Before too long, the Christmas vacation will be over and children across the land will return to their classrooms. One of the phrases most overheard in their first interactions after the holidays will inevitably be ‘What did you get for Christmas?’
This question can be difficult for some children. Perhaps you didn’t receive the latest iphone or object of desire. Perhaps your family – like many – didn’t pass the holidays harmoniously. Or, for a small minority, perhaps your family didn’t have Christmas at all.
As a child growing up with a family who did not observe Christmas festivities for religious reasons, my experience of school in the run-up to the holidays, and the return back in January, was always a stark reminder of my own difference. For most of my peers, not celebrating Christmas was outrageous, incredible. For me it was a source of childish pride that later soured, as my difference became the cause of some quite nasty jeering that outlasted the festive season.
In this blog, I consider religious diversity in relation to Christmas and what that means for schools. The RE classroom is probably the place in school where Christmas is most critically appraised. Popular RE textbooks and activities explain the origins of Christmas festivities, which helps students realise that there are many borrowed Christmas traditions. Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Rather, the Roman festival of saturnalia, the winter solstice, German folk religion and Coca-Cola advertisements have all made their contribution to what we think is normal at this time of year, (not to mention Wham! or The Pogues). It is outside the RE classroom – even in the most secular of schools and secular of subjects – that the most unreflective Christmas spirit lingers. In classrooms of every type, there will be festive videos, games, mistletoe, card giving, quizzes and pantomimes. A teacher would be a scrooge in making you work on the last day of term.
Current research shows that Britain is so secular that even the term ‘religious diversity’ should perhaps be replaced with ‘diversity’. The number of people declaring themselves as ‘no-religion’ is increasing rapidly. One useful observation here is the Norwegian religious educator, Geir Skeie’s dichotomy between traditional plurality and modern plurality. The former is religious diversity caused by the migration of those with different religions, the latter the diversity caused by the postmodern condition of being able to choose one’s own worldview from an array of sources: from Che Guevara to gothic rock music; from Star Wars to mindfulness. However, the ‘new normal’ of no religion does not preclude Christmas, and traditional religious plurality does not oppose it either. I have never met a practising adherent of a non-Christian religion who does not appreciate the importance of those of other faiths celebrating their festivals. Not only that, but in the UK many Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish families in some way acknowledge the passing of Christmas, be it with the exchange of gifts or the attendance of parties. Indeed, not celebrating Christmas may be difficult. It is a national holiday after all. This is something my family discovered long ago. Whatever you choose to do or not to do, it is still Christmas and Britain, for a moment, stops. It is a time for family rituals and therefore any action performed during it takes on symbolic meaning, even if that is watching Star Wars or playing Monopoly.
The religious educator could be forgiven for thinking, as often is argued by religionists, that because of the commercial and secular aspects of Christmas, it is no longer a religious festival. However, it is quite clear that while the holiday season may involve all kinds of things considered outside of religion – such as drinking, office parties, shopping, Christmas jumpers, cooking etc. – once the festive elements are taken away; it is not the same. You could cook a turkey any time of the year, but at Christmas choirs of angels do sing, people do attend church services, and people do wish, for a short time, for peace on earth (or at least between loved ones). Christmas therefore becomes a paradigmatic example of the tenacity of religion, and how Christianity permeates much of what we consider to be secular culture. Just because much of it is frivolous does not mean it cannot be religion. Christmas festivities can act as bonding rituals within families and between neighbours, co-workers, and even strangers of all kinds of religious, and non-religious persuasions.
A third kind of religious diversity is that caused by different kinds of Christian Theology. It is within different traditions of Christianity that we may find some of the deepest divisions over the celebration of Christmas. Distinct from the parts of Europe that never went through the reformation, festivals are not really a British thing. Indeed, Christmas, considered as a popish and pagan festivity, was banned in England in the 1640s until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – along with all kinds of other religiously themed fun and games. Much of what we think is the proper British Christmas originated in the nineteenth century when the Church of England went through a process of re-catholicisation. My own family did not celebrate Christmas due to beliefs about its non-Biblical provenance, something shared by several Protestant denominations. This meant that the whole school culture of Christmas was quite alien to me. It was not until later in life that I personally found Biblical fundamentalism less convincing and the arguments about the symbolic meaning of the liturgical year more persuasive (and more fun).
Christmas provides a great object lesson for religious education. By examining it we can understand more about the religious diversity around us, and the history of Christianity. We can take something seemingly secular, decode its religious past and consider its relevance today. This is surely the gift that RE can give the rest of the school while the other usual frivolities take place. Perhaps one important lesson to be learnt from studying the role of feasts in Christianity, and the religious history of Britain, is that we have fewer public holidays than countries in continental Europe, and much of the world. You could say, therefore, that RE teaches us we should take the opportunity to celebrate and enjoy a rest from normal life while we can. For that is the true purpose of any festival. A well-deserved break is a good thing to get for Christmas – whatever else you may think or believe.
Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit.