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Norwood in tangle on how to label the winter break

It still begins in late December. And it still ends just after the New Year. But the dispute over what to call that long break from school has put the town of Norwood at the center of a contentious debate about religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and the limits of political correctness.

For as long as anyone can remember, the town’s public schools referred to the school break as “Christmas recess” on its calendar. Then two years ago, the town’s School Committee voted to change the name to “winter recess,” language that proponents viewed as more inclusive of the multiethnic student body.

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But removing the word Christmas from the language infuriated some town residents, who began a two-year battle to convince the School Committee to change its mind. So far, that effort has failed.

But on Monday night, with the approval of the Board of Selectman, the ballot at the town’s annual elections featured a nonbinding referendum urging the School Committee to return the language to “Christmas recess.” Seventy-six percent of voters agreed, although only a small portion turned out, 18 percent.

Now the “Christmas recess” camp will again make its case to the committee, this time with the weight of the referendum on its side.

“This is all part of the general situation in the country today where people are throwing Jesus under the bus and trying to get God out of the public square, in this case by trying to dumb Christmas down to ‘winter recess,’” said Jim Drummey, one of the leaders of the Christmas recess group.

With the referendum vote on his side, Drummey is hoping the School Committee will change its mind. If that does not work, “two of them are up for reelection next year and we’ll encourage some people to run against them,” he said.

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But Courtney Rau Rogers, chairwoman of the School Committee and one of the three members who have repeatedly voted in favor of winter recess, said she is not budging on her stance. She said the school calendar is a simple document to tell when the school is in session, but it is not designed to promote any religious philosophy.

“Christmas is still listed on our school calendar,” Rau Rogers said. “It’s a federal holiday. It’s just no longer the name of the break we have at the end of the calendar year,”

She noted that 26 different languages are spoken in the schools and that the children belong to many different faiths. “To change this language back at this point in time becomes exclusionary and, whether deliberately or not, promotes one particular religious world view over all the others.”

Rau Rogers also said that with just 18 percent voter turnout, the vote on the nonbinding referendum could hardly be considered overwhelming support for the measure.

But committee member Paul Samargedlis, who has repeatedly voted in favor of Christmas recess, plans to bring the matter up for a vote Wednesday night at the committee’s regular meeting, and he believes the board is obligated to listen to the people.

“The way I look at it is simple: No one asked us to change the language in the first place,” he said. “There was no outcry. There was no one saying, ‘Change it.’ Some committee members took it upon themselves. But now the town has spoken pretty strongly in favor of changing it back.”

There are many Christians who see a shift in language about Christmas — “holiday cards” and “holiday trees” are oft-cited examples — as evidence of a “War on Christmas.” The Norwood School Committee is no stranger to being drawn into that argument. Several years ago, it voted to remove a nativity scene from the lawn of Balch Elementary School in South Norwood.

“We had a manger on that lawn for 70 to 80 years,” said Helen Abdallah Donohue, a town selectwoman who voted to put the nonbinding referendum on Monday’s ballot and supports returning to the original Christmas language. “We had 700 signatures in support of it and the whole town wanted it, but the School Committee voted against it. We had to give up on it.”

Theresa McNulty, who has been the driving force behind the effort to persuade the committee to return to the original language, said that those who say the new language is more inclusive are using it as a cover.

“They will say they wanted to do it for diversity, and all that kind of talk, but this is just part of the movement in our country to demote Christianity,” she said.

Globe correspondent Catalina Gaitan contributed to this report. Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@
globe.com
.

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