Children from all faiths tell the Christmas story: Pupils from many different religious backgrounds will be the stars of hundreds of school nativity plays this month. Michael Durham reports

CHRISTMAS is the season of carols, mistletoe - and school nativity plays. In multicultural Britain, it is also a time when Joseph is quite likely to be played by a Muslim boy and Mary by a Hindu girl.

In primary schools throughout the country, the Christmas story will be acted out in assembly this week. But in many inner-city schools, ethnic diversity leads to some intriguing casting.

Today, it is common for children of other religions to take part in nominally Christian events. As well as appearing in nativity plays, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh children learn to sing carols, send Christmas cards and make Advent calendars.

At Claremont Primary School, Nottingham, last week, Mary was played by a four-year-old girl of mixed race and the angel Gabriel by a Muslim. The three wise men were all girls - Sikh, Muslim and Christian.

Trevor Williams, the headteacher, said: 'We involve children of every background in celebrating Christmas. Nobody has ever complained.'

The school, with 330 children and 60 nursery places, is about half white and half from ethnic minorities. There are at least five different religions. All the children have a traditional Christmas, with presents, cake, and cards. Tomorrow, children of every faith will visit the local church to be shown round by the vicar. On Wednesday, there will be class Christmas parties.

At other times of the year, the whole school recognises different festivals. In early summer, the children learn about Eid, the Muslim celebration of the end of Ramadan. In autumn they celebrate Vaisakhi, the Sikh harvest festival. In November it is the turn of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and in December of Jewish Hannukah.

'Religion plays an important part in the world. If the children are going to form opinions in later life it is sensible for them to be well informed,' Mr Williams said. 'And the school is part of a very exciting mixed local community. It should reflect that.

'Once a Muslim parent complained that he didn't want his child to go to the Sikh temple, but he backed down when we explained the children went to learn and not to worship. Some Christian families have been anxious. A few years ago there was one very racist parent and I had to meet a group of 20 outside the school. They were just ignorant. Within half an hour they had changed their minds.'

The children enjoy it. Assan, 10, who goes to the mosque with his family every day, said: 'I look forward to it. You learn to respect other people's opinions.'

Canon Barnett Primary School in Tower Hamlets, east London, also makes Christmas a big event - its nativity play is on Wednesday - even though it has few Christian pupils. Its headteacher, Rani Shamas, said: 'The children live in a host country that is predominantly Christian, so they need to learn and understand about Christmas.'

However, some advocates of separate cultural development for children are worried by the arrival of the multi- cultural Christmas. Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, said multi-faith religious education was extremely dangerous. 'Children these days are taught that all religions are of equal worth, which means that their own has no special value. The same applies to every group. It is sensible for Indian youngsters to celebrate Christmas with a nativity play, but not if it is an act of worship.'

Richard Wilkins, secretary of the Association of Christian Teachers, said: 'I have no objection to a Muslim or Sikh taking part in a nativity play. But I wouldn't be surprised if their parents had something to say about it. If they objected, I would back them, just as I would Christian parents who didn't want their child in a Hindu epic.

'The fact that people are killing each other in India shows how seriously people take it. It's wrong for schools to suggest that the differences between religions don't matter.'

(Photograph omitted)