“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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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