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Dec 18, 2012

No schools crusade, kids just prefer a Christ-less Xmas

The media likes to claim Christmas is under attack in state schools. But Melbourne secondary teacher Chris Fotinopoulos found that most parents and pupils are fine with a Christ-less Christmas. Pop stars and circus routines, anyone?


“Christmas without God is essentially how kids understand Christmas these days. And we’re far more comfortable with [our daughter] participating in Christmas activities without religious education instructors meddling.”

That’s how the mother of a grade five pupil summed up her approach to Christmas activities in public schools. It got me thinking about the secularisation of Christmas — and whether, as the media sometimes likes to paint it, it’s a case of political correctness gone mad and holly wars in the playground.

The grade five pupil in question reported that all her classmates participated in Christmas activities with enthusiasm: “We love making Christmas cards for each other, and we especially love decorating the classroom Christmas tree.”

What kind of decoration did you and your classmates make? “Well, we made pencil cases, hand-sewn purses, cardboard-cut outs of our favourite pop stars, favourite song lyrics … one boy even dressed up the angel at the top of the tree in the colours of his footy team.” Doesn’t sound too Christmassy to me.

It occurred to me this is Christmas for her and many kids of her generation. This is how Christmas was celebrated at her kindergarten, her primary school, in the broader community and, more or less, at home. When I was in primary school, the end of the school year involved singing Christmas carols and constructing a nativity diorama. Not any more.

But based on my conversations with current teachers, parents and primary school students, I found little evidence of debate or controversy raging over whether Christ has a place in Christmas in our public schools.

According to media accounts, you’d think there was a small-scale war being fought on public school grounds. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu announced soon after being elected that nativity scenes and children singing carols should once again be part of Christmas celebrations in schools, as if there was a danger of Christmas disappearing. Here was a politician finally standing-up to non-Christian forces hell-bent in killing Christmas in our state schools.

Just last week the state’s Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Minister Nicholas Kotsiras continued the phoney war by encouraging all Victorians “not to be afraid to celebrate Christmas because it might offend someone”.

Are we so afraid we’re reluctant to wish friends, neighbours, children and strangers a merry Christmas out of fear of invoking the wrath of non-Christians and non-believers? What’s more, are school children whispering Christmas carols to each and secretly exchanging Christmas cards behind the school shelter shed out of fear of being caught out by godless teachers?

Most parents I spoke to seem to be fairly relaxed with the idea of their children participating in school-based Christmas activities, particularly when end-of-year primary school festivities have been stripped of scripture and overt religious symbolism.

According to my neighbour, a primary school teacher, “we seek to involve all the kids by making no reference to God, the miraculous birth, heaven, or anything that’s sacred”.

“As one parent put it: ‘The sacred is personal whereas the secular is public. Let’s keep it that way.'”

Even the Christmas carols that were performed at my nephew’s kindergarten had been leached of their religious essence. The performance contained no sacred songs (those that make some mention of Christ’s birth), choosing to stick with secular ones (Santa Claus, snowmen, mistletoe, “cheer”, Scandinavian wildlife and vegetation). As one parent put it: “The sacred is personal whereas the secular is public. Let’s keep it that way.”

One mother suggested to me: “Those who call for the abolition of Christmas activities in schools would do better directing their effort towards ridding state schools of religious education programs where creationism and religious dogma is rammed down our children’s throats”. Added her friend: “If a parent wants their child to experience a full-blooded Christmas, they can always take them to one of the many Christians services that take place in churches throughout Melbourne at this time of the year.”

My niece’s school marks the end of the year with a circus performance. So instead of assuming the role of Joseph, Mary, a shepherd or a magi — as the kids who are involved in the religious education program do — my niece can take on the role of a clown, juggler, acrobat or magician.  As my niece put: “At least as a juggler I get to do something really cool … better than standing around in silence as I had to when I played the part of Mary in kinder.”

For some parents, the secularisation of Christmas has gone too far. One parent said classrooms these days “resemble bloody shopping malls in Christmas”. “And that’s why Christmas celebrations in schools have become bland and meaningless,” lamented another.

I’d argue that children should be free to reject compulsory jollity — particularly when it’s imposed by religious instruction volunteers who lurk around primary schools in the lead-up to Christmas in the hope of relating their version of the miraculous birth to impressionable children.

Enforced Christmas jollity is virtually non-existent at the secondary college I teach at. Not out of fear of offending others — teenagers just prefer to do other things than sing carols, craft cards and decorate trees. As one of my 15-year-old students put it: “By the time we’ve reached secondary college, we’re totally over classroom Christmas activities.” “Christmas,” another said, “is for little kids.”

Which probably explains why Christmas is still celebrated in our pre-schools and our state primary schools, admittedly with less religious fervour. It can’t be such a bad thing.



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22 thoughts on “No schools crusade, kids just prefer a Christ-less Xmas

  1. shanghai

    Given that we prefer a ‘Christless Christmas” we obviously don’t wish to continue with the tradition – hence – let’s not screw around and play games.
    Drop Christmas as a holiday, save lots of money, and more importantly, keep business going thru the holiday season and improve productivity.

  2. wilful

    Merry Christmyth everyone. Our boy learnt last week (indirectly, he’s not enrolled in CRE) that candy canes have red stripes on them to symbolise the blood of Jesus. This follows up the earlier claim that easter eggs are hollow to symbolise the cave of the resurrection.

  3. mikeb

    Candy canes = blood of Jesus? That’s a new one for me……and since when do state primary schools teach creationism? Even the nuns at my Catholic school didn’t teach creationism. Maybe 100 yrs ago but certainly not in recent memory. Bring back the nativity plays and all the trimmings I say. No-one is forcing you to participate (& if they do then they should be stopped). Christmas is too much of a $$fest as it is. Next McD or KFC will be sponsoring it – or even worse.

  4. zut alors

    ‘As one of my 15-year-old students put it: “By the time we’ve reached secondary college, we’re totally over classroom Christmas activities.” “Christmas,” another said, “is for little kids.”’

    Fine, in that case presents for little kids only – anybody over 10 years of age enters a No Gift Zone, let’s prune this commercial travesty known as Christmas. Perfect.

    However, one suspects the dismissive 15 year-old will have his/her hand out for something on 25th. The latest i-phone perhaps…

  5. secondsoprano

    Congratulations for entirely missing the point shanghai.

    The secular celebration IS Christmas for most Australians. Sure it used to be a christian festival (for some it still is). Before that, it used to be a pagan festival.

    Now, it’s a time to rest, reflect, spend time with family & friends, stop working, go to the beach, eat a lot, give presents, share a meal, celebrate family, friends and life. Importantly, it’s an opportunity to do that at the same time everyone else is doing it, because despite Thatcher’s dire predictions there is still a thing called society.

    If you are so inclined, you can go to church at Christmas. Most people don’t. So what? The rest of the tradition still has substantial meaning and value. Babies and bathwater spring to mind at this point … that or “bah humbug”. Either way, I think you’re wrong.

  6. secondsoprano

    @mikeb “since when do state primary schools teach creationism?”

    Since we let publicly funded untrained indoctrinators, aka “scripture teachers” and “school chaplains” loose on our unsuspecting progengy.

  7. zut alors

    Candy cane red stripes as the blood of Jesus? Classic!

    Just when you think they can’t concoct any more weirdo stuff (eg: virgin birth) they produce fresh material. In the northern hemisphere snow must symbolise the dandruff of Jesus.

  8. Frank

    Go jingle jangle on a sunny morning

  9. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    mikeb, if you want a nativity play, or better still a diorama, go to your local McDonalds. Have the fries and little toys with it.

  10. mikeb

    @seconsoprano – evidence that’s what they are doing (teaching creationism) or I call troll.
    @hugh – insulting me doesn’t further your argument. Just shows a lack of imagination or intelligence – troll.

  11. Gerry Smith

    As Australia is now a secular country, I can see no reason for anyone other than Christians to celebrate Christmas. To ‘celebrate’ a festival that means nothing to you is just hypocrisy.

  12. Tim nash

    I celebrate having holidays.

    No matter how you look at it, the two weeks holiday i am about to get put cheer on my face.

  13. Kieran Crichton

    Parents are quite right to reject the sanitised Christmas tableau. It bears no relationship to the gritty and unsettling story found in the Bible, which is in itself quite unsuitable for children. It involves inter-generational marriage, pregnancy out of wedlock, traveling long distances only to be rejected from bottom-of-the-pile accommodation, childbirth in squalid conditions, infanticide on a large scale, flight into refugee accommodation, visitation by strange men bearing ominous gifts, and generally hanging around with the scum of the earth.

    Now, if a sanitised vision of Christmas cheer is under threat in schools, then I say good riddance. It does irreparable harm because it represents an impossibly idealised vision of human happiness. This time of year can be a pit of misery for many of us, and having to put a happy face on it only makes things worse. Most of the non-religious carols we sing seem to be about a winter wonderland, which is strange given the general lack of snow at this time of year. There are Australian Christmas carols, but who has the time to teach them in the age of NAPLAN?

    Where I have a problem is the premise that sacred and secular are eternally separated spheres of influence. This is patently not the case, as the presence of figures in our public life from Tony Abbott through to Peter Jensen and Jim Wallace demonstrates. There is a predominance of a particular sort of religiosity among public figures, and this is a problem. The main public face of religion at the moment is a very rigid and antagonistic one, and it can be very hard for people to see that this is not the end of the story. Certain people get away with bandying around punitive ideas ‘because the Bible says so’ only because the majority of people don’t have the wherewithal to question it right to the very bottom. This is very bad news for women, for gay people, indeed, for anyone who does not enjoy white hetero male privilege. Unsurprisingly, it was the equivalent of the white hetero males of around 2,000 years ago who strang up some peasant from Galilee.

    As far as Bible teaching and religious education in schools goes, I’d say parents are absolutely right to run for cover when religion is used as a tool for ideology. But they owe it to their children to see that they are culturally literate enough to be able to recognise the misuse of religion. Religious illiteracy only makes it easier for the pious quacks to make converts and build influence. They owe it to their children to make sure that they have enough of a handle to be able to beat the next generation of public fundamentalists of the world over the head with it.

    The good news of Christmas is that in the middle of all the messiness of our lives we’re not cut off from something greater. What you call — or don’t call — that something doesn’t matter so much.

  14. IC-1101

    Bunch of grinches.

    It’s a time off to enjoy the world without the stresses of work and life. Yeah, some people have it tough and/or don’t believe in it, but that doesn’t make it any less a time to enjoy life and existence. That’s the point!

    Have fun on your day off.

  15. paddy

    LOL Get it right Zut.
    Those Candy striped canes symbolise the blood of the baby cheeses and *Santa’s* dandruff!
    Now THAT’S a fact worthy of a year’s sub to Crikey.

    Remember where you first read the FULL story folks.

    Now I’ll just be off to scoff the rest of those Xmas eggs.

  16. Deano

    I do feel that Chris’ articles are Crikey’s version of a News Limited formulaic opinion piece that appeals to it’s core supporter base regardless of quality.

    Have an opinion that groups Christians and other religious positions together as one big homogenous threat. Ask a couple of students and parents whose position you already know regards the stated opinion. Write article, rinse and repeat at regular intervals.

    This is disapointing as I think it falls well short of Crikey’s independent minds and independent media position. Usually Crikey is prepared to create space for nuance in response to the main stream media’s use of homogenous groupings on issues, not so much when it comes to Chris’ articles.

  17. Arty

    Doesn’t seem to be a lot of Christian charity attached to this issue on these pages.

    Religious sourced holidays should be available only to card-carrying members of the subject religion. Everyone else should turn up at work.

  18. secondsoprano

    @Arty, I assume all the Christians will be turning up for work, and leaving the celebration to the Pagans, seeing as “their” celebration is “Pagan-sourced”?

  19. Hamis Hill

    It might have had something to do with the time of year, too cold and dark to actually do any work, but didn’t the Emperor Canute (He had his own coinage with which to employ a standing army and comanded several kingdoms, ie emperor) who gave us the weekend off, Saturday afternoon and Sunday, also decree the thirty Days of Christmass as a holiday upon conversion to Christianity?
    We know little Johnny, turncoat to his childhood Methodism, did his darndest to destroy the “weekend” bequeathed upon us by good old Canute, but which sorry set of batardes stole the thirty days of Christmass?
    I’ll bet that prick Abbortt’s lot had something to do with it, just look what they’re doing to democracy.

  20. Watson Bob

    holly wars or holy wars?

  21. mikeb

    A few fundamentalist randoms in Queensland (of course – where else would you expect) doesn’t make the case. Mainstream Christian religions do not teach creationism. When I was a kid 50 years ago even the nuns taught that adam and eve & genesis (etc) were symbolic rather than fact. There will always be rogues, as there are in any organisation – religious or not.


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