The Christmas Quandary

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.  

clay play (1)
4 days before the Christmas holidays: “Now you’re just like me, we all have capes.” ~ superhero play

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. 

pencil spectrum (1)




A holiday from holidays

“Some people think that Ebeneezer Scrooge is.

Well, he’s not but guess who is… all Three Stooges!”

~ Adam Sandler, The Chanukah Song

It’s spring in the North Country.  Actually, that’s not really true.  It might be Spring soon but for now we’ll make due with a bit of warmth from a slightly closer sun as we walk down the street, still having our cheeks stung by a fierce winter wind.  The tiny rivulets of water sneaking under the snowbanks give us some reason to hope.

Spring brings Easter, just as winter brought Christmas and autumn brought Halloween.  Traditional kindergarten classrooms have been organized around these holidays.  They are the stars around which we have orbited.  Crafts, activities, field trips, songs… everything has been created in the service of these holidays.  We have become enslaved to them.

One of the things that has made me worried and uncomfortable about this approach has been the cuteness of it.  Cuteness always makes me suspicious.  Children don’t do cute.  They may be cute but they don’t create things that are cute.  Cuteness is a hallmark of an adult inserting her agenda into the process.  Adults often view children’s lives as being cute but are they, really?  Are we viewing our own childhoods through rose-coloured glasses instead of being realistic about the emotions and events we experienced as children?  I am worried about children whose only expressive opportunities at school are geared towards maintaining our adult sense of an idealized childhood.  How can they express their own experience if they’re only ever allowed to make a handprint turkey or a ladybug with hearts?  How can school be relevant and meaningful if it’s completely divorced from their lives?  I don’t know about you but if I had had the opportunity as a child to create Christmas artwork that actually reflected my experiences, my art would have had more to do with intoxicated adults and crushing anxiety than with cute snowmen, but maybe that’s just me.

So… I’m left with a dilemma… I don’t want to deny children the opportunity to enjoy holidays – they’re obviously an important part of their lives.  But, I also don’t want them to take over and become the focus of everything we do, eclipsing all other subjects and interests.  Somewhere between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Martha Stewart is what I’m going for.

Here’s how I handle it.

  1. I use ‘holiday stuff’ as open-ended materials.  Instead of prescribing crafts for the children to do’, I allow them to use the materials however they want.
an open-ended material
an open-ended material
spring art2
Eggs and Easter grass… what can you make?

2.  I honour their experiences, and mine.

They made ornaments
for our tree!
for our tree!

Yes, we had a tree and yes, we made ornaments but they were their ornaments, not mine.  I also invited in one of our parents to talk about the Christmas story and I stashed a menorah in the corner. menorah

3. I try to make it a sensory experience

Scoop the goop!
Scoop the goop!

Holidays are multisensory: the food, the music, the emotions, the smells – it’s not just about the visuals.  Our classroom experiences should be equally multisensory.  Let’s eat together, sing together and build together because memories are always more powerful when they involve more than one sense.  I learned fractions by dividing long pieces of licorice into halves, quarters, etc…  I remember that.  I’ve blocked out the handprint turkey.