As a mother of two girls aged seven and nine, the build up to Christmas at home is magical. Over the last few weeks, the anticipation of Christmas has been quite something. Don’t get me wrong, we always ensure that we observe Advent in our house and contextualise the waiting for Christmas in the Advent narrative. While we cannot escape—nor do we entirely want to—the Christmas music; the premature decorations; the early gift exchanging; chocolate money and mince pie eating; and all of the usual associated Christmas activities, I’m pretty confident that my girls know that Advent is a very special season marking the start of the new Church year and that this important time has its own liturgical focus, colours, feel, message, scriptural figures and so on. The girls are fortunate that their grandparents ensured that Advent was appropriately observed, and that this tradition has passed from generation to generation—a testimony to the faith commitment of the girls’ ancestors (although I can’t imagine that dancing around the house singing ‘Gaudete’ at full volume on the third Sunday of Advent is part of that legacy—yes, that does actually happen!) December is a particularly special time in our household, and we are thankful for that.
Despite our commitment to prioritising the Christian narrative of Christmas with the girls, it can often be a challenge to do so. I’ve found myself questioning the wisdom of many of the new Christmas ‘traditions’ that have emerged and are very quickly becoming the norm. I’m thinking about misbehaving elves moving into homes, the introduction of Mrs Claus (is that St Nick’s mum?), daily letters from Santa, the Christmas Eve box or Christmas Jumper Day (I’ll say more about that in a moment). It is not that I am against all of these, as I know that they can contribute to the magical feel of Christmas for many (including us—we love Jingle, our family elf) but it is the centrality that many of these new traditions are given in the Catholic school that is the issue, and often this seems to be at the expense of properly reflecting on and learning about Advent and the Nativity, the greatest story ever told.
Let me give an example. Last Friday, was Christmas Jumper Day at school and given the rate my two girls grow, last year’s efforts no longer fitted. This potentially meant a trip to the shops to spend money on two cheap jumpers that would be worn for a day. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the impact of this new Christmas tradition which of course, is not particular to the girls’ school (which, incidentally, is great!) First of all, families can be put under pressure to buy children a Christmas jumper; the financial burden that this causes can be significant. Secondly, the evolution of Christmas Jumper Day has resulted in many of the high street shops selling cheap versions that have been imported from countries where the conditions for workers in the factories (many of whom are children) are questionable. Finally, the realisation that these items of clothing are, more often than not, worn for only one day gives great cause for concern. Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ reminds us that we should ‘replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing’. By embracing this new tradition, solidarity with families and children, in our school community and beyond, and with the environment, is at risk. Sacrifice, generosity and a spirit of sharing are Advent and Christmas messages! Perhaps our Catholic schools, that are so good at promotion of these, could keep them as a focus at this special time of year.
Advent is an absolute gift for teachers—you only need to turn to This Is Our Faith, the Catholic RE curriculum in Scotland, to see what could become classroom traditions at this time of year. There is a focus on Mary and the shepherds in P2, on St Joseph and the reign of King Herod in P3 and the journey of the Magi in P4. In P5,6 and 7 children are invited to deepen their understanding and get to grips with the historical context of Jesus by finding out about the geographical, political and cultural setting of the time through a focus on one of the synoptic Gospels for each year. (And this is only one of the Strands of Faith!) I don’t doubt for a moment that many schools leaders and teachers ensure particular attention is given to this aspect of the RE curriculum during December. However, from my work with Catholic student teachers, it appears that this is not always the case and rather a limited and superficial focus on the Advent Wreath from P1-P7 can be the norm. What a missed opportunity!
In our understandable desire to make Christmas magical, to create memories for children and to give us hope (in this year more than ever) it is perhaps time for Catholic schools, and indeed us all, to press the reset button and commit to exposing our children to traditions that have survived millennia and that carry the timeless message of hope, love and joy.
Comment below to let us know how you prepare for Christmas and what you think of traditions such as Christmas Jumper Day!