Parents at a Norwegian school were left astounded when the school asked permission for their children to take part in a Christmas ritual in which children dance around a tree singing carols. Some questioned just how much further schools will go in a bid to accommodate minorities.
Karianne Haug, whose child attends the Lesterud School in suburban Oslo, said she could barely believe her eyes when her child came home with a permission slip, asking to be allowed to take part in the traditional ceremony. The ritual, which involves dancing around a Christmas tree singing carols is normally accompanied by a religious service in celebration of Christmas, The Local has reported.
“It’s fine to ask [for one’s child] to be exempt from the religious service, that has worked fine for years,” she said. “But to have to check off permission to dance around the Christmas tree? What will be next? Where is the limit for how many considerations we should take? Who makes these considerations, and for whom?”
However, school official Gry Hovland has defended the school on the grounds that they were merely interpreting the official guidelines to the best of their ability. She said that a number of local schools have adopted a joint set of guidelines, based on recommendations from the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, which in turn references a Court of Human Rights ruling which recommended schools be “especially cautious” regarding religious activities with children.
“We interpret going around the Christmas tree, which includes singing Christian songs, as an event that tends toward religious content. We want to protect ourselves and not cross any boundaries. That’s why we ask parents and guardians to give permission to go around the Christmas tree,” she said.
Very few students opted out of the Christmas tree ritual while a few more opted out of the religious service, she added.
Yet Loveleen Brenna, a diversity in the workplace consultant, believes the school is misguided. She warns: “One must be careful not to wipe out part of the cultural foundation in Norway under the guise of respect for diversity.”
That sentiment is certainly shared by Mrs Haug. She said:”Norwegian traditions are important, that’s how I see it. We live in a society with rapid changes and families that are splitting up. Traditions help to protect our children. I think it creates a problem if all students, regardless of their beliefs, can’t gather around the Christmas tree – how harmful can it be?”
As the migrant crisis intensifies, Norway has been experiencing cultural turmoil over the role of religion within its cultural heritage and public spaces.
In November the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration first insisted upon, and then dropped a requirement for all private organisations housing migrants and asylum seekers to be “religion neutral”.
“It is important to specify that this applies to all religious symbols, not just the Christian ones,” press spokeswoman Vibeke Schjem said.
But while some Christian groups acquiesced, others who had been making plans to house migrants hit back. The Evidence of Faith (Troens Bevis) centre in Kvinesdal, which has the capacity to house up to 1,000 migrants refused to remove the cross from its main hall.
The group’s leader, Rune Edvardsen said “The hall was built by Christians who wanted to spread the word of God. To remove the cross from the hall would be like removing the rose from the Labour Party.”
And Vebjørn Selbekk, editor in chief of the Christian newspaper Dagen wrote a scathing editorial in which he called the Directorate’s decision to ban the cross in a country which features a cross on its flag was an embarrassment, and “a prime example of the Norwegian authorities’ genuflection to Islam”.
He added: “Asylum seekers and migrants have no reservations in passing the Norwegian border despite the cross in our flag being one of the first things they see. They surely wouldn’t be hurt by crosses in Christian centres either.”
The Directorate quickly released a statement announcing: “We will not require that those who run overnight offers for us remove religious symbols after all.”