Teaching about Christmas
Every year, around the end of November or early December, there will be
an article in the news or on talk-back radio about what schools can do
in the lead-up Christmas to teach about and celebrate Christmas.
Sometimes driven by Christians feeling threatened by the “secular”
public schools excluding Christmas they perpetuate myths about the
nature of religious education in NSW Government schools. What follows
is some myth buster information.
MYTH 1. The separation of
religion and state precludes teaching about Christmas.
This myth comes from watching too much American television. It confuses
the law in the United States about religion in public schools,
particular in relation to prayer, and the situation in Australia.
The facts are that Australia has never had a separation of church and
state. Our Christian heritage is well represented in our parliaments
and acknowledged in its proceedings, like Christian prayers at the
commencement of the day’s proceedings. Reading the speeches from the
late 1800s by the NSW colonial Premiers and others makes it very clear
that Christianity and government went hand in hand. This is probably
best illustrated by the second reading speech of Sir Henry Parkes to
the famous 1880 Education Act in which he describes general religious
education as non denominational Christianity and that government
schools would teach it as part of the curriculum. The provisions for
special religious education (scripture) were additional, and available
to clergy from any Christian denomination.
This legacy has continued and allowed Government schools to celebrate
Christmas in a non-denominational way and to allow teachers to be
explicit about the teachings of Christianity and to engage in religious
activities including school prayers where under the provisions for
general religious education, the Lord’s Prayer would be legal, if not
always appropriate in an increasingly multi-faith society.
MYTH 2. Public schools can’t
teach Christmas carols.
Under the provisions of general religious education non-denominational
teaching about Christianity is possible. Teaching traditional
Christmas carols is not really an issue. Where it sometimes
becomes an issue is where some zealous Christians include additional
Christian songs, usual of a more contemporary nature, which are not
recognised generally as Christmas carols.
MYTH 3. Schools can only have
Christmas services as part of SRE.
Under the provisions of general religious education schools can
organise their own Christmas service of a religious nature providing it
is non-denominational. Parents are to be notified of the intention and
they have the right to withdraw their child, but there is no
requirement for parents to opt-in. Only those parents who have
indicated that they do not want their children to receive any religious
education “general” or “special” should be excluded. If schools take
responsibility for the Christmas service they could invite SRE teachers
to participate if they wish. If schools leave the service to the SRE
teachers to organise then the service is not GRE but SRE and the rules
relating to SRE apply and non-Christian and non-SRE students would need
to have their parents give permission for them to attend.
MYTH 4. Nativity plays and
nativity scenes are not allowed.
Under the provisions of general religious education and in relation to
the curriculum, students can under take activities that help them to
understand the traditional Christmas story.
MYTH 5. Government schools are
limited in what they teach about Christmas.
Rather than limited, government schools teach more broadly about
Christmas. The resource Belief in action published to support teaching
about religion in the K-6 Human Society and Its Environment Syllabus
provides a model for teachers. It is very explicit about what
Christians believe Christmas is about, but acknowledges traditions in
our society, many with non-Christian origins, and the origins of Santa
Claus. Teaching about Christmas is not limited.
The curriculum and the legislative provision for general religious
education encourage teaching about Christmas. Some Christians need to
be a bit braver in their teaching and not take opposition arguments at