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Cuddly toys are no real substitute

VISUALISE the scene. The afternoon of the Christmas vacation, everyone has disappeared like snow off a dyke, it's dull and slushy outside, the lights are off, and the world of school has been left to silence, the janitor and me. And Sylvia.

It's an hour after we closed down, and Sylvia from P1 has not been collected yet by chemically fuelled parents creatively inventive in their excuses for never being on time for her.

She's not entirely alone though as janitor and I go about our business. Sylvia had got her Christmas present the day before, and had proudly shown it to me earlier in the day. A small cuddly toy, it produced "How much is that doggie in the window?" if you pressed its head. It was eerie to hear in the dark silent corridor that normally vibrates with animal energy. The scene spelled out for me just about everything that is wrong about Christmas.

I have nothing but admiration for the resilience of our children in the face of the blitzkrieg of advertising manipulation that by the time Christmas has come, they have experienced for three months, 25 per cent of the year, every time they turned on TV for the programmes dedicated to them. Most have surrendered by December and so have their parents.

It would take a Houdini to escape from the socially and culturally spurious knots the master strategists of media manipulation have tied them up in, getting them ad hoc in hock, with images of well fed middle-class little girls fired with love for their Barbie and Ken as they apply their make-up, competing with the jungle warfare geared doll, well-equipped to kick the liver and lights out of enemy figures.

That's not to take into consideration the unremitting effort to manufacture a generation of peaky pasty-faced geeks and nerds with bad breath, screwed into their computer chairs as if by superglue, dodging in and out of MultiUser Dungeons.

All this in the name of Christmas. In a school committed to Christian values, I feel that at this time of the year these values have their backs to the wall. The whole jamboree is totally inimical to them or any defending of them, and I would imagine that any religiously inclined person urging that we put Christ back into Christmas would be handled roughly by the marketeers who have hijacked His position and substituted the Spice Babes for the Babe of Bethlehem.

Birmingham has shown the way with Winterval, a festival for Christmas time that succeeded in not mentioning Christ at all. Angels, carols and twinkle powder were enough.

In our school, we have waged a war on a variety of fronts, mostly attritional, to keep the Christian message at the forefront, because that is what we are there to do, though ruthless honesty would suggest that it's been harder than usual to decide which has been more stressful, winding up or winding down.

Advent calendars (no Teletubbies allowed) have been opened, assemblies have stressed the Christian meaning of the season, Christmas cards have circulated for at least three weeks, cribs have been set up and our Christmas concert finally hit the boards.

It was perhaps the piece de resistance of the campaign. "Hosanna Rock" may have been an example of inculturation, adapting the message to fit within the cultural patterns of the hearers, but looking around me, I got the impression that it made an impact. It brought to mind a quote I have tried to trace but failed. "Creatures sitting at a play have by the very cunning of the scene been struck so to the soul."

I hope for next time round that the messages we have tried to pass on to our children and parents stick just a little. One of these has been to try to persuade parents that there is more to Christmas than going down to the financial wire and staying there for the foreseeable future to buy gifts in abundance, or even buying gifts at all.

Sylvia and her cuddly doll with its plaintive tune showed very clearly to me in the gloomy corridor that there is no substitute for closeness and Pounds 100 of gifts is worth nothing without real affection.

If I were allowed a Christmas wish for my children, it would be for real meaningful family time together, warmhearted relationships all year round and the certainty of real friendship. I wish these for you. Happy Christmas.

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