A Melbourne school is limiting the singing of carols, and banning the use of festive wrapping and the saying of "Merry Christmas". Angry parents said yesterday the move by Ruthven Primary School in Reservoir to outlaw traditional Christmas activities and symbols was being done for fear of offending non-Christian students. They said the number of carols at the school's annual concert would be slashed and children had to greet each other with "happy holidays", not "Merry Christmas". Parents said most of the 90-minute concert -- now named "The End of Year Celebration" -- would be non-religious recitals, including Arabic songs. They said the school was almost free of Christmas decorations, with non-religious mobiles and artworks adorning rooms. A day for the giving of gifts was renamed "Friendship Day", with children being told to wrap presents in plain paper.

Ken O'Sullivan, a parent of two girls at the school, said the controversial moves flew in the face of Australian culture. "They are not even allowed to say 'Merry Christmas' -- they have to say 'happy holidays'," he said. "This is ridiculous -- it's totally overboard. We are a Christian country and we have always celebrated Christmas." Mr O'Sullivan said many children, including one of his daughters, were upset over the bans.

Michelle Woollard, whose two sons and daughter attend the school, said the bans and changes were ludicrous. "My son has been told he has to give friendship presents, not Christmas presents. He said he was not allowed to put any Christmas decorations on them. "But I don't accept that. I've put Christmas holly stickers on and a Merry Christmas message," Ms Woollard said. "They cannot tell the kids not to celebrate Christmas. "This is Australia -- what they are doing is so wrong."

Yesterday, acting principal Kent Silfo could not be contacted at home or on his mobile phone. School council president Hugh Kilpatrick said he knew nothing about the issues. "We have a fairly large Muslim population, but I am not aware of any of this," he said. "It is a bolt out of the blue for me." John Dainutis, a spokesman for Education Minister Lynne Kosky, said the principal had told him the school would have a night tomorrow of carols and non-religious songs. "I asked whether the school was celebrating Christmas in the broader sense and he said, 'Some teachers do, others don't. It varies from year to year'," Mr Dainutis said. "The minister wants all our schools to celebrate Christmas in a manner that is entirely appropriate to the school community."


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