The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 14, 2010

Santa gets the heave-ho-ho-ho

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — This Santa slid down no chimney, but he feels he and the kids got the shaft nonetheless.

Dennis Jackson said it was over-reaching cultural sensitivity that led to being told his annual Santa appearances must cease at St. Peter Head Start classes for young children.

Jackson said he was told “it was against some people’s wishes” for him to make the half-hour appearances for two classes catering to about three dozen children.

He said St. Peter Head Start personnel gave him no reason for the action. He’s made Santa appearances there the past four years to dispense candy bought at his own expense.

“It kind of burnt me up,” he said, speculating that program officials turned him away in deference to requests from immigrant families that don’t celebrate Christmas.

Chris Marben, who coordinates regional Head Start programs through Mankato-based Minnesota Valley Action Council, said as much.

“We have Somali families in the program,” she said. “We’re respecting the wishes of families in the program.”

She didn’t say how many objections were made, but said that program parents are surveyed annually to gauge their feelings toward holiday observances in classes.

She indicated that more than one objection would be sufficient to waive an observance.

“The simple truth is that southern Minnesota has become a much more culturally diverse society than it was a few decades ago,” she said.

“Part of our challenge in Head Start is providing an environment where young children from many different cultures can all feel comfortable.”

Jackson said he’s played Santa with children from other cultures before and they were fully comfortable with him. He said it’s their parents who are being unreasonable.

“They’re not respecting the majority,” he said. “My feeling is (objecting parents) can take their kids out of class for half an hour and let the other kids enjoy it. They should sacrifice, not rule.”

The National Head Start Association is a private, not-for-profit organization that operates school-readiness programs for low-income children and their families.