A time to think of others

26th December 1997 at 00:00
For schools in areas with mixed cultures celebrating Christmas was a challenge. Some chose to emphasis the sharing and caring spirit, others found inspiration from around the world. Helen Hague reports

For many schools, the festive season did not just mean Christmas. The Muslim festival of Eid and the Hindu Diwali are significant dates in schools with an ethnically- diverse intake and even in schools where Christianity is the main faith, novel ways of celebrating Christmas flourished.

Marking the dominant religious festival needed sensitive and imaginative handling to avoid upsetting pupils of other faiths; staging a Nativity play could, in some instances, have been a cultural minefield.

More than 90 per cent of pupils at Carlton junior and infants school in Dewsbury, Kirklees, come from Muslim families. Staff at Carlton school recognise and respect the religious importance of Eid for the bulk of the school's pupils.

Christmas was celebrated, but without overt mention of religion. There were parties for children and parents- musical chairs, pass the parcel, party food and a Christmas tree - but no baby Jesus and no Nativity.

Over the past 18 months, 45 per cent of pupils have been withdrawn from RE lessons by their parents. At nearby schools where Muslim pupils predominate, governors decided that Christmas should go unmarked.

Paul Stones, Carlton's headteacher, thought that alongside this endorsement of Muslim children's faith, it was also important for the school to "come together as a family" to mark Christmas, helping equip pupils with an understanding of a culture where Christmas is a national holiday.

"We have got to respect parents' and governors' wishes. We have got a community of children who are going to grow up and work in a multicultural society where Christmas is a time for sharing and enjoyment. At this time of year we can share food and enjoyment together."

Mr Stones sent Christmas cards to every Christian family with a child at the school and Eid cards to every Muslim family. Many Muslim parents sent him and other staff Christmas cards as a mark of respect for their religion.

Gilthwaites first school in Denby Dale is also in Kirklees, but as a rural primary with an all-white intake, it did not have to be mindful in the same way of differing religious and cultural traditions.

This year pupils explored how different cultures celebrate Christmas, journeying with The Snowman through a series of tableaux performed by different year groups.

Starting with the Mexican Posada - singing, dancing and a Spanish lullaby - The Snowman moved on to Russia to retell the Baboushka story before stopping off in Germany to learn about Christmas tree traditions.

He then dropped in on Scandinavia to catch Saint Lucia's Festival of Light before witnessing a traditional Nativity play in England, performed by pupils from reception and Year 1.

Tony Greenan, the headteacher, put an unambiguous Christian interpretation on the tableaux. "Christmas is not about the materialism the advertisers would have us believe in. The performance put across a simple message - Christmas is about the birth of Christ."

At George Street junior and infants school in Pontypool in South Wales, pupils performed Christmas Around the World. Their celebration of cultural diversity, played to packed and enthusiastic local audiences.

The performance began in Israel with the birth of Jesus performed by the reception class, followed by Baboushka in Russia, Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands, then a spot of Welsh language singing and a visit to Germany for Christingle and Silent Night sung in German.

The tone then changed into comic mode as Year 4 pupils belted out an Australian version of the Twelve Days of Christmas - a Crocodile Dundee-style rewriting of the traditional ditty by Martin Paul, the school's acting head.

The true love's gift on the first day of Christmas was not, as tradition would have it, a Partridge in Pear Tree, but a Pommie and a Eucalyptus, followed by two Koala Bears, three Baby Roos, and four cans of Four X - where eight and nine-year-olds with corks hanging off their hats held aloft empty lager cans.

Ten-year-olds then celebrated Hogmanay in Scotland before Year 6 got down to a spot of rock 'n' roll and cowboy culture in the USA.

Mr Paul said that the Australian celebration showed a "general knees up on the beach" and reminded pupils that the sun shines at Christmas time in Australia. Four X lager had been chosen as "something recognisably Australian". The cans were empty, he said, and "I think it would take a certain kind of mentality to take exception to using them. It is just a bit of fun."

Mr Paul reckoned he knows his school and the local community well enough to ensure that nothing in the production caused offence.

A few years into the new millennium, Christmas and Eid will fall within days of each other. For multicultural schools keen to mark religious festivals, it promises to be quite a party.

East End celebrations, page 20

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