Alone in the manger
IN many primary schools, Christmas fever is well under way by the time a couple of windows of the Advent calendar are open. Carols are sung, the nativity is dramatised, dances are perfected and seasonal cards are written and delivered.
This is the cheery, warm, exciting face of Christmas. Most teachers, whether they are of the Christian faith or not, help to project this Christmas ethos. Some will even join in with the Christmas spirit and wear flashing Santa brooches or tie-pins, and dangly Christmas-themed earrings.
One difficulty with teaching Christmas is that as large numbers of teachers have little or no faith in any religion they are more comfortable with teaching the culture of Christmas rather than its religious aspects. This leads to the Christian beliefs of Christmas being overshadowed by the celebration of Christmas.
Infant pupils fervently believe in Santa before they believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Teachers who have experienced Christmas parties where the climax is the sound of sleigh bells and the arrival of a well-disguised Santa are well aware of the child's innocent unquestioning belief in the existence of Santa Claus. Teachers frequently have to console and lie to pupils whose hearts have been broken by senior pupils shouting in the playground: "Santa doesn't exist. He's your ma or da."
Primary teachers constantly rush to achieve their curricular objectives and the Christmas story is no exception. It needs to be taught thoroughly and teachers frequently assume that because pupils should know the nativity story on leaving the infant department, this is indeed the case. The following year, there will be pupils who will ask, "What was that baby's name again?", and teachers will be amazed by how little some children have remembered.
Many also pick up wrong information along the way. When I asked a class to work with a partner to tell the nativity story, I overheard one boy saying to his partner: "The baby's father name was Joseph and he had a coat of many colours."
Another found it acceptable that one wise man would give a gift of "Frankenstein" to welcome the baby. "Are you sure it's Frankenstein?" I asked, hoping to prompt him to realise his mistake.
"Sure, it is," he replied, and proceeded to describe it in far more detail than the gold and myrrh. It was clear that he thought this would be a great present.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, there is a darker side to Christmas that teachers also have to bear in mind and that is responding to the needs f children of other faiths. It is important that they do not feel marginalised by the pervasiveness of Christmas.
For some, the importance of teacher approval and participation weighs heavier than their religious principles. Not wanting to "let their teacher down" or "stand out from the rest" explains why some Muslim, Sikh and Jewish pupils are content to sing Christmas carols and participate in the school nativity.
Another reason is that their families are on the liberal side of the religious spectrum and simply do not mind. Even so, the participation of such pupils is carried out without the background of a Christian belief, and the issue is whether this is ethical.
From my experience, teachers who are non-believers find it difficult to understand why some pupils from other faiths participate in school Christmas activities while others opt out. Teachers who are believers tend to be more understanding and respectful of other religions.
The 5-14 religious and moral education document has as one aim to help pupils "to develop their own beliefs, attitudes, moral values and practices through a process of personal search, discovery and critical evaluation". This can only be achieved if schools respect all pupils' beliefs.
Hindus are accepting of all religions and approve of their children learning about other religions. They view Jesus as a spiritual guru and are happy for their children to participate in Christmas activities.
In contrast, Jehovah Witnesses do not send cards or presents at Christmas and prefer that their children opt out of all school religious activities, including any art activity with Christmas content. Teachers have to find suitable alternative and productive activities and see that they are supervised at the relevant times.
Even if this is cumbersome, teachers should do so willingly rather than just with tolerance. Christmas can be a very difficult time for these children. Non-
participation can mean that they are missing out on the "fun" activities like exchanging Christmas cards and attending the class Christmas party and they may well feel left out.
One way of overcoming this is to include pupils of other faiths to help Christian pupils understand that as Christmas is, in the main, celebrated by Christian people, people of other faiths do not celebrate it. This may seem obvious but members of Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities continue to be asked by their Christian colleagues what they do at Christmas, with an expectation that they must do something special.
That reveals a lack of understanding about the religious significance of Christmas.