View from here - Growing coy over Christmas

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Schools in Canada tread on increasingly thin ice when dealing with the festive season, finds Nathan Rogers

For decades, moralists have complained about the commercialisation of Christmas. This year, economists, merchants and politicians, anxious to point to proof that the recession is over, were waiting for word that shopping centres were full and more of us were spending more on iPods, video games and other gifts.

But the curmudgeons will recall Christmases gone by and call in to radio talk shows to say how they were happy with an orange or a sledge. Radio shows will, without irony, read "The Hockey Sweater", Canada's contribution to Yuletide stories in which a young French Montrealer is mistakenly sent a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey sweater (imagine if a Glasgow Rangers fan received a Celtic shirt).

Schools in Canada, as in many parts of the western world, can have an oddly coy relationship with the word "Christmas". These days, kids in Calgary, Alberta, Vancouver and elsewhere get a "winter break", presumably because little Yitzchak, Farah, Lin, Liu or Ravi would feel alienated were his or her furlough from classes called Christmas (though every mall they hang out in features "Christmas sales" and I've never heard of a high-school student with a part-time job - no matter what their religion - complain about getting time off or double pay).

Such coyness is not new to North America. In the mid-1960s, fearing the Christmas vacation excluded the schools' large Jewish population, educrats in New York began renaming the almost two-week hiatus "winter recess".

School boards in Ontario and Quebec, along with other agencies, now set up "holiday trees" - one waggish blogger suggested they speak only of "non-denominational conifers".

But the occasion most fraught with politically correct angst is the school Christmas concert. Taking their lead from board officials, many schools have renamed it the "winter concert". Even more contentious is the song list. In 2007, teachers at Elmdale School, an elementary in Ottawa, decided to replace the phrase "Christmas Day" with "festive day" in the song "Silver Bells". The school was not trying to ban the word totally - other songs on its programme included "Candles of Christmas", "Candles of Hanukkah", "Pere Noel" and "It's Christmas".

But its bid to make one song more inclusive provoked uproar: the school was deluged with angry phone calls and police received a hoax bomb threat. On the day, the teachers dropped "Silver Bells" for the less contentious "Frosty the Snowman". Local school board spokeswoman Sharlene Hunter told the Ottawa Citizen that after the controversy "the teachers were visibly and emotionally upset and didn't feel they could conduct that song to the best of their ability".

But rest assured, the word "Christmas" has not been exiled from all Canadian schools. A search of online listings shows schools belonging to Ontario's Catholic boards, and hundreds of others across the country, still hold "Christmas concerts" and "Christmas parties". One even holds events with "Christmas" in the title all year round - but then Christmas Park Elementary School in suburban Montreal doesn't really have a choice.

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