Reclaiming Christmas takes on a local twist

Balto. County man challenges calendar

December 20, 2005|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

Dick Walter's four children, all graduates of the Baltimore County public schools, are grown now. But for the past three years, the retired banker has been driving a school bus, which is why he gets the school calendar sent out annually to parents and staff.

As he tells it, he first opened this year's edition a couple of months ago, looking for days off.

The calendar notes the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in October, and Thanksgiving in November. But when he examined the grid for December, he was surprised to see that the square marking the 25th made no mention of Christmas. When he flipped ahead, he found no Easter in April.

He made plans to contact the Board of Education.

"I do not wear my religion on my sleeve," said Walter, a member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Towson. "I'm very much aware of the efforts throughout the country really to avoid offending anyone. But there's no hesitancy to offend Christians."

And so he began his campaign to restore the Christian holy days to the school calendar - and, in so doing, opened a local front in what some are calling a national battle for Christmas.

As in recent years, prominent conservatives are railing against what they say is the secularization of the day on which the nation's Christian majority celebrates the birth of Jesus.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson are challenging communities that ban Nativity scenes from public spaces and school-pageant producers that spurn hymns such as "Silent Night" for faith-free sing-alongs like "Jingle Bells."

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly is inveighing against retailers that wish customers "Happy Holidays" instead of a "Merry Christmas." Fox anchor John Gibson has produced a book titled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

The targets have even included President Bush, a born-again Christian, who was criticized by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights this month for sending out a "holiday season" card that depicted three pets cavorting on a snowy White House lawn and quoted from the Old Testament Book of Psalms instead of the Christian Gospels.

Critics dismiss the notion of a burgeoning war on Christmas as a ruse to raise funds, sell books or rally votes.

Penne L. Restad, the author of Christmas in America: A History, sees in the battle for Christmas a "crisis of confidence" among Americans yearning for a familiar order in chaotic times.

"It just seems that this is part and parcel of something that's probably gripping all of us in the sense that I think that there is some combination of terrorism and millennialism and a sense that the issues have gotten so large," said Restad, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Texas, Austin.

"One of the things, too, is that this idea of public and private has been shifting in the last maybe 40 years," she said. "Religion had been something we did at home and we did in our churches; we did it in the schools to the extent that on Christmas, maybe there'd be a little Nativity pageant.

"This is trying to make what we once held as private or separate from the public sphere and making it a public issue."

But to Pat Cammarata, it's a question of equal treatment.

"I'm not a gung-ho, pro-Christian, pro-Catholic whatever," said Cammarata, a mother of three and a parishioner of the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity in Timonium. "I just feel like if I had to go through the inconvenience of finding a baby sitter for my children on the Jewish holidays that I don't even celebrate, then I should have the acknowledgement that in the winter when we are off, we are off for Christmas, and in the spring when we are off, we are off for Easter."

Kara Calder, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County public schools, says there was no intention to slight Christmas or Christianity. The calendar identifies those weekdays on which schools will be closed - hence the inclusion of the Jewish holy days in October - along with Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, the observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and various professional development days.

Christmas this year and Easter every year fall on Sundays, when schools would be closed anyway.

"After some discussion and review of feedback of the calendar that we've gotten in the past, we've talked about the calendar being reflective of specifically the information that is approved in the Board of Education calendar - and then, also designates dates essential to the business of schools," Calder said.

"First and foremost, the intent is that we very much try to maintain a focus on the purpose of schools."

School board President Thomas G. Grzymski says he was surprised when Walter and Cammarata raised the issue at a recent board meeting. He says board members didn't discuss whether to include Christmas or Easter when they approved the calendar last year.

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