NEWBURYPORT — A Secret Santa gift exchange has always been a popular tradition observed in Kathleen Petrie's elementary school classroom, but the jolly old elf is not welcome at Molin Upper Elementary School this year.
Principal Lorene Marx ended the Christmas-themed celebration out of deference to those students who don't celebrate the Christian holiday, St. Nicholas and his flying reindeer. And at least one parent is upset about the loss of the beloved holiday icon.
"I think it is punishing the majority to possibly help a very few," said David Logan, a parent of a child in Petrie's classroom. "I was raised by a Jewish mom, and I see no reason to ban the practice. Why hurt the majority for a few? Don't you think they'll understand?"
In a letter sent out to parents on Dec. 15, Petrie sought to explain the new Secret Santa ban to parents.
"I am soooo sorry to report that we are not allowed to have a Secret Santa in the classroom this year," wrote Petrie. "Mrs. Marx, the principal, asked that we not participate due to the students in the school who do not celebrate Christmas. I completely understand and appreciate the work she is doing to keep all 5th-grade classrooms consistent and on the same page. Sorry for any trouble or disappointment this may have caused."
When reached by phone yesterday, Marx said that the ban was strictly for her school, which serves fourth- and fifth-graders in the district, but the measure should probably be discussed as one the entire district might adopt.
"It's for the school now," Marx said. "It's probably something that needs to be talked about. Many districts have district-wide policies on these things."
Marx said there have been no parent complaints about the gift exchange. She said that her decision was not based solely on the knowledge that not all children in the school celebrate Christmas, though that was one reason.
"We said no classes would be doing Secret Santa for a whole host of reasons," Marx said. "Most schools now are not doing things like that, specifically around Santa Claus in a public school, because there's more diversity and not every student participates in that at home."
She also cited concerns for parents who might not be able to afford a gift for their child's classmates and a desire to create equity among the classrooms, since not all classes participated in the program. Molin offers many other opportunities for students to celebrate the holiday season, she said.
"The kids are having holiday celebrations on the Friday before vacation," Marx said. "The Molin students had their first band and choral concert in early December, and they are presenting for their fellow students. It's not all Christmas songs, though. There are events for students to celebrate the holidays, but not necessarily Santa-type events, and not necessarily Santa or people having to buy things."
But citing the fact that the Newburyport Teachers Association recently joined several other civic organizations in organizing the 39th annual Santa Claus Parade through Newburyport, Logan contends that schools are sending mixed messages to the children.
"Why be a part of the parade and not allow a class celebration?" he asked. "Does that seem congruent?"