Why School Field Trips Are Causing Controversy In Denmark

Dec 22, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 6:51 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kids who go to public school in Denmark do something before their holiday vacation that would be unusual for American public schools. Danish kids go to church for Christmas service. This has gone on for years. And this month, it has become the subject of a national debate after one school decided to cancel the service. Reporter Sidsel Overgaard brings us the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: It's common in Danish schools at this time of year for teachers to lead their classes to the local church for singing...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #1: (Singing in Danish).

OVERGAARD: ...A recitation of the Christmas story...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Danish).

OVERGAARD: ...And, in most cases, the Lord's Prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Danish).

OVERGAARD: This unabashedly Christian event takes place even though Denmark is largely secular. No one bats an eye here if a politician identifies as atheist, and only 3 percent of Danes go to church regularly. But these school Christmas events are seen mainly as a cozy tradition exemplifying the uniquely Danish phenomenon of hygge, says parent Allan Jespersen.

ALLAN JESPERSEN: (Through interpreter) I think it's a cozy event leading up to Christmas. I think it's about community. And they sing together and hold hands. That's how I see it.

OVERGAARD: But when asked about his own memory of attending a school Christmas service, Jespersen shakes his head.

JESPERSEN: (Through interpreter) I don't remember that we had the same gathering around this.

OVERGAARD: That's because this tradition started fairly recently, says Brian Arly Jacobsen, who teaches sociology of religion at the University of Copenhagen.

BRIAN ARLY JACOBSEN: It's actually something that many schools started to do in the late '90s.

OVERGAARD: He says it was partly a reaction to the loss of other school traditions and followed a wave of Muslim immigration.

JACOBSEN: Which made Danes reflect on their own cultural traditions and history. And they believed that one way of marking their cultural identity is to attend to, for instance, a Christmas service in the public schools.

OVERGAARD: The issue flared up again recently when one school announced it would cancel its Christmas service in consideration of other religions. Many fingers immediately pointed to the country's Muslim population. One local politician said the school was kneeling to Islam. But school leaders say the decision was not based on complaints from parents, Muslim or otherwise. And Jacobsen says opposition to Christmas celebrations usually comes from nonbelieving Danes.

JACOBSEN: In fact, the most resistance against religious rituals was noted among Danish families of nonbelievers and not among parents who have a Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist background.

OVERGAARD: As this debate has unfolded, Denmark's minister for ecclesiastical affairs, Mette Bock, says students should be taken not only to church, but to the mosque and synagogue as well.

METTE BOCK: (Through interpreter) This is a diverse and colorful society where we should be able to meet each other and understand each other. We have to experience that diversity to be able to navigate it as a mature people.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Singing in Danish).

OVERGAARD: Meanwhile, the discussion of how to handle diversity among believers of different faiths or nonbelievers is becoming something of a tradition itself, like these Christmas field trips, where children sing the words...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Singing in Danish).

OVERGAARD: ...Happily to church we go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Singing in Danish).

OVERGAARD: For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Singing in Danish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.