We've never made a huge deal out of the December holidays at Woodland Park, in part because not everyone celebrates Christmas, but mostly because the world is already so full of holiday excitement that I'd rather have the children be in charge of what and how much of it comes into their preschool. I kind of like the idea that school provides a bit of a respite from the season that has really been building since Halloween.
Our focus this time of year tends to be more on the season of winter. We do string up a few twinkle lights, but that's because the Winter Solstice is approaching and we need to bring light into those longer and longer nights. We do make the classic cinnamon dough "cookies" (cinnamon, apple sauce and a little white glue), but that's because it's fun to fill up the room with the warm smells of "baking" and this is the only way I know how to do it lacking essential baking tools like an oven. We do bring out our massive collection of dreidels, but they're mixed in with our equally massive collection of spinning tops of all kinds. And yes, we recently wrapped and unwrapped presents as we explored the joys of giving and receiving, but any connection to a specific holiday is left to the children to make on their own, based upon their own experiences and expectations.
We make our own cinnamon "cookie" dough with our hands,
mixing cinnamon, apple sauce and a little glue until we get it
We don't explicitly keep the holidays out of the classroom. I just like to leave it up to the kids, to let it be about their take on the season, and this year has been relatively quite on that front. Naturally, individual kids have been excited to tell me about the presents they're expecting to receive, but with the exception of one circle time a couple weeks ago, the topic hasn't really come up with one week to go before our December break.
For better or worse, that one group discussion turned out to be a pivotal for a couple of our families.
I started with an attempt to get us exploring winter by trying to get a conversation going about what makes winter different from the other seasons, but it quickly devolved into a discussion of presents which was harmless enough until someone dropped the name of Santa. Santa is a problem in my book. I'm ready to discuss the birth of Jesus, the Maccabean revolt, or the celebration of African heritage, all fair game for preschool discussion about the different festivals of lights and beliefs we celebrate during the dark time of the year. But Santa . . .
As Jack's dad Karl once said to me, "I know it's supposed to be about creating a magic for the kids, but I can't get beyond the fact that I'm lying to them." I kind of feel the same way, not about my own child who continues to receive gifts from Santa as a 14-year-old, but about purveying this "lie," as white as it is, to the children in my care as a teacher, especially when some of them won't be getting a visit from Santa. Like with Easter Bunnies and Tooth Fairies it's each families' job to decide for itself where the fun ends and the lies begin.
So when Santa comes up, and he always does, my stock response is something like, "Who's that?" or "Is he your grandpa?" In other words, to play dumb and let the kids be in charge of what and who Santa is, telling the truth as they know it, and leaving me out of the lying to other people's kids business altogether. So when I asked, "Who's that?" it kicked off a riveting debate, a genuine give-and-take conversation that started with the concept of a guy who comes into your house at night: "No, he comes in the morning!" "No he doesn't, he comes at night!"
When I mentioned that I lock my doors, we learned that he comes down the chimney: "We don't have a chimney, he comes through the door with magic!" "He gets really small to fit down the chimney!" "And he gets covered in black stuff!" "No, he uses magic to stay clean!"
We talked about what he looks like and there was little debate about that: "He's red!" "He has a white beard!" "He's a grandpa!" "Is he your grandpa?" "Yes!" "No!" Sena then gave us a very detailed description, right down to his golden belt buckle and shiny boots. There was general agreement that she'd nailed it.
Oh, our hands smell good when we're done!
"But if he comes when you're asleep, how do you know what he looks like?" This stumped them momentarily, but not for long. "I saw him and sat on his lap!" "I sat on his lap, but it wasn't the real Santa!" "It was the real Santa!" "Mine wasn't real!"
Connor then brought up the legend of the flying reindeer. When I scoffed at the idea, I got an earful: "They pull his sled!" "They do it with magic!" "They all have names!" "Rudolph isn't real, but the other ones are!" "They land on the roof!" "Santa drops presents on my house!"
"So let me see if I understand this. Santa is a red guy who looks like a grandpa and who comes into your house by the chimney to take your presents . . ."
"No! He gives us presents!"
" . . . and gives you presents. And he flies around on a magic flying sled . . ."
"No! The reindeer are magic! The sled is just a regular sled!"
" . . . with magic flying reindeer? I guess I'll have to take your word for it."
It had been an energetic, earnest conversation for the most part, one that seemed to have held the attention of all 25 kids, which is rare for these large group discussions. As we broke up for our small group activities, I was feeling pretty good about what had taken place. And it caused me to ask myself if maybe I've been too hard on Santa. When I talk about him he may be a lie, but for most of the children he truly is an article of their beliefs about the world in which we live. If I can say that some people believe in a virgin birth or the miracle of one day's allotment of oil burning for 8 days, why can't I also say that some people believe in Santa Claus? Just because those people happen to be young children doesn't make it a lesser faith, does it? Just because they are little and will someday outgrow it, does that make Santa any less worthy of the honor and respect I try to show to beliefs other than my own?
The next day I learned that based on this conversation at least two of our Woodland Park 3 and 4-year olds will be visited by Santa for the first time this year. New converts, I guess.