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How should schools approach Christmas in a multi-cultural society of many different faiths?
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Knowing how to approach the Christmas story can be tricky in these days of political correctness, in a society where only a small minority are regular Christian churchgoers and where schools teach many children from other faiths.

When Birmingham City Council, in an effort to attract more shoppers over a longer period, christened its programme of festive events over Christmas and New Year "Winterval", the move was pounced on by tabloid newspapers and snorted at by the Bishop of Birmingham.

"I laughed out loud when our city council came out with `Winterval' as a way of not talking about Christmas," said the Right Rev Mark Santer, in a recent Christmas message to his flock. "No doubt it was a well-meaning attempt not to offend, not to exclude, not really to say anything at all... Now, it seems, the secular world, which professes respect for all, is deeply embarrassed by faith."

Schools, too, can be "embarrassed" by faith. Lat Blaylock, at the Professional Council for Religious Education, says there is a small number that tackle Christmas without any reference to Christianity. But equally unsatisfactory, he says, are those schools that approach Christmas with the assumption that everyone celebrates it as a Christian festival.

Best practice, he explains, is for a school to reflect on the beliefs and festivals of a faith, in a way that does not require children to participate, and allows them to bring to it their own experiences and insights.

The introduction, four years ago, of "agreed syllabuses" for religious education, drawn up by each local authority, has helped to give teachers more confidence in the subject, says Ian Wragg, chairman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. Typically, these syllabuses introduce different faiths more gradually and in more depth than in the past, so that five-to-seven-year-olds may study Christianity and one other faith, and seven-to-eleven-year-olds, Christianity and two others.

"There is less of the `round-the-world, let's-have-a-party' attitude to world faiths than there was in the Eighties and early Nineties," adds Lat Blaylock.

A considered approach to religion will look not just at the trappings of a particular festival, but at the ideas and beliefs that lie behind it. So, at Christmas, Ian Wragg would like to see a little more than children just dressing up in tea-towels as shepherds and wise men.

"The incarnation is about earthiness, about God getting involved in the messiness of the world... I'm not against Nativity plays, but there is a way in which they can be approached which will show the reality, the agony, the poverty - and not just a sentimental stable which has no smell and no cold."

At St Matthew's Church of England primary school, in inner-city Birmingham (see left), this is the second year running that its pupils - 60 per cent Afro-Caribbean and mixed race, 20 per cent Asian - will experience the Christian Christmas story in full. There will be carols and a Nativity play in church, for all children and their parents, as well as a secular concert; and the crib scene in one school entrance will be balanced by a secular, Santa-based display in another.

"We will be putting the emphasis on giving to others at Christmas, rather than receiving, and because this is a deprived community, we talk about giving of ourselves," says Maggie Scott, St Matthew's head teacher - a Christian, "but not a Bible-thumping one".

The school must share the Christmas story with its pupils, she believes; in many cases, if the school doesn't, no one else will: "It is part of this country's heritage and culture, and we would be depriving children if we didn't tell them about it. Also, we must develop the whole child: their spirituality, care and consideration for others. Christian principles are good principles for bringing up a child, regardless of faith, and Christmas is a good time for looking at these things."

What Christmas Means to Me

WE ASKED children at St Matthew's, Nechells, Birmingham, what was important to them about Christmas:

Coral, 5: "We're going to my nan's for dinner. We'll have a huge turkey and potatoes. I like Christmas because Santa brings us presents. I haven't got a chimney, but I think he'll sneak in through my letterbox."

David, 6: "I'm going to India. I'm going to a temple to celebrate and I've got to go there to pray for my grandad because he died. When I come back from India I've got to go to church, and sing hosannas."

Dinah, 10: "I think Christmas is about being together with your family and loving each other. We'll have all sorts of food: mutton, rice, chicken, peas, salad. We'll put music on really, really loudly and start dancing. Sometimes we have music on other days, but it's more special at Christmas time because you have got to enjoy yourself."

Jason, 10: "Christmas is about turning over a new leaf. It's a special time because you get to know your family more. We go to my nan's on Christmas Eve, and in the morning we go to Leamington to see my auntie. I like people's faces when you give them something. I don't like the story about Jesus as much as I like Noah's Ark. Noah's Ark shows what happens if you don't believe other people - and also I like the animals. In the Christmas story I don't really like people dying - all the baby boys - because I feel sad a lot."

Kamran, 8: "Sometimes we have presents and Christmas cards, but Christmas is like a normal day for us. My brother and sister have to wake up extra early, around 5.30am, because they fast. In the afternoon we put the television on and wait until the fasting is over, at around 4.30pm. After that we all have food and drink. A bit later, after Christmas, is Eid. That's when we have our presents."

Philip, 10: "My mum does the Nativity play at our church with the vicar's wife, and this year I'm an alien. The alien comes down to earth, and it's asking questions like, what's Christmas? I like the Christmas story, especially when it's changed and it's got aliens in it as well. I've got to speak for myself, and I'm going to be all green with little antennae sticking out at the top. It makes the story more interesting."

David, 10: "We don't have Christmas because we are Chinese. We have the Chinese New Year in January, and then we visit our friends and cousins, and people give these little red bags with money in. On Christmas I sometimes think of my friends enjoying themselves. But I don't really feel left out."