Almost 30 years ago, fresh from Hawaii, I visited my daughter’s grade one class in Brisbane to show off my treasured koa wood ukulele. It was the last week before Christmas, so teachers were happy to have any distraction for the restless six-year-olds.
The kids listened patiently as I strummed my entire repertoire of half a dozen chords and showcased a few Hawaiian ditties, none of which meant much to them.
So I invited the children to sing to my strumming and we launched into ‘Silent Night’. A most heavenly sound filled the little wooden classroom as the boy and girl sopranos seemed to channel the angelic host from the hills around Bethlehem. Sitting among the children in the swirl of their voices was mind-blowing – real goosebump territory. The children sang a few more songs and I was thanked for my appearance. I felt it was I who should have been giving thanks.
A generation later a minstrel inviting children in Australia to sing Christmas carols would remain a soloist. The kids simply don’t know the words.
In the last few years I’ve attended Christmas concerts at various child-care centres and kindergartens to find that Christmas carols are entirely absent. One concert began with an Aboriginal Welcome to Country followed by a Hindu blessing in honour of an Indian family. Then the children lustily launched into a bracket of Christmas songs – ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and their favourite, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. It was all great fun, yet there was not even the hint of a mention of the religious basis of the feast, except accidentally, in ‘Christmas’.
And certainly no sign of a nativity play. A teacher explained quietly that she’d have to talk to the Muslim parents and prepare them, if there were to be anything like that.
What a sad development.
I’d always felt that the ‘Silent Night’ everyone could once sing was as much a part of Australian heritage and culture as ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Of the kids I made music with in the 80s, most were of nominal Christian background, though only a small number were from church-going families. They’d learnt the Christmas carols at school. It was a more monocultural time, but among them were kids of Jewish and Buddhist backgrounds. Yet they all knew the words of ‘Silent Night’ and seemed pretty pleased at the chance to belt them out.
There are, I hope, no edicts against Christmas carols in schools or pre-schools. Their disappearance is probably more a result of the deep sense of politeness and fear of offending that is felt by many contemporary Australians. A cultural self-censorship.
And how self-defeating. We all know that foreigners in countries dominated by other religions do not receive apologies or expect the faith to be sidelined in their presence.
And I can’t imagine that the adherents of too many religions would be offended by those gentle, lullaby carols that everyone used to know. After all, their purpose is to celebrate the birth of a baby – a little Jewish boy who was to become not only the inspiration for a new religion, but a prophet respected in the Muslim faith with the addition of the words ‘Peace be upon him’ whenever his name is mentioned. And of course the pluralistic religions of Asia are very tolerant to all who preach peace and love. There’s apparently a Japanese kindergarten on the Gold Coast that stages a nativity play along with Japanese festivals.
If they were ever asked, immigrant parents would probably agree that Christmas carols shouldn’t be outcasts in school celebrations of Christmas. And we could add children’s songs throughout the year for both the Hindu and Jewish Festivals of Lights – Deepavali and Hannukkah – and for the Muslim Eid.
But for most Aussie kids, the only way to hear a Christmas carol is to go to a shopping centre.
John Henningham is director of independent journalism college Jschool.