Christmas Controversy And Hope

The Christmas controversies have started — throughout the English speaking world. Should schools be allowed to put on nativity plays? Can Christmas carols be played in shops or public places? May a crèche be displayed in a town square?

The topic got off to an early start in Britain this year with a front-page news story about a new religious education video just produced for schools. It describes the major feasts and festivals of various faiths — but omits Christmas and Easter. The excuse made was that information about Christmas was easily available, and that as the “holiday season” (as the video producers described it) approached, children needed information about other religions.

In Britain, unlike America, religious education is officially encouraged in schools. Historically, it always centered on Christianity. The trend now is in a different direction.

Blaming this entirely on political correctness is not quite accurate. With large Islamic populations in many British cities, some schools have a 90% Islamic majority among the pupils, and this poses a difficulty in tackling the whole subject of religion.

Although a good case can be made for teaching about Christianity in religious education lessons — and indeed most Islamic parents have shown no objections to this — such things as nativity plays or carol concerts raise different problems. Add to that the fact that many teachers are uncomfortable with the idea celebrating a Christian festival, or feel ill equipped to do so, and you have the ingredients of a complicated problem which shows no sign of going away.

Some schools no longer have the traditional Christmas nativity play — once a feature of every village, suburb and city community — and instead prefer a mix of songs, dances and sketches on a variety of themes. Sometimes this is even done in areas where there are few or no members of non-Christian faiths at the school, and where no objections to Christianity have been raised by parents.

Many teachers — and parents — are genuinely ignorant about the Christmas story and feel confused when asked to teach children about it. A journalist writing in the Independent newspaper in 2002 described a dad, son, and grandma looking at a Christmas crib scene in a shopping center. The boy was throwing money into the manger as if it were a wishing well.

“Don't throw money,” said the grandmother crossly “Give him a potato chip.” The boy asked his father “Dad, what's the baby for?” “I dunno,” was the reply. “Ask your mother when she comes.”

However, there is no doubt that deliberate efforts to undermine the public's sense of normality about celebrating Christmas play a major part in making schools, youth groups and community organizations nervous on the subject.

Disregarding the fact that Christianity is still overwhelmingly the majority faith in Britain, a number of organizations have sought to distance themselves from any public honoring of its annual round of feasts. These include the British Red Cross Society which — with apparently little understanding of the significance of the symbol from which it draws its name — has banned nativity scenes or displays of overtly religious material in its shops. When it announced this policy, the Society was deluged with letters of complaint, and there has also been a fall-off in donations.

Similarly in Canada, when city officials in Toronto two years ago called the 50-foot decorated tree outside City Hall a “holiday tree” public mockery eventually forced a change of approach. Eventually, the Mayor was forced to issue a statement: “Our special events staff went too far with their political correctness when they called it a holiday tree. They were trying to be inclusive and their hearts were in the right place but you can't be politically correct all the time.”

A cheerier note was struck by a broadcaster who robustly defended a program in which children from different schools were brought together to form a choir for carols on a BBC television show: “The Christmas tale is a great romantic story, just as carols are marvellous songs which can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their creed,” Peter Waterman told the London-based Daily Mail. But the problems remain — and, in Europe, are increasing.

It is not only political correctness that forces the pace, but also commercial interests.

In Germany and in much of eastern Europe, an American-style Santa Claus figure threatens to take over from the Christ-child as the traditional deliverer of Christmas gifts. Some church and community groups have even taken to issuing stickers announcing “Santa-free zones,” as they want to preserve their own local tradition with its specifically Christian message.

There is particular concern in eastern Europe, where for decades the Communist authorities sought to promote the idea of “Father Frost” — initiated in Russia in the 1930s as a replacement for St. Nicholas — as a non-religious mythical figure who brought goodies for children.

All this means that Christian families, churches, schools and organizations, who feel a bit beleaguered, are going to have to make extra efforts to emphasize the Christian message at this time of year. Some already are.

In Australia, Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen came swiftly to the support of Prime Minister John Howard when the latter criticized kindergartens and child care centers that had banned nativity plays and replaced them with stories about clowns so as to avoid offending members of other faiths. “It (society) refuses to acknowledge how much it owes to the Christian faith, and the loss is going to be a desperate one,” Jensen said in a statement, calling the ban on nativity scenes “puzzling.”

In Britain, the Knights of St. Columa (British equivalent to the Knights of Columbus in the USA) distribute posters through Catholic parishes every year showing Mary and the Christ-child, and bearing the slogan “Christmas joy.” The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need makes a special point of selling cards with specifically Christian scenes, including several depicting great works of Christian art. “Our cards carry a message — and are meant to do so,” said director of the British section, Neville Kyrke-Smith, “They depict what Christmas is all about.”

And everywhere, Catholic schools and parishes continue to prepare children for the traditional nativity play — boys with towels on their heads will be Joseph, and golden crowns for the Three Kings will be cut from cardboard and decorated with glitter and stickers.

Small girls will dress up in angel costumes, toy lambs will be pressed into service to accompany small shepherds at the Bethlehem manger, and mothers and fathers, grandparents, neighbors and friends will find themselves unexpectedly tearful as they watch the next generation stomp up on to a platform to sing the time-honored carols.

Perhaps they will reflect that, by simply keeping this tradition alive, they are doing more than they know. In tomorrow's world, honoring Christmas is going to be a central neccessity for Christians holding on to their faith and its message, and seeking to spread it to souls hungry for truth and love.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.