Thursday 24 May 2018

Happy Christmas to all, including the birds

With growing diversity of pupils and school types, the traditional Christmas concert is taking on new forms, writes Katherine Donnelly

First Class students Rian Alonso, Roisin Hickey and Joseph Pacini performing at St
Louis’ nativity play in Rathmines
First Class students Rian Alonso, Roisin Hickey and Joseph Pacini performing at St Louis’ nativity play in Rathmines
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Traditional nativity plays, a nativity with a hoedown flavour, brightly painted bird feeders to help our feathered friends through the lean weeks ahead and a rendition of Toy Story's 'You've Got a Friend in Me' are among the many and varied ways that Irish primary pupils have reflected the seasonal message in their end-of-term activities.

About 10pc of children in primary schools now come from non-Irish backgrounds and, while many are Catholic or Christian and share similar beliefs and Christmas traditions, others are of different religions and none. Even among Irish families, the percentage that identify as Catholic is falling.

With 90pc of schools under Catholic patronage, the nativity play remains the most popular way to mark Christmas, but diversity is broadening the celebrations.

St Louis Infant School, Rathmines, Dublin, is typical of a lot of schools under Catholic patronage that are now embracing children of many religions and none.

Principal AnnNoelle Bennett says they have pupils of at least 40 different nationalities, many from different belief systems: "But we all recognise the same value system; most world religions, or non religions, will bear witness to fundamental truths of human rights, fairness, justice and equality."

Her 320 pupils had five different Christmas concerts, including the nativity hoedown, Prickly Hay, which tells the story of the stableboy who replaced uncomfortable bedding with a softer version to ensure a comfortable resting place for baby Jesus.

She says that the basic premise in all five concerts - which included elves going on strike for a time - was that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, that the things that matter most in this world are those that carry no price tag and that a smile is understood in every language. "There was something in it for all children, it was all about love in the end," she says.

Like other Educate Together schools, at Riverview ETNS, Walkinstown, religion plays no role in the school day. It is only in its second year, and principal Margaret Burke says they are still setting their traditions.

Nature is a big focus at Riverview and the period around Halloween was marked by leaf raking. "We are trying to tap into the seasons, where everyone is included," she says. In March, the month of St Patrick, they will plant potatoes.

Last week, pupils learned about Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, which runs until this evening, and the importance of light at the darkest time of the year.

Today, they are having a winter solstice celebration, hanging bird feeders and houses, made by parents and decorated by the children. There will be songs and hot chocolate too.

"It is important that children's eyes are open to the experience of what it is like to be in winter," says Margaret Burke.

Scoil Aoife Citywest, Dublin, is one of a growing number of community national schools, which are multi-denominational in nature, with time given to religious education.

Principal Stacey McAuley says they have pupils from a wide variety of backgrounds, and many faiths and none, and recognise several festivals throughout the year. In October they celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and, in the last week, their concerts had a winter, rather than faith-based, theme, with children dressed as snowflakes and stars.

"We want all children to be able to participate and share and enjoy," she says. Friendship was a core message, which is why 'You've Got a Friend Me' was among the songs.

Irish Independent

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