Keep Santa, Easter Bunny in their place?

For nearly 50 years in Saugus, Mass., a firefighter has donned a Santa suit with green mittens and delivered coloring … Continued

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.

Matthew Apgar


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.

Linda K. Wertheimer
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  • kuroshimo

    I’m for stricter enforcement of separation of church and state, especially in schools, and I find the whole situation preposterous. It is an incredibly small percentage of children who truly recognize christmas and easter as religious events, and even they tend to ignore that aspect for the secular, business-celebratory, fun bits. There would be issues if the school was being sure to remind kids of the mandates of the Christian faith, but santa and the easter bunny are ultimately just marketing tools that children associate with presents, and there’s only as much harm in exposing kids to them as in exposing students to Tony the Tiger or Smokey the Bear.

  • quiensabe

    What is this madness? NFL playoffs will long be associated with Tim Tebow. Football in public schools should be unconstitutional. Guys who don’t play football are considered gay, so let’s stop it. You hear? STOP it! We don’t want homosexuals to feel like permanent outsiders in their own school, especially 40 years later.

  • jeb_jackson

    Hey, buddy, I noticed Linda didn’t like being stared at when she opted out of Christian Bible story time. Reminds me of what Dad used to say when the Circus came to assembly and he was forced into study hall because he didn’t have a nickle to go see it. I guess it was only right since that was religious discrimination as well…Dad’s folks were as “poor as church mice.”

  • meinpictures227

    The easter bunny isn’t even associated with a Christian holiday. It’s rooted in its symbolism of fertility with the rebirth of spring.

    In second century Europe, the predominate spring festival was a raucous Saxon fertility celebration in honor of the Saxon Goddess Eastre, whose sacred animal was a hare. The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the haer together represent the god and the goddess, respectively.

    Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common- it was believed that at this time, male and female energies were balanced.

  • Catken1

    It always amuses me that men who wear tight pants, huddle together in groups, and pat each other on the rear are the epitome of machismo, while, say, male ballet dancers who spend a good portion of their time embracing beautiful women wearing short skirts and lifting them in the air by their legs are considered “gay”.

  • Catken1

    Psst…the Easter bunny isn’t even Christian. She’s Eostre’s symbol, not Christ’s. So maybe the Christian kids should be the ones opting out?

  • theFSM

    What kind of bunny is it again?

  • plattitudes

    Easter– named after the Saxon Goddess Eastre, as mentioned above. Interesting where the name of the holiday comes from, as you won’t find the word Easter in Christian scripture…

  • plattitudes

    I think the commenters below have the right of it, this is being blown way out of proportion. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are actually a really nice secular middle ground, so all, not just the religious, can celebrate the holiday together, even though we don’t share the same beliefs.

    Let’s face it, it is impossible to remove from public schools every conceivable situation that might make some feel left out. As a kid, I felt left out at recess because my friends wanted to play basketball and I couldn’t hit the backboard, let alone make a basket. Sure I felt left a little bad when I was last picked for the team, but that doesn’t mean the school should have removed their basketball courts! Instead, I held back to the top of the key and tried to get the ball to others who could shoot.

    The point is, if we can get past the victim mentality of being left out, and focus on finding a way to be included, (rather than focus on finding a way to be offended) we’ll end up happier, more united as a group, and even have a lot of fun along the way.

    If we can get past feeling victimized by