Partnership between Aarhus and Oslo University theologians: Christmas in schools and children’s broadcasting

ReNEW supported a workshop at Aarhus University in November entitled ‘Reimagining the Nordic model of Christian Cultural heritage: Christmas in public schools and broadcasting (NORCHRIST)’, and a mobility grant for Elisabeth Tveito Johnsen to visit Aarhus for six weeks to further a pilot study with her colleague Kirstine Helboe Johansen by interviewing school leaders, amongst others. Learn more about their project.

Like many other countries, Christmas is without doubt the foremost celebration in the Nordics. From the end of October, advent calendars, elves, Christmas biscuits and toys in colourful boxes all fight for space on the supermarket shelves. ‘Last Christmas’ floats into your ears, putting customers in the right mood. In schools, there are traditional events such as making Christmas decorations and advent candles, and celebrating Saint Lucia’s day in December – all with happy expectation of the big day.

Christmas as it unfolds on the edge of established religion

In churches, the Advent wreath and Christmas trees occupy a central position in the church space, and Christmas services are held for kindergartens and schools, Christmas concerts and Festivals of the nine lessons and carols lead up to the many religious services on Christmas Day. In December and even during late autumn, things are already pointing to Christmas, but what is Christmas really about today? How is Christmas and the message of Christmas understood in the many activities associated with Christmas? This is what we, Elisabeth Tveito Johnsen from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo and Kirstine Helboe Johansen from Department for Theology at Aarhus University, are trying to find out with a new research project. The primary interest of the project is not church services and the interpretation of Christmas per se, but rather other public, non-religious institutions' disclosure of Christmas, including both central Christian narratives and practices as well as other types of traditional Christmas activities. We are looking at Christmas as it unfolds on the edge of established religion.

The project has been developed as a Danish-Norwegian partnership with a view to identifying both common and different ways of how Christian cultural heritage is dealt with. The aim of the project is thus to identify and contribute empirical knowledge about how Christmas is unfolding in and when preparing for Christmas activities with children in public institutions, such as schools. Schools are  not explicitly religious, but they, like other civic institutions and spaces, such as, courtrooms, airports, and hospitals, have become the bearers of Danish/Norwegian culture and thus also Christian cultural heritage. In addition, we want to examine ‘Juleaktiviteter’ (Christmas activities) at selected primary and lower secondary schools:

1) What do they do together with the children? How do the children respond to this: what activities do they enjoy? How do pupils and staff oppose or reinterpret Christmas?

2) What is up for discussion and what is a ‘given’ in conversations between teachers and school boards?

3) What and how do the schools and teachers communicate about Christmas and Christmas activities to parents? What – if any – kinds of conflicts arise?

Secondly, we want to investigate Christmas in public service television for children in Denmark on the children’s channel DR Ramasjang/Ultra, and in Norway, NRK Super. Which programmes are sent out before and during Christmas? How is Christmas constructed, and what tales are associated with Christmas in the productions that they produce, such as news programmes for children? What activities do they do with children, and how are they presented? What is being discussed and what is said at editorial meetings and during productions?

With this perspective, the project leaves behind established religious institutions and instead examines religion as it unfolds in areas whose dominant purpose is something different, namely, teaching, education and entertainment. In this way, the project follows a research tradition which supports the view that we need to look beyond established religious institutions and forms of practice in order to understand religion today.

Nordic cooperation

The project is still in its infancy, but Elisabeth Tveito Johnsen has been a visiting scholar at Aarhus University from November-December 2019 thanks to a ReNEW mobility grant. Elisabeth specialises in the field of religion, learning and children, and completed her PhD in 2014 with the dissertation, ‘Religious Learning in social practices: An ethnographic study of mediation, identification and negotiation in religious education in Church of Norway’.

From the beginning of her career as a researcher, Elisabeth has been involved in studies of religion as a practice, and this perspective has, over the years, further developed, among other things, in the study of religious services. The purpose of Elisabeth's stay in Aarhus is to further develop the project and carry out pilot studies in Denmark.

The ReNEW workshop about Christian cultural heritage, children, schools and media during Elisabeth's stay in Aarhus in November was entitled, ‘Reimagining the Nordic model of Christian Cultural heritage. Christmas in public schools and broadcasting (NORCHRIST)’. It brought together researchers from across the Scandinavian countries and across subject areas, such as media history, the sociology of religion, theology and pedagogics. The aim was to identify how Christian cultural heritage is lived and negotiated in a Scandinavian, multi-religious context, with a special focus on schools and public service television.

The Nordic countries are historically closely connected and share an evangelical-Lutheran tradition. They also all have welfare states with well-supported public schools and public service media. In addition, research has identified a shared Nordic understanding of childhood and family life. By bringing together researchers from different Nordic countries and subject areas, we seek to bring together already existing knowledge about the Nordic region, schools, the media and children, with a special focus on identifying and defining research questions specifically about how Christian cultural heritage is handed down and interpreted in dynamic and vivid practice.

The workshop builds on the work we undertook during pilot interviews in Oslo in February 2019. We interviewed two school head teachers and a manager from NRK Super. A similar pilot study has been conducted in Denmark as part of Elisabeth's stay in Aarhus. Interviews with managers at relevant institutions are preparing the ground for participant observation in schools and productions teams at a later stage. Through interviews, we have identified the considerations, issues, interests and conflicts of interest that managers must consider when preparing and executing Christmas activities. This means that we, as researchers, have a better understanding of the field before starting actual in-depth studies.

Cut’n’paste Christmas decorations, cheeky elves and Lucia parades

If we succeed in obtaining the necessary financial support for completing the entire study, we look forward to participating in the daily lives of selected schools and television editors. We hope to participate in the meetings of school boards, editorial meetings and team meetings. But, we are particularly looking forward to taking part in the activities, and observing the children with their commitment, their potential dissent, and their ideas in the interpretation of Christmas. Hopefully, it will bring with it December months filled with advent stories and calendars, elves, cut’n’paste, morning singing, Christmas rice porridge, Lucia parades and Christmas services - for it is in these activities,  vibrant and chaotic, traditional and unpredictable – that Christmas is interpreted and passed on.

Visit nordics.info for more information on Norden and Christmas in Scandinavian culture: Interview of Elisabeth Tveito Johnsen: The border between religion and culture at Christmas time in Scandinavia.