Baby Jesus and obvious religious references left public school holiday celebrations long ago, but now even snowflakes are being blown out of some Southwest Florida schools. Instead of Santa and snowmen, students at Freedom Elementary School in East Manatee will be singing about America and patriotism at this year's winter concert. The switch from Nativity scenes to nationalism is the epitome of the new politically correct seasonal celebration. "There's a lot of rules and regulations out there," said Freedom Principal Gary Holbrook, "You're trying to be respectful of everyone."

While it may seem extreme, Freedom Elementary's elimination of all holiday and seasonal references is becoming more common as school administrators struggle to balance political correctness and a desire to celebrate the holidays with their students. Across the region, school officials are scrambling to ensure no one gets offended. They're setting rules that ban religious symbols and in some cases most seasonal references in the classrooms.

The guidelines for "recognizing" the holidays ("celebrating" is against the rules) are so stiff that some administrators don't even want to talk about their school's traditions. "You won't see any Christmas trees around here," said Anthony DiBello, principal of Braden River Middle School in East Manatee County. "We keep it generic." But across the parking lot at Braden River Elementary School, administrators aren't questioning whether to get a Christmas tree. They're deciding whether it will be real or fake. "You don't want to take it away," said Principal Chuck Fradley.

The two principals' different approaches to celebrating the holidays reflect how the rules are being interpreted differently from school to school. Though the rules in most districts ban teachers from displaying holiday symbols in classrooms, they allow them to use the symbols in a lesson. Teachers argue that all holiday symbols have cultural or historical significance that can be included in lessons. "If you want a Christmas tree you should be able to have it," said Haile Middle School teacher Susan Darovec. "It's kind of ridiculous to be treating it as a religious item."

At Lakewood Ranch High School, students set up a "holiday tree" and decorate it with ornaments reflecting all of the season's celebrations, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa. The history club plans to display holiday traditions

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