Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Headteachers in some inner city schools have had to introduce initiatives to stop tearaway pupils from bringing knives, knuckle-dusters and other weapons into the classroom. But a school on the edge of the Cotswolds has felt the need to go a little further, ordering students not to wear tinsel at a Christmas party for fear they could be throttled. It has become customary for some pupils of Chipping Sodbury school in Gloucestershire to wear tinsel around their necks at a "mufti" party which they are allowed to attend out of uniform. To the bemusement of parents and children, the school banned pupils from wearing tinsel this Christmas, citing "health and safety reasons".

The deputy headteacher, Mel Jeffries, said: "We want all our children to enjoy Christmas and have a good time, but at the same time making sure there are no accidents to spoil it. If tinsel is worn loosely around the neck it can be pulled tight and we don't want anything like that." One mystified parent, Julie Brown, said: "It's only tinsel - I haven't heard of anyone getting hurt by it." Her eldest daughter, Michelle, 17, has just left the school - having survived years of wearing tinsel on the last day of term. "She always went on the last day of term with some tinsel in her hair and it was never a problem," said Mrs Brown, 42, who has two other children still at the school. Another parent said: "How can the school ban tinsel but allow ties? Surely ties are more likely to cause injury to pupils?"

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From Jeff Jacoby

My one-year-old hasn't built up much of a vocabulary yet -- "wow" and "hey" and "oh" are about the only words he's mastered. But they were all he needed the other night as we drove through Boston's Mission Hill section, gazing at the lavish Christmas displays lighting up so many front yards. On one block we saw Santas and reindeer and a giant polar bear ("Wow!"); on the next there was a beautiful nativity scene and dazzling lights made to look like fireworks ("Hey!"). Rooftops were trimmed with icicle lights, trees pulsed with color, and streets normally bland and unremarkable were lovely in their holiday glow.

I enjoy Christmas decorations -- and Christmas music, and the upbeat Christmastime mood -- and I say that as a practicing Jew for whom Dec. 25 has no theological significance at all. I have never celebrated Christmas, but I like seeing my Christian neighbors celebrate it. I like living in a society that makes a big deal out of religious holidays. Far from feeling threatened when the sights and sounds of Christmas surround me each December, I find them reassuring. They reaffirm the importance of the Judeo-Christian culture that has made America so exceptional -- and such a safe and tolerant haven for a religious minority like mine.

Unfortunately, it isn't only nativity scenes and Santas that make an appearance every Christmas. The holiday season also heralds the annual return of Scrooge and the Grinch. Or, as they're known in Bellevue, Wash., these days, Sidney and Jennifer Stock.

The Stocks are atheists who want Bellevue's city council to remove the Christmas tree from the lobby of City Hall. Since "it is impossible for everybody's religious belief to be displayed and non-religious belief to be displayed," Sidney Stock told reporters last week, "no religious beliefs [should] be displayed."

Never mind that Christmas trees themselves have no religious significance. In Bellevue, as it happens, they don't even call it a Christmas tree. They call it a "giving tree," because its purpose is to stimulate gifts to the poor. In addition to tinsel and gold ribbon, the tree is hung with requests from needy families, and passersby are encouraged to help the less fortunate by making a donation. According to KOMO-TV in Seattle, the giving tree generates nearly $25,000 in contributions.

Most Americans, whatever their faith, would regard Bellevue's tree as a beautiful demonstration of true Christmas spirit. But to the Stocks, its presence on city property is a matter of "injustice and inequality." That is the voice of anti-religious fanaticism -- what Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the Orthodox Jewish founder of Toward Tradition, calls "secular fundamentalism."

Every year these fundamentalists renew their assault on Christmas and its Christian meaning. Sometimes they claim the Constitution bars any expression of religion in government venues (it doesn't). Or they speak of "sensitivity" to those of other faiths. Or they couch their censorship in the language of "tolerance" and "diversity." Or they simply oppose any reference to Christmas at all. One way or another they end up demanding that America's vast Christian majority keep its religious feelings to itself. It's an outrageous demand, and it leads to outrageous results:

(*) In Maplewood and South Orange, N.J., the school board has banned all Christmas carols, even instrumentals, from holiday concerts.

(*) In Denver, the city's annual Parade of Lights included German folk dancers, a gay and lesbian Indian group, and belly dancers -- but a Christian-themed float was banned because it would have included a message reading "Merry Christmas."

(*) In Southwest Florida, the rule against celebrating holidays is so rigid that one middle school principal told the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "You won't see any Christmas trees around here. We keep it generic."

(*) In New York City, official school board policy authorizes displays of "Christmas trees, menorahs, and the [Muslim] star and crescent" -- which it describes as "secular holiday symbol decorations" -- but prohibits depictions of the nativity.

(*) In Franklin, Mich., the annual Holly Day celebration has been renamed the Franklin Winter Festival. "Holly Day," the sponsors decided, sounded too Christmassy. "We wanted to try to make it more inclusive."

But there is nothing inclusive about silencing the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christians, after all, have freedom of religion, too -- and that freedom shelters my faith no less than it does theirs. Christmas is a blessing for all Americans. May yours be filled with joy.


Compulsory religious studies would be dropped in favour of lessons on human society and the environment under a plan being considered by school authorities. But Jewish and Christian groups warned yesterday that ending mandatory teaching of religion to primary school students would increase intolerance and division. The NSW Board of Studies is considering changes to the syllabus for kindergarten through to Year 6 that reduce the number of mandatory subjects. Teachers would have more time to focus on helping students with literacy and numeracy as well as greater flexibility to develop their lessons, says a consultation paper released by the board. The paper suggests teaching students about the customs, practices, symbols, languages and traditions of their family and community as part of a mandatory subject called human society and its environment. But mention of religion has been dropped.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff said yesterday he was very concerned about the proposed changes, which would apply to all primary school students. Religious schools in NSW teach religion as a separate subject. In most other states, teaching a basic understanding of religions and cultural diversity is part of the curriculum. "We live in a multicultural society and it is critical that people, especially from a young age, are not only familiar with the differences in our society but are comfortable with these differences," said Mr Alhadeff, whose board has written a submission for the board of studies. "And the best way to achieve that is in a classroom where there is nothing exceptional about it being taught."

Other community leaders said they were concerned that as a result of the changes, religious schools would be able to teach their own religion but would have no obligation to mention the existence of others. "With so many conflicts in the world at the moment based on religion, this seems extraordinary," one said. Christian Schools Australia said it also had concerns about the plan, although a spokesman said its schools taught students about the existence of all religions, not just Christianity. "To not discuss openly and fully the background of the Australian community is both un-Australian and potentially divisive," said CSA chief executive Stephen O'Doherty. "I think it works against the interests of the public schools and works against the interests of tolerance and respect for each other."

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