If you are a regular reader of our Superprof blog, you might wonder why we're publishing an article about Christmas teaching moments and ideas after Christmas. Nobody, certainly not us, would fault you for questioning the obvious flaw in our logic. Allow us to explain...
We've just endured possibly the most difficult holiday season of our lifetime. We've run the emotional gamut - from sorrow and despair to touching instances of kindness and shining examples of humanity. When this pandemic ends - let's all hope that that will happen soon, we will be left with a bevvy of teaching moments. Let's not let them go to waste.
Next Christmas may be more than 350 days away but nothing says you can't sketch out ideas for future lessons right now, while experiences are still fresh. Besides, few of these ideas on our list touches on the pandemic and its devastating effects on our usually most-joyous season of celebration.
And so, your Superprof has compiled a list of teaching opportunities that you can serve up to your students to help them understand and capture the holiday spirit. These are all ideas you might explore in your classroom to examine elements of the festival of Christmas.
Best of all, you can relate them to all sorts of areas of study.
Christmas in History, Geography and Music Classes
It's easy to enthral young children with the idea of a jolly Ole Saint Nick mysteriously dropping down the chimney or otherwise sneaking into the house to leave gifts and munch on the mince pies and sherry left for him. As kids get older - get a bit savvier about the physics of red-suited men suddenly appearing in one's home, they start to wonder, though...
How do all these gifts really get here?
If you teach young students, say, around EYFS or Key Stage 1, their parents likely won't appreciate you ruining the illusion they're working so hard to maintain but you might talk about the idea of charity and giving being at the heart of the Christmas spirit.
If your kids are older, you probably won't have to worry about shattering any myths. Still, it would be a good idea to tread cautiously lest you upset any legend or tradition a student's family embraces.
If you teach Geography, you could have your students explore the provenance of interstate commerce (and gift-giving) by studying ancient trade routes along which riches such as spices and silks travelled, how states such as Venice and the Netherlands rose and fell on the back of trade and even the great maritime conquests that brought exotic products from distant lands.
For questions such as 'Where do the traditions of gift-giving at Christmas come from?' and 'How do modern commerce and advertising drive what we think we want on December 25th?', you may divert from your usual curriculum. Think about tasking your students with research projects - either in groups or individually, and delivering an essay or a report to their classmates.
By the way, another excellent topic might be 'How does Amazon translate a few clicks on your computer into a gift arriving in the post?' That one would be great if you teach an ICT class but, in general, topics such as these are suitable for History and Geography courses, as well as Technology courses.
Exploring the Music of Christmas
Who doesn't know the words to 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas'? Who hasn't raised an eyebrow about the carollers demanding figgy pudding and insisting they won't leave until they get some?
It has to do with the so-called War on Christmas that took place during the English Interregnum, when Puritans banned all celebrations of Christmas. Riots soon followed, with the richer homes being assailed by poor townsfolk demanding food and drink. Terrified, the upper-crust folk of town complied.
This went on for about 12 years, after which Christmas celebrations were officially restored and everything went back to... normal.
And then, there's Jingle Bells - never meant to be a Christmas song but, today, played around the world to proclaim tidings of Yule all the same.
James Pierpoint wrote the song outside of a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, in autumn of 1850, because he was entranced by the merry scene of young people sleighing in the town square. The date alone indicates that the song is neither inspired by nor meant to commemorate Christmas but, here we are, all these years later...
Whether you teach music or history, you can have fun with your students by tasking them to deconstruct these and other popular carols. Of course, you can sing them first, if you like.
Who was Good King Wenceslas (a 10th century Czech king) and why was he wandering about in the snow? Where is the Little Town of Bethlehem and what is happening there today? What about all of those sinister Christmas songs, one of which is Good King Wenceslas? Others include Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Baby, It's Cold Outside and Santa Baby.
You don't even have to give them an entire song to analyse; maybe they could just investigate a single lyric or a verse. Why is it that only men of wealth and rank will find blessing if they bless the poor, as the Wenceslas carol specifies? What are the ancient traditions associated with the holly and the ivy that so many Christmas carols sing about? Why do we bring these plants inside at Christmas?
And how come mistletoe has become the wintergreen under which we must kiss? There are so many carols to examine and so much to learn from them...
Christmas from a Science or Religious Studies Perspective
For some, aligning religion and science is oxymoronic. Even Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest scientific mind of our times couldn't reconcile the two. Still, there are elements of Christmas that could be explored from both a religious and scientific perspective.
Why did the magi set off to find the newborn king?
Those Wise Men followed the Star of Bethlehem – but what was that star? One theory is that it was a particularly bright comet - Halley’s comet appeared around 12BC. Also, Chinese astronomers recorded a particularly bright comet in China in the year 5BC. Others argue it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which created a moving star.
Lucky for us, we recently treated to that sight; the first time in more than 800 years that those two planets were in such close proximity.
The Star of Bethlehem might even have been the birth of a new star. Whether you teach physics, cosmology, astronomy or religious studies, this topic alone makes for a fascinating lesson. Don't you want to find out where your students' minds might take them in their contemplation of this topic?
Here's another great question to debate: why we celebrate Christmas in December.
There's a growing consensus that the Christian festival was probably overlaid onto ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. That event represents the longest night of deepest darkness, but also the time when the days begin to get longer. The growing body of archaeological evidence proves that Romans, with their pantheon of gods, and the Druids - mystical and secular both, marked those dark days with feasting or ritual.
To encourage the keen minds in your classes, you should point out that there are parallels to ancient solstice celebrations in many other cultures – such as the Hindu festival of Diwali which celebrates light over darkness, and the Jewish Hanukkah - which is also known as the Festival of Lights.
If you teach Geography, you might task your learners to pick any country in the world and discover its winter solstice traditions - both the modern and traditional ones.
Christmas and Language Studies
No study of Christmas would be complete without examining the vocabulary and terms used exclusively during that (usually) most festive time of year. For instance, earlier we mentioned 'Yuletide', a word not used at any other time of the year.
The 'Yule' we've come to understand - a warm and gentle occasion, possibly toasted with mulled wine is nothing like its origins. The Wild Hunt involved soul-raving chases, led by a mythical beast who should be pursued and surpassed by supernatural hunters. Odin features prominently in ancient Yuletide celebrations. He's the Norse god of war, battle, sorcery and the gallows, among other things. Not exactly the same a Father Christmas, is he?
In a yet more-fascinating linguistic twist, Oden became Woden (in Old English), from whose name we get Wednesday.
Why do Americans say 'Merry Christmas' when we say 'Happy Christmas'? Why does the carol 'Hark, Now Hear the Angels Sing' start with such a terrible-sounding word (and what, exactly, does 'hark' mean)? And we all love Boxing Day (don't we?) but where did it get its start and what are its origins? Why is it called 'boxing' day?
Exploring the roots of some Christmas words can be a fun and engaging lesson that your students won't soon forget. Although, you might discourage them from wassailing first-hand. It would likely be unsafe and probably illegal - even if it is another fun word with interesting origins to explore.
Advent – what is the advent of something, and what are the Latin roots of this word? Santa Claus – who was the original St Nicholas, and why is he taking over for ‘Father Christmas’? And, while we're at it, who is this Kris Kringle fellow? If he's supposed to be the same as St Nicholas, why does he have a different name? And dare we mention Black Pete, the figure that currently has the Netherlands in an uproar?
Christ-mass – the word ‘christ’ has a Greek origin. What are the roots of the names of prophets and gods in other religions? Why is Christmas sometimes referred to as Noel - why does the French language seem to reject the letter L, anyway? And what is meant by 'goodwill' - as in 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men'. (Bonus question: are women and children not entitled to goodwill?)
The possibilities of exploring traditional Christmas words and phrases are endless!
Christmas Traditions Around the World
China, for all that it is a secular country, has nevertheless enthusiastically embraced Christmas - at least, its commercialism. On Christmas Eve, shops stay open all night, offering deep discounts to entice frenzied buyers. Christmas decorations abound and Jingle Bells, that non-carol, blares from loudspeakers everywhere.
In Ukraine and other Slavic countries, finding a spider in your Christmas tree is considered good luck. In Eastern Ukraine, it's typical to decorate one's tree with spiders. It's from this tradition that we adorn our trees with tinsel; those strands represent spiders' sticky webs.
Speaking of trees... the tradition of bringing a tree into one's home likely began in Germany - although historians are torn on the subject. As the story goes, St Boniface cut down a tree under which pagans were preparing a sacrifice. They thought of that tree as sacred so, when the tree god didn't strike Boniface dead, he took that opportunity to proclaim that a nearby evergreen tree was, in fact, the sacred tree and dragged the stricken tree off to his home.
These are just three of the fascinating myths and traditions surrounding our most festive season.
In the holiday's advent, you could start each lesson by sharing one such fact or, better yet, challenge students to discover:
- unusual Christmas traditions in Poland
- why the Netherlands' Black Pete is so controversial just now
- why the Japanese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas
- why mistletoe compels couples to kiss and where that tradition originated from
- why single women in the Czech Republic toss their shoes over their shoulder
- why Norwegians lock away their brooms on Christmas eve
- who Italians believe delivers their gifts (hint: not Santa!)
- where the idea to build gingerbread houses originated
Rather than demystifying our most cherished celebrations, answering these questions and others point to the timelessness of our rituals and the inter-connectedness of humanity.
After this coronavirus year we've endured, isn't that quality one we should emphasise?