Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Or Not.

As I write, the TV pundits are out in full force on this four-day holiday weekend. I can hear their voices in the next room, saying: ‘Wall. Build the Wall. Steel-slat Wall. There will be no wall, wall, wall.’

It’s deeply ironic, isn’t it? As every other medium is sharing messages of joy and peace—caring for those with all kinds of needs, highlighting the season of giving and forgiving, yada yada—our duly elected President is using his incredible authority to reinforce naked dominance, even outright cruelty, over those same needy folks, at this moment. No joy and peace for you, asylum seekers!

The antidote, for me, has been (more irony) social media, seeing holiday memories, wishes and celebrations pictured on friends’ timelines. I don’t know how many dogs in Santa hats it takes to push the crisis at the border out of mind, temporarily—but I’m down to see them all. We need a little harmony and mirth, before returning to the cause of preserving democracy.

The most heartening things I’ve seen in the past week have come from the schools and classrooms of my educator friends—kids singing, jingle bells ringing, cookies being decorated, trips to the reindeer farm, and stories read. I know that each teacher, PK-12, is struggling with how much ‘holiday’ to inject into the daily life of their classroom—as if they had control over the commercialized Christmas madness that descends on the nation, mid-November.

It’s always a judgment call, for public school educators. How to honor all traditions, sacred and secular? How to walk the fine line between what ‘most people’ celebrate and what is actually happening in the homes of the children in our care, some of whom are decidedly not celebrating anything? How to determine whether a holiday-related story or activity or essential question is worthy of inclusion in a custom-tailored curriculum for our particular students? Probably most pressing: How to keep a lid on the mounting excitement (and dread) and keep kids moving forward?

It’s especially difficult for colleagues who teach music. I have often thought that there should be a whole required course in the university music education curriculum on incorporating cultural traditions respectfully and without running afoul of community expectations. The ACLU has some incredibly useful materials for educators and civic organizations on community celebrations, a widely misunderstood topic (see: The not-really-a ‘War on Christmas’).

Many music teachers, especially those at the elementary level, default to the secular (which often sprang from sacred roots, when traced back) and end up with a lot of Santa Claus music, of dubious worth, or weather-related ‘winter’ tunes which are wildly inappropriate in Arizona and Florida.

I’m not criticizing—it’s really tricky. The longer one teaches in a particular community, the easier it becomes to reconcile December programming with democratic values, but issues always bubble up. Two stories:

#1. I am mentoring a promising, enthusiastic first-year elementary music teacher in my district, although we teach in different buildings. She’s putting together a winter-themed program for December. It looks great to me. My son is in the building where she teaches, and he likes the songs he’s learning. A couple of weeks before the concert date, her principal (an overt born-again Christian) instructs her to end the program with ‘Silent Night.’ He pictures the whole auditorium singing along—and he’ll pop for those flickering fake candles.

She mentions this to other teachers in the lunchroom. They’re outraged. It’s against the law! Just tell him no!  (Note: there are lots of other issues with this principal, beyond separation of church and state.) She comes to me, her official mentor, asking for advice.

Has she had a conversation with him about how appropriate it is to end a program with such an iconic Christian tune? Has she mentioned how little time she has with each group, to explicate what ‘round yon Virgin’ means to your average first grader? Answer: Yes.  And he is adamant. It’s what he wants, and he has directed her to do this.

My advice? Perhaps first-year teachers, even those who know better, have to do what the principal directs.  Her colleagues should understand—they know him, plus they want to keep her on staff, because she’s talented and the kids love her.  Next year, or when she gets tenure, she will be in a better position to choose her own curricular materials and defend them.

That was then.  Today, I might give her different guidance. What do you think?

#2. I am teaching elementary music myself, in a K-5 building. We are preparing for a December assembly for parents and families, during the day—very casual and fun, just a chance to sing and jingle, on the day before winter break.

A first-grader’s father makes an appointment to see me.  I am prepared. I have met, many times, with parents who have different faith traditions, and have always been able to craft a satisfactory solution to holiday programming.

The father is a minister at a fundamentalist church in the district. He’s come to direct me not to mention Santa Claus in my classroom. No stories about Santa. No songs about Santa. No Santa hats or decorations.  He’s perfectly happy for us to sing ‘Away in a Manger’ (his suggestion), but please—no ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas.’ He and his wife have always told their children The Truth about Christmas: there is no Santa Claus, and kids whose parents promote this myth are lying to their children.

Well. While making sure the first-grade songs don’t include Santa is not a problem, some of the other classes have started working on Santa-related songs, including the 5th graders’ very clever rendition of ‘Mr. Santa’ to the tune of ‘Mr. Sandman’ with some cool bom-bom-bom-bom harmonies at the beginning, even a little half-baked counterpoint.

Fifth graders don’t believe in Santa Claus (unless it’s beneficial to their gift tallies), but they’re OK with singing about him. Nobody believes the Beatles lived in a yellow submarine, but we’re all willing to join in on the chorus. Right?

I tried to explain this to the minister; I would avoid directly mentioning or singing about Santa Claus in his daughter’s presence (nor did I want her to spill the beans to horrified Little Believers in her classroom, an evergreen issue for early childhood educators). But I couldn’t take Santa out of the entire program.

He smirked. He thanked me for my time and told me his daughter would not be attending the program. All in all, probably for the best, because—trust me—even when teachers try to excise symbolic representations of the holiday for the best of reasons, somehow Santa Claus keeps comin’ to town. Jolly-old-saint-nick

Christmas Time: Minefield for Teachers


Several years ago, in an effort to make the building look festive as parents visited for various events, my middle school principal suggested mandated a Christmas door decorating contest in December. Each homeroom would choose a theme and embellish their classroom doors to match. Naturally, it was a contest—with the winning homeroom scoring donuts and cocoa.

I had some reservations about this. Competitive decorating—for a holiday that represents only one faith-ish tradition—is really not kosher, so to speak, in a public school. Even with a fairly uniform—middle class, non-diverse—student population, embracing a range of celebrations and ‘reasons for the season’ has always been my M.O., the way to meld parent expectations around a December concert, and teach students that mankind, in arctic and temperate zones anyway, has marked the Solstice as celestial turning point. Everything else, from Santa Claus to midnight Mass, came later.

Besides, enforced cheer can be anxiety-producing for many students in December, even in a school district where a very large majority of students celebrate Christmas in their homes.  There are always children whose grandmother is seriously ill, whose dad has lost his job, whose parents have split and are now experiencing two, or more, less-than-Hallmark celebrations, marked by tears and disappointment.

In fact, the longer you live, the more you realize that sweetness and light at the holidays happens only sometimes. When you’re genuinely mature, you can come to seriously appreciate the bittersweet holiday, the annual opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of life, the quiet pleasures of memory.

But not if you’re, say, twelve—and wondering why other kids get Force One hand-operated drones, and you’re just hoping to have dinner with someone who cares about you.

One year during the weeks leading up to the winter break, I asked my students to write about what they planned to do during their time off. Most wrote things like, “see my cousins,” “get a new gaming system,” and “go skiing.” However, one of my students turned in a blank piece of paper with just his name on it. When I asked him why he didn’t write anything, he reluctantly told me that he wasn’t excited for the break. He said all winter break meant to him was two weeks at home alone while his mother was passed out on the couch. No tree. No family dinners. Not even any presents.

I was discussing this minefield with three of my friends who are veteran teachers. One said:

The year I moved from elementary to HS remedial, I loved every minute until about Thanksgiving… I finally went into my principal’s office and admitted I was a terrible teacher and I wasn’t doing anything right. She gently explained the difference between what my littles were anticipating, and my bigs. How holidays were dreaded… It helped me right the ship and look at my students with new eyes.

And another wrote:

I taught homeless children for nearly two decades. There were two times a year when we’d see them cry as they left the building. One was Christmas and the other was the end of the school year! Having come from a supportive family with family traditions around the holidays, I can only imagine what these youngsters endured.

Lest you think this holiday stress is a function of poverty, here’s a comment from a teacher at a private boarding school:

The period between Thanksgiving break and winter break is one of the most stressful of the year here. Whatever the nature of the home life each kid may have, the adjustment on return from a break always takes some time as does anticipation of and preparation for an upcoming break. Additionally, some international students go out on a home stay here rather than returning to their home. All this means some kids feel they are in non-stop transition, which is really hard. Advisors and our school counselor, being aware of this, do what we can to make ourselves available to kids however they may need us.


When my homeroom of 8th graders heard about the door decorating contest, they immediately recognized it for what it was: a sugar-laced bribe. While many of the doors in the building began sporting live greenery, battery-pack flashing lights and construction paper fireplaces, our door was blank and undecorated as the deadline approached.

Finally, one of the girls (it’s always a young woman who takes the lead on a project like this) covered the door in brown butcher paper and wrote ‘What Do You Really Want for Christmas?’ at the top. We left magic markers next to the door and invited everyone on the 8th grade hallway to participate. *

What happened next was low-key but amazing. Students wrote about noble things—true peace on earth, healing the planet—but also their private needs:  No fighting at my house. My brother comes home from the hospital. I get to see my friends from my old school.

Students stuck things to the door with glue sticks—notes from friends, grades ripped from the top of assignments. It became a graffiti wall, untidy and the opposite of celebratory.

I wasn’t there when the teacher-judges came around but can only imagine their faces as they saw Mrs. Flanagan’s cop-out door.  So very un-Christmasy—but maybe not.

We didn’t win. But we had cocoa anyway.

*See commenter Cara’s remark below–she’s right, it was a sexist thing to say. And not accurate.4303131636_fd8630a77b_b

Helicopter Mom Comes for Lunch

It happened maybe 20 years ago, but I remember it clearly—because it was so unusual.

I was teaching a middle school band class, and there was a knock on the door. I went to answer—and it was David’s mother, holding a big shopping bag.  I turned to call David to the door, assuming he’d forgotten something at home, and good ol’ stay-at-home Mom was rescuing him.  But she stopped me.

Keeping out of the class’s line of vision in the hall, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small pie. With potholders. “I don’t want David to see me,” she said. “But I was baking this morning, and wanted him to have pie, fresh out of the oven, for lunch.”

I took the pie, gingerly, and she set off down the hallway.  The pie smelled and looked fantastic. I carried it back into the classroom and set it on a bookcase. There were plenty of remarks: How come Mrs. Flanagan got a pie and they were stuck with cafeteria food? Could they have some? Whose mom was sucking up to the teacher?

I explained that it wasn’t for me. And because it would be obvious who’d be eating the pie in ten minutes, I told them it belonged to David—a quiet, cooperative trumpet player. David’s face got beet red, as I settled the class down for the final few minutes of instruction. When the bell rang, he picked up the pie—and the potholders—but waited until everyone was out of the room to leave.  He didn’t look like someone who’d just been given the best school lunch ever. In fact, he looked mortified.

In the teachers’ lounge, my colleagues were discussing another pie delivery, made to David’s sister.  It wasn’t a kindly, delighted conversation. In fact, the other teacher who had taken a secret pie drop-off was expertly mimicking Mom’s tiny, high-pitched voice: You know how pies are best when they’re warm? It’s her favorite kind!

The general—ruthless—conversation was around parents who can’t let their children go to school, damn it, like every other kid, and be unspoiled and un-special for seven hours a day.  Make them a pie at home. Don’t bring it to school. And the same goes for their mittens.

I tended then—and now—to agree. School is, by its nature, a group experience, where we learn more than long division and state capitols. It’s a place where we learn to take turns, take only what we need, wait for others to speak and tough it out when things don’t go our way. There’s a reason why Robert Fulghum made a mint by laying out why everything we need to know is learned in kindergarten.

In 30+ years in the classroom, I’ve met plenty of parents who wanted special favors for their children. Some seemed reasonable, others merely a way to excuse their children or mitigate their child’s very natural and productive struggle with difficult challenges. The parent who frequently runs interference for their child is not doing them any favors, in the long run.

This is, of course, generalizing. Some kids deserve and benefit from a break, or special treatment. These are judgment calls, case by case situations. This is why we want thoughtful and kind people working in schools—to decide whether Johnny needs a hand up or a kick in the pants in his journey toward becoming civilized.

Parent involvement in, and monitoring of, daily life at school, however, has undeniably increased. The ‘choice’ movement—where disgruntled parents can easily choose another (free) school for their child—has enhanced (or exacerbated, take your pick) helicopter parenting.  Don’t like the curriculum or the teacher—or your children’s classmates? Pick another school. Plenty of choices available.

I was stunned to read, in the Atlantic, no less, that schools are trying to decide how to deal with an influx of parents wanting to eat lunch with their children.

What could be wrong with Dad wanting to pop in once a month and chow down on sloppy joes and carrot sticks with his second grader?  School lunches last about 25 minutes, and it would be a treat for most elementary school children to see a parent’s friendly face. It could strengthen the school-home bond. Perhaps even improve behavior in the cafeteria, with a couple of extra adults around.

Then I read the story.

There were the parents who brought pizza for their kid and his friends, leaving other kids envious. The moms who worried about their kids being picky eaters and not getting optimum nutrition. The one who just wanted to know more about what goes in her child’s day:

“You see what people are eating, not eating, see which kids are throwing food, talking too loud, who is sitting by themselves. It’s a chance to poke in on your kids’ day that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have lunch with them.”

It’s the very definition of helicopter parenting—all about the judging, the disapproval, the social arbitration, the inability to let a child make her own friends and choices. And woe to the school that tries to put brakes and limits on eating lunch with your child, as often as you choose.

There’s a shift happening here, toward individualizing education and a consumerist perspective on a public good. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a school lunch just a school lunch. But the story made me uneasy. Power and control over small things in public schools can lead to power and control over bigger things.  A little pie today, the whole enchilada tomorrow.    school-lunch-830x553