Fake War on Christmas Comes to Rome

How one school in Italy tried in vain to choose integration over segregation, sparking a national debate and exposing profound problems for the future.

12.04.15 6:00 AM ET

ROME — It’s that time of year again, when folks start dancing around the issue of the reason for the season. In the United States, the de-Christianization of Christmas is an evergreen issue as right-wing pundits drone on about an atheist, agnostic, and otherwise non-Christian “war on Christmas” that’s turned the season into “happy holidays.” In the United Kingdom the question is tied to resentment of multiculturalism and a growing backlash against accepting more migrants. But in Italy, the issue has been fairly cut and dried, Christmas is Christmas, full stop—until now.

More than 90 percent of Italians are Catholics, at least in a cultural sense, so there is rarely controversy when it comes to having a “buon natale” and setting up a crèche in the classroom or holding a Christmas concert at school. But as the wave of Muslim migrants and refugees starts to settle in Italy and throughout Europe, the mood is changing and long-standing traditions are being tested.

Northern League Party leader Matteo Salvini, center, uses a megaphone as he is flanked by other party supporters holding flyers which read: "Proud of our traditions, Christmas is untouchable" during a protest outside the Garofani school in Rozzano, near Milan, Italy, Nov. 30, 2015. The Rozzano public school principal in predominantly Roman Catholic Italy has been accused of canceling Christmas after removing religious songs from the annual holiday pageant.

Mourad Balti Touati/AP

A case in point is when Marco Parma, the school principal in the northern Italian town of Rozzano, near Milan, announced late last week that this year he would postpone the usual Christmas concert until January and call it a holiday recital. From the fevered reaction you’d think everyone from the prime minister to the local mayor wanted to burn Parma at the stake. 

So much for integration and acceptance. 

Italy’s most xenophobic leader, Matteo Salvini, who now leads the Northern League, promptly delivered a nativity set to the school and warned against accepting the American model of what he considers a meaningless, empty holiday season.

“I’m not afraid of the terrorists but of those who think they do the right thing by canceling the traditions,” Salvini told reporters outside the school. “Anyone who believes in encouraging our children to cancel Christmas is out of his mind.”

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has until now been an advocate of integration, also questioned the principal’s motives. “Christmas is much more important than a headmaster being provocative,” Renzi told the newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “If he thinks he is promoting integration and co-existence in this way, he appears to me to have made a very big mistake.”

Unless, of course, you aren’t actually a Christian, in which case perhaps you’d feel welcomed and accepted for being allowed to not share the Christmas cheer.

The principal won’t back down. He has said he would resign before changing his mind and his teachers at the school, where one in five students is Muslim, back him up, even though many Catholic parents have insisted on coming to the school to teach what are now clandestine Christmas carols through the schoolyard fence during break times.

“In a multi-ethnic environment, it causes problems,” Parma told reporters over the weekend. “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.”

Parma’s school may have been the first public school in the country to so vocally step away from the Catholic cult of Christmas, but many other schools in Italy are now considering similar measures.

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In the city of Sassari on the island of Sardinia, a school that has taken the bulk of the recent wave of migrants and refugees on the island has opted not to have the local bishop come bless the school for Christmas, as has been the custom for more than half a century.

“We made this decision because at our school, the equilibrium is fragile,” Patrizia Mercuri, the head of the school, told reporters. Of 250 students, only 128 are Catholic, and Mercuri says the Catholic kids will certainly be allowed to go to other institutions in the area to receive the bishop’s blessing.

But in the vast majority of schools in Italy, the Christmas tradition wins. In many cases, children, be they Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim, are even required to help assemble the holiday nativity scenes in which the baby Jesus features as the central figure, and most aren’t given a chance to opt out of designing Christian scenes on holiday cards for their parents.  

The teachers at Rozzano held a small demonstration supporting Parma’s decision because, as one said, forcing kids to faux-practice a faith they don’t believe in hinders integration and widens the gap between Christians and Muslims.

“We teachers only have one task: to help our kids become honest citizens,” one teacher said at the demonstration. “We have the obligation to teach the boys and girls to treat each other with respect and embrace peace.”

Catholicism is no longer the mandatory faith in Italy after a law instituted by Benito Mussolini was revoked in 1984, but the issue whether to allow or require crucifixes in the classrooms has been an epic battle in the country. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes should be banned from Italian classrooms, but the same court overturned that ruling two years later, ruling that exposure to Jesus hanging on a cross did not constitute the violation of a human right.

So, the old Mussolini-inspired law requiring crucifixes in the classrooms has never been scratched off Italy’s law books, but most schools make the determination based on a variety of issues ranging from class structure to whether the individual teachers want them there.

That being the case, with just these few new exceptions the debate about whether Italians should proclaim buon natale (Merry Christmas) or content themselves with buone feste (happy holidays) is only in its infancy. Or perhaps, better said, it’s the ghost of Christmas future.