by having a multicultural week at school where kids can bring in items representing their culture.”
Two days later, Talia said, she received a call from Johnson reporting that the assignment had been modified. The Santa encounter during school hours had been altered and the “Dear Santa” letter was changed to a thank-you note to the coffee shop owner. Santa would be at the coffee shop after school.
Talia saw this as an appropriate compromise. No child would feel excluded for not participating in the Santa encounter, but parents could still have their children visit Santa after hours. “The days of asking children to opt out are long over,” she told J. “Teachers are now taught in credential programs, as I was, to design lesson plans to be inclusive to all students.”
Somehow, other parents learned of her efforts and struck back.
While picking up her daughter from school on Dec. 7, Talia said, parents yelled at her, some reportedly shouting “How dare she ruin it for everyone” and “How would she feel if we took away her dreidel table?”
That same day, some parents handed out flyers that read, in part: “A parent through intimidation and intolerance herself has convinced the Cambrian school board into cancelling a decades-old tradition … because the parent does not celebrate Christmas and because she feels that Santa represents modern Christmas, she feels that this field trip combines church and state and is not constitutional and therefore should be eliminated.”
On Dec. 10, with the uproar in full swing, Johnson, the principal who had come up with the earlier compromise, made the decision to cancel the entire affair, including the after-school visit to Santa.
In a Dec. 17 article in the San Jose Mercury News, Melanie Scott, a parent of a first-grader who took the field trip last year, was quoted as saying, “It’s very upsetting that the district would act after taking one person’s opinion and not talking to the 500 other families at the school. But we’re not fighting this woman, in particular; we’re against the school board’s decision. And that’s why we’re doing the walkout, because they didn’t give us a say.”
The “walkout” occurred Dec. 18, the original date of the Santa field trip. Some parents pulled their children out of school and walked them to the café to visit Santa.
Talia said she was alarmed that both her identity and her religion had become public knowledge, even though she had requested anonymity when raising her concerns.
Referring to Talia’s role in the cancellation of the visit, one Facebook commenter wrote, “Wasn’t it the Jews that handed over Christ [to the Romans] to be sacrificed? Can you please explain that to me since you already took this upon yourself to make this a religious debate.”
Another called Talia “a racist and a bigot … you are very hypocritical and are doing exactly what the Nazis did.” The same writer in another post wrote, “How will [your daughter] cope being the most hated child in her elementary school because her mother wants to be the next Hitler.”
A Dec. 15 letter to Sartorette families from Cambrian School District Superintendent Carrie Andrews read in part: “I would like to assure you that there is not a ban on the celebration of holidays” at the school, while acknowledging “we failed as a district to provide adequate information as to the change in the field trip … Cambrian teachers and staff continually are working hard to create an inclusive environment for all students.”
Another parent, in an email to Talia, wrote, “I know you think this is over and your [sic] on vacation and what not, but for me it’s not over. It’s just begun!!!”
Feeling threatened, Talia called the local police, who followed up with that parent, asking her to cease contact with Talia.
When the media ran stories in print, on the air and online in mid-December, it caught the eye of the Anti-Defamation League, which reached out to Talia. She asked the ADL for help in bringing sensitivity and diversity training into the Cambrian district schools.
She also drew the attention of white supremacist websites; one used the headline “Jew Grinch Mom Ruins Little Kid’s Christmas Trip.”
Through it all, Talia also had supporters. Parents posted words of encouragement on the class Google group, with one writing: “You didn’t ruin Santa for anybody. If parents want their kids to see Santa, they should be doing it on their own time.”
Another wrote: “It takes a lot of courage to stand up for your beliefs, and I applaud and respect what you have done … I thought we as a society had figured out how to be more sensitive to each other’s traditions.”
Some parents offered to escort Talia and her daughter to and from school. Support also came from the Rev. Terry Gleeson of All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. He deplored what he called an “outraged response from other parents that has been frightening in its intensity and vitriol … The irony of a young Jewish family being excluded and treated with contempt at Christmas seems entirely lost on Santa’s helpers.”
Jewish community observers also weighed in.
Nancy Appel, associate director of the S.F.-based office of the Anti-Defamation League, said she wants to work with school and district officials “to avoid this situation in the future” by developing “proactive ways to talk about inclusion and what that really means.”
Appel added that the ADL has dealt many times with similar church-state issues, especially around the December holidays in public schools.
“It’s a tricky issue,” she said, “because there is no bright line of what is legal and what is not, what’s religious and what’s cultural, what’s teaching about religion as opposed to engaging in practice. Something may be legal but is it inclusive? Is it appropriate? Is it pedagogically sound?”
Diane Fisher, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, said of the incident, “The emotional reactions Talia got from some parents in the community were unfortunate, but clearly the school is ready to update its curriculum to be more inclusive. These changes will be positive in the end.”
As for the Dec. 17 multicultural holiday party in her daughter’s classroom, Talia said it went well. It featured holiday presentations from the cultures of various countries represented in the classroom, including Korea, India and England.
“The kids had a great time,” she said. “Now all the kids can tell you about a culture or religion celebrated by at least one other child in the class. I believe introducing other peoples’ cultures is important because it teaches tolerance.”
She added that it was appropriate for students and parents, rather than teachers, to do the multicultural presentations.
Despite the acrimony and unwanted attention, Talia said she has no regrets for opposing the Santa Claus field trip, and would do it all again.
“I’m not trying to hide the fact [Jews] are a minority,” she said. “But in a public school, where there is an emphasis on community and belonging, they have to design curriculum so that my daughter can relate to it just like any other child.”