Okay, Jesus, you win…

Regular readers of this space may have inferred that I am not on Jesus’ Christmas card list. As such, the yearly coming around of the “holiday season” is always tinged with a vague mist of “okay, I’ll join in, but you know this is insane, don’t you?”

The sting of the vague mist is lessened considerably given the “peace, love, goodwill towards man” upside of the holidays. And the presents. And the delightful lights. And the sparkle of wonder in children’s eyes. Etc.

So, in other words, it’s usually just best to fall in line and get with the Christmas program rather than bringing up the whole “insane” thing.

But this year, being Oliver’s kindergarten year, brings new challenges with it, and at this time of year one of the challenges is the Annual Christmas Play.

To the kindergarten’s credit, they do ask parents for permission for their child to participate, and they do warn that the play is pretty well 100% “The Christmas Story,” with angels, sheep, unpregnant women, etc. So if our convictions were steelier, and we were willing to pay no heed to Oliver’s wishes, we’d have him sit out the play. It’s a good story and all, but it’s just not our story.

But our convictions are not steely, and Catherine and I have both been child outcasts enough to know that being branded as “the weird kid who doesn’t love Jesus like we do” at age five isn’t exactly the path to getting a good prom date.

And Oliver loves singing and acting. So he’s in. As a shepherd. Tending his flock by night. Getting the glad tidings of great joy. Etc.

And we’ll go to the play, and sit happily and enthusiastically in the audience. We’ll laugh in all the right places, and cry in all the right places, and we’ll probably even sing out loud and sing out strong when called upon.

So I’m not complaining.

But it does have me thinking about the best way to match up public education and religious traditions.

The 2001 Statistics Canada Population By Religion data indicates that Prince Edward Island has 93% of the population, or 123,795 people, self-identifying as some sort of Christian variant, 625 people identifying as another religion (Hindu, Jewish, “eastern religions,” Buddhist, or Muslim) and 8,950 people (or about 7% of the population) marking themselves as having “no religious affiliation.”

Looking specifically at the City of Charlottetown, the numbers are about the same: 90% Christian, 1% “other” and 8% “none.” (By comparison, there are some Island communities, like Tignish and Wellington, with 100% Christian sign-on).

So you’ll get no argument from me that we live in a “predominantly Christian” place. It’s not everybody, but it’s pretty close.

(Which makes you wonder when it’s the 90% of my neighbours who are insane or maybe just me).

That aside, I’m not one to suggest that we emasculate Christian holidays in the name of equality. I don’t see the point of “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.” I don’t mind that there are Christmas songs blaring from speakers at City Hall throughout the season. Close down the city for a Saturday afternoon for a Christmas parade: I’m in. Think what you will about Christian birth festivals, they’re central to the Canadian winter, and to pretend otherwise — or worse to try and “universalize” them, does nobody any good.

At the same time, I’m mindful of that whole “freedom of conscience and religion” part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Of course there’s also the oft-overlooked “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God” part of the Charter too. Which kind of sets up a “we all agree God is charge, but we also agree that we’re all free to disagree” system.

So, back to the shepherds tending their flocks: I’m wondering if teaching the stories of the predominant religion, even with an opt-out clause, is properly living up to the “freedom of conscience and religion” agreement.

I’m wondering if, given the predominance of Christian mythology for the month, it shouldn’t be at least part of the role of public education to support and encourage tolerance, to open childrens’ eyes to the notion that the entire world isn’t like them. That it’s okay to think differently. To believe something else. Or not believe at all. Surely equipping kids with dissonance management skills is not only good for breeding religious tolerance, but might also come in handy later in life.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea how to do this in a way that doesn’t offend Christian parents, doesn’t stigmatize non-Christian kids, and doesn’t suffer from the style of “multiculturalism” education that I received 30 years ago (wherein the net message was that “customs of other lands” are quaint and all, but that’s them, not us).

In many ways my personal task would be made much easier if I was either virulently anti-Christian, or at least strongly [insert name of deity here]. Or if I truly thought that Christian practice was insane. As it is, I’m generally content to be a non-affiliated free agent living in harmony with, but out of spiritual step with, 9 out of 10 of my neighbours.

Jesus, it seems, has won.


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on November 27, 2005 - 18:28 Permalink

I see a distinction between the Christian spirituality/religion and Christian culture. Being pressured (however well-intentioned the motives) into overtly religious/spiritual activities seems wrong. However, I think most of what we have here is the cultural side of Christianity. Santa, the Easter Bunny (???), and even the Christmas incarnation of baby Jeses are more cultural icons than religious symbols.

Do you think the other shepherds in Oliver’s play are going to be pondering the significance of the “God as shepherd” metaphor?

Oh, and don’t worry, Jesus loves you even if you don’t love him.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on November 28, 2005 - 03:25 Permalink

Jesus, it seems, has won.” — I think you just got saved.

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on November 28, 2005 - 14:28 Permalink

I played Joseph in my grade one xmas play and I’ve got the photos to prove it. Having never been a churchgoer I didn’t, and still don’t, fully understand the “story” very well. I don’t recall being schooled about the significance of what we were doing. It was all “Stand here, say this, then kneel down”, etc. I’m sure half the teachers organizing these things today need a Coles Notes script to get it right.

Cuidhil-Meaban's picture
Cuidhil-Meaban on November 28, 2005 - 14:51 Permalink


Alan's picture
Alan on November 28, 2005 - 16:37 Permalink

Steve, I think I have seen from watching our 5 and 7 year olds in the Christmas play that they may not get God as shepherd but they would come away with the idea of the Christmas story as a decent counter-point to ads for Transformers on the TV — and I would think that they do get a level of understanding of shepherd even amongst the concern for the lines the goat must provide in the play. Plus, being here in a more diverse largely non-religious community, being specifically Scots immigrant Presbyterian/United is now a form of minority culture as much as the kids’ pals’ Greek Orthodoxy is so it provides that sense of our family identity. You can only teach a kid so much about where they came from with tartan jammies and mashed turnip.

Peter, without prosletyzing, I would think that there is much value to having a child exposed to something other than the day to day and something good about having that source of experience being other than the parents. One example I have of this is comes from the keener choir-master of the church who is far more focused and energetic than I would ever be on this sort of group activity. I am glad that the kids see that good example of the unslack, even while I richly imbue them in the way of the slack as befits my generation.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 28, 2005 - 16:40 Permalink

I wonder whether kids Oliver’s age think about stories the way we do in terms of fiction and “non-fiction.” Fiction is not insane. Without making a fuss or any special event of the pronouncement, you might just talk about it as a fairy tale. A fairy tale that many people really really love and form clubs around. If he stays out of reach of evangelists and the idea that he’ll burn in hell, then hopefully he’ll notice that bugs and ecology and Linux and Jane Austin are more interesting. Besides wanting to insure against intolerance toward other beliefs, I think I might worry about the effect of the concept of “pure evil”…which I guess kids are as liable to extract from Star Wars nowadays. I doubt evil does much for tolerance and wouldn’t be surprised if it fueled nightmares. I believe wolves eat you because they’re animals, not because they’re evil. Ditto for werewolves, vampires and serial killers.

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on November 30, 2005 - 02:51 Permalink

I was of all things a boy chorister. I went to church 9 times a week between the age of 8-13 plus 3 choir practices — we were pros. I survived and became a non religious person. I abhor religion as an institution but miss the stories most of which predate our religion anyway

I actually look back at my total engagment in the rituals of the church that I now find intolerabe with great fondness. Isn’t life odd? I think that my own children who were not expoosed at all to the “prevaling” religion of our culture have missed out — they don’t know the stories! The stories are our culture whether we still are attached or not.

I don’t think that this will harm Oliver — he will make his own choices later.

Nicky Hyndman's picture
Nicky Hyndman on November 30, 2005 - 15:44 Permalink

Peter, I was so pleased to see your posting on this topic. I’ve been struggling with this since our son was in pre-school (3 years). My daughter’s kindergarten advertises the fact that they teach Christian ethics…at least they are upfront about it, unlike most of the other institutions here. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but when it is suggested or implied that this is the ONLY belief, especially in a public education instituion, then there is a big problem. This time of the year should be an opportunity for teachers to be teaching tolerance and diversity…peace and goodwill towards men (and women!). Like, you I’ve decided not to rock the boat and not say anything (my daughter is singing “Happy Birthday Jesus” in her school play). But, I struggle with not saying anything. If we are afraid to speak out for fear of offending our neighbour, then how will anything ever change?