I’m a bit of a scrooge, I’ll admit it. I do not slip easily into the holly-jollies of this time of year. I’m pretty serious by nature and it’s a difficult posture to shake. I find it hard to toss life aside, to suspend disbelief, to step outside of myself for a while. I’m working on it.
The contrast between my scrooge-ish tendencies and the general December explosion in schools is always a bit jarring. The tinsel, the Santas, the trees, the gingerbread men, the sparkly, doo-dad, whoop-it-up craziness that barrels into most schools on December 1st and overtakes programming until the end of the calendar year always feels more like a tidal wave than I’d like it to. There I stand on the beach, watching it tower over me, unable to stop it. I can’t run away fast enough.
When I had my own classroom I would actively buck the trend, looking for ways of acknowledging the cultural significance of the holidays without completely giving into the madness. And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t about the much vaunted but largely fictional “War On Christmas” that we hear so much about in the media. For me it was more about creating an oasis in the classroom, a place where my students could rely on a routine that would be sustained, a rhythm that would be protected, even while the rest of the world was going mad.
Kids are tired right now. In most Canadian schools, we haven’t had a holiday weekend since the middle of October. That’s nine weeks without a day off. Oy. Kids are also up late, eating foods with a lot more sugar, and very excited about the big day(s). My own kids have been having full-blown Hanukkah meltdowns. Eight crazy nights… picture it… let’s just say it doesn’t lead to Norman Rockwell scenes of familial peace and harmony. It’s more like eight nights of cage-match parenting. As much fun as Hanukkah is, I’m always happy when it’s over.
One of the biggest obstacles to fundamentally changing practice in Kindergarten classrooms is our adult attachment to holidays. We seem to be very stuck on how to manage without “doing Christmas” or “doing Easter.”
Here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: we are our own worst enemies. We complain that the kids are “crazy” at this time of year but we feed into the craziness by completely giving our classrooms over to Christmas. We abandon routine, we abandon inquiry, and we steer children in the direction of focusing on one event at the expense of everything else that might be interesting to them. We complain about the madness as though it’s something that’s happening to us instead of something that we are actively participating in.
We have this idea that we’re “doing it for the kids” but I really question whether that’s true. Yes, the children like Christmas but they don’t like it at the expense of everything else in the universe. For them it’s one tile in a mosaic of interests. They don’t stop building because it’s Christmas. They don’t stop making art because it’s Christmas. They don’t stop dramatic play because it’s Christmas. In fact, when I surveyed my documentation from Decembers past, I couldn’t find a single instance of children “playing Christmas” spontaneously.
If we believe that play is a window into a child’s inner life, then what can we learn by noticing the absence of Christmas in their play? Maybe we’re not “doing it for the kids” after all. Maybe we’re doing it for us and maybe, just maybe, if we want December to be a more productive, more pleasant, less crazy time in schools, we’ll need to dial back our adult preoccupation with all things green and red and offer our students a more neutral space, a space into which they can project their own values, create their own celebrations, and express their own sense of festivity, unencumbered by an adult agenda. There are other colours out there… we can choose a wider palette.