Away in a what?

CHILDREN; Questions about the Christmas story can trap the unwary parent. Deborah Holder reports
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"WHO'S Jesus then, mum?" It's one of those million-dollar questions with which children are apt to trap the unwary parent. This particular poser often crops up at Christmas as sentimental nativity scenes appear in high-street windows and the Salvation Army take its message to the streets.

So who is Jesus? It's a big question leading the unsuspecting adult into all sorts of tricky areas: death, heaven, the meaning of life... The Nineties' parent's impulse may be to prattle on liberally about "different gods for different people" but children are quick to reject vague generalisations. They want to know what you, their mum or dad, believes. What, then, do people, believers or not, tell their children?

THE NEW AGER

Clare, 36, was brought up as a Christian and now says her beliefs are a combination of New Age thinking and Buddhism. Michael, her son, is five.

"Jesus first cropped up last Christmas when Michael was four. He was initially interested in what happened to people when they died. I told him consciousness lives on but we leave our body and can choose to live another life - reincarnation, basically. He has said he would like to come back as a lion and I've said he can decide that.

He has asked what God is. I tell him that some people believe he is a person who decides what will happen in our lives, but that I don't believe that. I tell him I believe God is the force of good in everything and that we all have good or `God force' in us. He's very interested in the idea of the devil too. I say that for people who are Christian the devil is the baddy but for me he is not a figure but the bad force and we all have some of that in us too. I say that Jesus and Buddha had more of the good force in them and were special people.

The answer to where we come from is implicit in reincarnation - we've come back from the spirit world into this world, into a different life, so that we can learn something new. He hasn't asked where spirits came from yet. I expect that will be the next question."

THE MODERN CHRISTIAN

Ellen, whose daughter, Mary, is five, was brought up as a Baptist but now describes herself reluctantly as mainstream evangelical: "I hate what evangelical suggests in people's minds."

"Just because Mary has been brought up with religion it doesn't mean she doesn't ask questions. She just asks from the standpoint of certain givens. She'll ask questions or make statements about where God is and how big he is. Because of Christmas, he's had quite a high profile recently. At the moment she's obsessed with God's size. It makes sense really; she's trying to get a handle on the concept that God is everywhere,

She'll ask things like `Is God bigger than a house?', followed by, `If you put all the houses in the world on top of each other, would God be bigger than that?'. I don't describe God as a person. I don't really go for a literal interpretation. At the same time, it's not a woolly idea - God has a real character which I try to convey, and as I explain it to my daughter he is in all of us as we are his creatures. It's interesting that she's never asked what he looks like. The questions are more to do with where he is. There's obviously a lot that is very hard to grasp. She went through a stage of making up songs in the bath about the Holy Spirit but I'm sure she had no idea what that meant.

As far as Christmas images go - the three wise men, the shepherds and their flocks, the baby Jesus in the stable, and so on - I tell her that whether those people were real or not is not the issue; what is important is what those stories tell us. I want Mary to have a healthy understanding of God rather than the dogmatic upbringing that I had myself. I want her to build up her own picture of what is true, to make her own journey."

THE ATHEIST

Jeanne has two children aged three and five. She had no religious upbringing at home but was put off early by the local vicar, "who harped on self- righteously about sinners though everyone knew he was having an affair behind his wife's back".

"Molly started asking questions in the run-up to Christmas. She was listening to carol singers and asked who Jesus was. I told her there might have been a man called Jesus of Nazareth who was a revolutionary thinker and did very good things. The word spread and people wrote about him. The result was the Bible, a collection of stories that grew more and more like fairy stories as they were retold. I tell her there are some very good messages in Bible stories but that they are fables, not true. I've told her that some people believe God is real and still sits in judgement on us today but that I definitely don't believe this. When she's older I'll try to explain why people have a need to believe, but she's too young at the moment. .

To believe that we alone are responsible for the way the world is, especially given the extent to which we've screwed up, is very tough. It's depressing stuff and hard to explain to a child. Who would choose to believe that, instead of the comforting idea that there is a master plan, that our good deeds will one day be recognised, that the bad will get their come uppance in hell, that there is such a thing as forgiveness, heaven?

It's all a bit heavy but I feel I should tell my children the truth, so that they take responsibility for their own lives and actions and act for the right reasons, not out of fear or selfishness, so that they live in the here and now not for some reward after death. Obviously I haven't explained all that to a five-year-old but I have to be on that route. To tell them the cat's has gone to heaven might be comforting in the short run, but ultimately its a lie that will require more lies to make sense of it."

THE MUSLIM

Zara is originally from Pakistan, but her children all grew up here. Her daughter is now 27 but Zara remembers the day she came home from school with Jesus on her mind.

"When Seema was little we always had all the Christmas trimmings - the tree, decorations, presents - so that she would be included in all the excitement and talk about Christmas at school. I'd seen a Muslim friend's daughter come home in tears because she hadn't had any presents. We would have a Christmas dinner, but with halal meat and no alcohol, of course.

I did that until she was seven, then one day near Christmas time she came home from school and said, `We're not Christian are we mum?' I was worried that I had misled her. I explained that we had celebrated Christmas to please her but that it had no religious significance for us.

Since then we have not celebrated Christmas although we do receive cards from friends. It's like any other day for us. Once she realised it meant nothing to us she said, `What's the point? I'll tell them at school about my festival - Eid - and show them my presents then.' At school she continued to learn about Christianity but during that period she became very interested in Muslim stories and asked many questions. I explained that my parents had taught me religious tolerance and we needed to respect other people's beliefs whatever our own were. I was very careful not to say that other religions were not true. She had to grow up here and live with others.

Seema is now a practising Muslim and wears the Islamic scarf. She is much stricter than me and will bring her children up as Muslims from the start. Her generation has returned to Islam."

THE FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIAN

Robert is the 32-year-old father of two sons, aged eight and five. He is a member of the Evangelical Free Church.

"We don't go in for Father Christmas. We felt we wanted to tell them the truth and the truth of Jesus has so much more to it than the story of Father Christmas. It's not really a matter of answering questions because we've usually talked about things before they ask. We base what we say on the teachings of Jesus. They also go to a church school where they do a Christmas play, assemblies etc. We do describe Jesus literally as a baby born to Mary. They've asked about angels - can you see them, what are they doing? Again, I take a biblical view, that they are around and there to help you, that they appeared at Christmas and spoke to Mary. We do talk about them as beings who are real. We talk about Jesus going to heaven and explain that we will go there too and be with Jesus and other people in our family who have died. They find it very comforting.

We do talk about the fact that other people hold other beliefs. My son is sometimes quite concerned for friends with no faith, which applies to most of the children he knows. He'll pray for them and sometimes tell his friends about how Jesus can help. He's taught to respect other religions, but to share his own." !

THE INDIFFERENT

Jacqui describes herself as "nor fussed". She had a C of E upbringing, the most memorable part of which was being told by her mum that they were"not welcome at church any more" following her parents' divorce. Her daughter Maisie is six and would like to be christened.

Maisie was given a book for Christmas two years ago. It's a big, colourful, illustrated book of Bible stories. They're all quite short, just right for bedtime. Well, we've had to read them to her most nights since then. She loved them. The morals are surprisingly adult, although simply explained, and I think that's part of the appeal. She likes the fact that they are part of the real, adult world and about social issues as opposed to Thomas the Tank engine type stuff. Obviously the stories prompted a lot of questions.

Religion is all the more romantic and exotic because we don't go to church. That's a big part of the fascination for her. Personally I don't believe in the Bible, God and Christianity but I believe in some spiritual dimension. I never tell Maisie there's no such thing as Jesus. I equate it with ghosts - lots of people believe in them so who knows.

We talk about other religions and there is one idea I try to put across that's very important to me - that it's hugely arrogant to assume that we've got it right and everyone else is wrong. I hate fanaticism and think religion is the root of most of the world's problems because people believe too strongly.

Maisie hasn't asked about heaven but I wouldn't tell her it doesn't exist. I don't want to scare her, I wouldn't say it's a place where we sit around on clouds playing harps but that I think there is somewhere we go. For the last year she's desperately wanted to be christened which is obviously a bit weird for us. I think it's just the romantic notion of the white dress and everything that she fancies.

The whole thing puts pressure on you as parents. You think, "Oh God, maybe I'm not giving her a solid thing to make up her mind about." But I can't be as convinced as my mum was. I can't bring myself to say, "Everyone all over the world who believes in a different god is wrong", not to myself or Maisie.

THE REVIVALIST

Alice was brought up by "atheist Stalinist" parents. She has three children, three-year-old twins Rose and Tom and Harry who is five.

It started about a year ago with questions about what happens when we die. I said, "You go to heaven to be with God, learn to fly with angels and have a lovely time." After that we had a lot of conversations about God. I told Harry that God had made people. Then he wanted to know who made God. When I said I didn't know he said he could ask God when he got to heaven. I have presented the whole thing as fact rather than something some people believe.

I assume he'll learn about other beliefs as he grows older, at school and from other people. For the time being I like the Bible stories. It's nice for children to have a clear message about right and wrong. They like to do the right thing and to know there's someone looking out for them who always loves them.

I very much missed that spirituality growing up. Although I hover between atheism and agnosticism, I decided to introduce a religion to the kids and I chose the one I'm most familiar with. They can choose what they like when they get older. Maybe it's easier to have faith as an adult if you start out with the possibility of faith as a child.

THE PROFESSIONAL

Jeanne le Burr is the Director of Exploring Parenthood, an organisation that offers advice to parents on everything from bed-wetting and bullying to sex education.

We would say that every culture and religious group has its own beliefs and that is part of the richness of living in a multicultural society. As much as possible, we should all gain by sharing in the festivals of others. Good teachers will present Christmas this way - putting it into a multicultural context. If a child asks who Jesus is, my answer is that we can't not believe in him because we don't know for sure. I would say that whether he was a God or not he was a very good man who did good things for people and had good ideas. It's a mistake for parents to think they have to provide a definite answer. Children love mysteries and the truth is we don't really know.

If you don't believe, you can still be involved. You can celebrate Christmas at its most fundamental level. A festival at this time of year goes back to the very beginning. People thought the sun had gone away and might never come back so it was about celebrating the return of the light which people needed to grow crops, to eat, to hunt, to live - that's as primitive as it gets. This is also something children can understand.

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