In a move towards greater religious integration a headteacher has become the ultimate Christmas Grinch by cancelling the annual Christmas concert


Since Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham, in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, declared, ‘Christmas is cancelled!’ anyone who uses the phrase opens themselves up to mockery.  This is particularly true of football managers who suffer a disappointing result in the last game before (Western-calendar) Christmas Day and promise to punish their squads.

A headteacher in Italy, although not actually uttering the sentence himself, has found himself the subject of a ferocious protest across all Italy, which culminated in condemnation from the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, himself.  Already in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, many nurseries in Tuscany have opted against installing Nativity scenes for fear of offending non-Christian families.  The decision of Marco Parma, 63, to postpone a Christmas concert until January, rebrand it a ‘Winter Concert’ and denude it of songs with religious content, while turning away two parents who wanted to teach carols to schoolchildren in their lunch breaks, gave the media a personality around which the outcry could crystallise.

In Italy, though Roman Catholicism remains strong (despite not being the state’s religion since 1984), there is still a strong hard-left presence, especially among the professions.  When the billionaire and roguish former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, raged against ‘communist judges’ presiding over his corruption cases, he was tapping into a suspicion in Italian society towards the motivations of those in authority.  There are many in Italy who would assent to George Bernard Shaw’s line ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’ (in the play The Doctor’s Dilemma), though probably not for the reasons the socialist playwright had in mind.

Unlike behind the Iron Curtain where imposing secularism was a fact of life, Italy being a democracy needs accountability for decisions taken.  The head of the Garofani School in the town of Rozzano, near Milan, Parma said it was simply an administrative policy to avoid exclusion of non-Christian pupils that occurred last year.  ‘In a multi-ethnic environment, it causes problems’, he explained.  ‘Last year we had a Christmas concert and some parents insisted on having carols. The Muslim children didn’t sing, they just stood there, absolutely rigid.  It is not nice watching a child not singing, or worse, being called down from the stage by their parents’.

Istituto Garofani, which comprises primary and middle school, has around 1,000 pupils enrolled with an estimated 20 per cent of non-Christian faiths, primarily Islam.  But far from promoting multiculturalism, Parma was implementing distinct monoculturalism through secular inventions from the school staff (who overwhelmingly backed Parma).  Instead of ‘cancelling Christmas’, a more inclusive approach would be to try and integrate the traditions of the various backgrounds of the children into a festive extravaganza.  For instance, every December, both Sunni and Shia Muslims celebrate Mawlid (‘Birth of the Prophet’).

Headteachers anywhere can make some gauche, if well-meaning choices, such as that made by the head of a primary school in Kent, Britain who insisted that each academic year of pupils raise a lamb and then witness it being slaughtered after a year, so they know from where their meat comes.  Few though attract the ire of the leader of the government.  Prime Minister Renzi told Corriere della Sera, ‘Christmas is much more than a headmaster being provocative …  Discussion and dialogue does not mean to say we can drown out identity for the sake of a vague and insipid form of political correctness.  If he [Parma] thinks he is promoting integration and co-existence in this way, he appears to me to have made a very big mistake’.  He went further: ‘Italians, both non-religious and Christians, will never give up Christmas’.

Strong stuff, and it did not stop there, with the Education Minister being asked to lean on Mr Parma to change his mind.  For his part, Mr Parma would not back down and carried out his threat to resign, his valedictory statement concluding, ‘I believe that respecting the sensitivities of people of different religions or cultures is a step forward towards integration’.  However, parents of different faith backgrounds were unhappy with Parma’s approach to ‘integration’ and resented the decision to stop the carol service. As surveys upon surveys across Europe and the USA show, when atheists try to remove or block Christianity from the public sphere, other faith groups prefer the display of Christianity as it means their own religious practices are more likely to be tolerated.

Disingenuously citing the faiths of others when really it is their own discomfort they are considering is not the best way to introduce religious tolerance. Public support towards atheists may be more favourable if this truth was openly stated.

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