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

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