The following article originally appeared in the October 1987 issue of Childhood Education magazine.
Celebration of Christmas is a staple in preschools and elementary education settings. Many school texts provide curriculum ideas for Christmas-related activities, which are then supplemented each year by instructional magazines aimed at teachers, preschool directors and child care workers.
Frequently, teachers organize their December curriculum around the holiday theme. They provide special craft activities that include Christmas trees, decorations, chimneys, stockings, Santa Claus and reindeer.
They may also introduce children to Christmas songs such as "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," read aloud stories related to the Christmas theme, and sponsor a Christmas party for children and their families.
All of these activities are supported by tradition as well as the popular belief that Christmas is a central celebratory event of childhood, perhaps its highlight. Christmas is seen as symbolic of much that is cherished about children: innocence, family closeness, goodness, wonder and joy.
Most teachers identify strongly with the Christmas holiday through family memories. These ties are reinforced each year in rebroadcasts of classic Hollywood Christmas movies such as "A Christmas Story," in theatrical performances of Christmas plays and the "Nutcracker Suite" ballet and of course, in teachers' own observances of the holiday.
The importance of Christmas in contemporary American culture and the degree of emotional investment its observance engenders make dispassionate discussion of the Christmas curriculum difficult. Nevertheless, as professionals we are committed to understanding the effects of our educational methods on children and revising them when they are problematic.
This article examines some aspects of Christmas programming for preschool and elementary students that are rarely, if ever, considered by those who plan and implement them. It focuses on unintended negative consequences of the Christmas curriculum in the lives of children and argues that current practices are detrimental to both Christian and non-Christian children.
Unintended Negative Consequences
Christmas programming often reinforces the commercialism that has become deeply connected with North American observance of the holiday.
Attempts to profit from the sale of goods as Christmas presents increasingly dominate media advertising in the months leading up to Christmas. Some businesses now advertise "Christmas in July" sales to give the shopper a head start on the holidays.
In 1986, a September 21st Associated Press story suggested that consumers begin thinking about "stocking stuffers for the person who has everything" (Schlachter, 1986). Children are also encouraged to think in material terms when they are asked repeatedly, "And what do you want for Christmas this year?" Sponsors of children's commercial programming hammer the theme home with commercials that link Christmas and presents.
Teachers inadvertently contribute to this media blitz when they ask children what they hope to get and then, after the holiday is over, what they did get. It is not uncommon for centers and schools to dress a staff member or parent as Santa, who then takes individual children into "his" lap and predictably asks them, "What do you want for Christmas?"
This focus on the getting of material goods is certainly not lost on children. With so many questions about what objects they wish to be given for Christmas, they are led to hope for and expect a great deal.
The problem is not only that the emphasis on receiving obscures the deeper religious meaning of Christmas, but that the expectations of many children cannot be met by their parents or caregivers.
Currently more than one out of five American children live in poverty, and the proportion increases to one out of four for children below the age of 6 (Children's Defense Fund, 1987).
Classroom appearances by Santa, along with media images of expensive toys and repeated adult questions about what children want, set many youngsters up for an inevitable feeling of loss and disappointment when expectations are not met.
Those who work with the children of migrant farm workers know how common this letdown is. Disappointed children may feel a sense of inferiority about their family's inability to provide better presents or, as is more likely in early childhood, internalize a feeling of being undeserving.
That feeling is frequently fueled by the playful comments of adults and "Santas" who tell children that toys are a reward for year-long "good" behavior. The first unintended message of the Christmas curriculum, then, is that joy and personal worth are measured materially.
Emphasizing rewards for "good" and "bad" behavior is poor childhood guidance.
Experts agree that children should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own behavior and to internalize a sense of self-control (Marion, 1981). Teachers help children develop a sense of moral autonomy when they discuss the consequences of undesirable behavior with children, involve them whenever possible in determining classroom rules, and regularly link limits with convincing and understandable reasons for such limits.
Children become prosocial because they have learned the value of cooperative behavior and not because they fear or wish to please an authority. Training children to achieve moral autonomy is not only good guidance practice, but also fundamental to the development of critical intellectual skills (Kamii & De Vries, 1978).
Telling children to be "good" so that Santa will be pleased and give them presents is a holdover from an earlier age with another view of child development. That approach is counterproductive--–not only because it encourages children to look outside of themselves for standards, but because the words "good" and "bad" convey little information, especially to young children.
"Good" is likely to be understood as that which pleases a given adult. And most children gradually learn that adults themselves often disagree about what is good and what is not.
At least one familiar Christmas song conveys a message that most teachers would probably question if they stopped to think carefully about it. In "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," children hear that they "better not shout, better not cry" lest Santa, who is making a list of good and bad behavior, judge them as undeserving.
Lacking the experience and sophistication of adults, young children are likely to miss the humor in the song. They may straightforwardly conclude that Santa Claus views crying and shouting as bad.
Since all children are aware of times they cried, shouted or otherwise displeased adults, they are likely to conclude that there is a good chance that Santa may find them "naughty" instead of "nice." Or, when Christmas is over they may think they have "put one over" on Santa this year.
I am not arguing for the elimination of Santa Claus (as if such a thing were thinkable) or denying other positive aspects of the tradition, but suggesting that teachers cannot afford to give blanket approval to all Christmas activities. Unfortunately, the second most commonly asked question of children during this season (after "What do you want to get?") is, "Have you been good?"
If teachers suspend their professional judgment in the belief that all things related to Christmas are good for children, they may unintentionally teach that standards of behavior are arbitrary and externally defined.
The intensity of the Christmas curriculum in non-religiously affiliated schools and centers isolates children of minority faiths, while contributing to the development of ethnocentrism in majority children.
Many teachers who espouse multicultural sensitivity see no difficulty in building their entire December curriculum around Christmas, despite the presence of children whose families do not observe the holiday.
Why this discrepancy? First, teachers who observe only the secular aspects of Christmas may believe that everyone, regardless of religious background, celebrates Christmas in at least a secular way. They feel that the absence of overly religious content in their planned activities eliminates the possibility of offending anyone.
But the assumption that everyone celebrates the secular aspects of Christmas is not founded in fact. Despite its nonreligious trappings, Christmas remains a religious holiday that is not usually celebrated by those of other faiths.
Most Jews do not hang stockings on the fireplace, decorate a tree or give their children presents on Christmas day–nor do Americans of the Moslem, Hindu or Buddhist faiths.
There is also a Christian group, the Jehovah's Witnesses, that does not observe the holiday. Other deeply observant Christian families are opposed to the commercialism that accompanies the celebration of the holiday and would prefer to have their children exposed only to the holiday's religious significance.
These parents may see classroom projects that center around chimneys, reindeer, stockings, trees and ornaments as offensive because they trivialize the observance of the birth of Jesus.
Aware of the distinctiveness of children from diverse religious backgrounds, many teachers feel they have eliminated the problem by observing a minority holiday that falls during the same time of year. Thus, teachers frequently pay attention to the Jewish holiday of Chanukah which is celebrated in December.
But there are two reasons why this practice intensifies rather than ameliorates the problem. First, the teachers may not have enough information about the holiday to make such observances meaningful (although such information is not difficult to obtain).
When this is the case, they may ask the minority children for help. Children, especially young ones, may not know what their teachers wish to know; they may feel uncomfortable with being singled out as a source when their teachers are so knowledgeable about the majority holiday (Hollander, Saypol & Eisenberg, 1978).
Second, and more important, is the distorted equation of the two religious holidays, merely because they fall in the same month. Chanukah does not have the same significance to Judaism that Christmas has to Christianity.
More important Jewish holidays are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are observed in the fall, and Passover, which is observed in the springtime.
Teachers do not display multicultural sensitivity when they treat Chanukah as the most important Jewish Holiday of the year, while ignoring more important Jewish holidays that do not fall in December. These teachers abet the false notion the Chanukah is the "Jewish Christmas."
And even as they pay lip service to non-Christian holidays, teachers may still give children of minority religions the message that they are "guests in their own country" by imposing Christmas upon them (Rosenthal, 1986).
I recently observed the implementation of a Christmas saturated December curriculum in a university-affiliated preschool that serves children from many countries and religious backgrounds.
The room was decorated with a tree to which the children daily added ornaments that had been constructed in art projects. One wall of the room was covered with a drawing of a fireplace with stockings hanging from the mantle. The climax of the month's activities was a visit from "Santa" who appeared at circle time.
The children were all invited to climb individually into Santa's lap. The delighted teachers were apparently unaware of the problem this situation posed for the non-Christian children who did not wish to be left out.
Yet, these children recognized that Santa Claus could not have the meaning for them that he had for their majority religion peers. They may have wondered how their parents might feel if they interacted with Santa.
One 4-year-old Jewish girl watched in curiosity and then, unable to restrain herself, climbed onto Santa's lap. Predictably, Santa asked her, "And what do you want me to bring you for Christmas?" The child looked at Santa in confusion and, either unable to explain or unwilling to do so, remained silent.
Misinterpreting this silence, Santa added to her discomfort by saying consolingly, "Maybe you'll be able to tell me next year." Her teachers, oblivious to the child's predicament, continued to beam.
This child learned not only that her teachers and classmates observe a holiday her family does not, but that her difference is only superficially acknowledged and respected by the school. When she is asked to relate to Santa, create a decoration for a nonexistent tree, or take home and hang a stocking for a Christmas Eve that will not be celebrated, her cultural and religious heritage is denied and disrespected.
At the same time, her majority peers are guided toward ethnocentrism and insensitivity by observing the imposition of their tradition on children of all backgrounds. They are encouraged to believe that everyone celebrates Christmas, or that Christmas is so important that its imposition on minority children is morally justifiable.
Toward Positive Outcomes
My criticism of the early childhood Christmas curriculum should not be taken as an attack on Christmas itself. In fact, it is easy to make a case that the problems described here are not inherent in the holiday, but distortions of it.
Christmas is usually described as a holiday that commemorates peace on earth and good will towards others, in addition to celebrating the birth of Jesus. Christmas is also associated with charity and compassion.
It is thus ironic that commercialism and the resulting demeaning of the poor, along with coarse treatment of non-Christian children, are regularly committed in its name. Arguably, the elimination of current practices would be more in keeping with the "true spirit" of Christmas. Such changes would include:
- Limiting Christmas activities to two or three days, and then making them as close to the holiday as possible. This policy would remove some of the pressure from minority children. It would also help all children by reducing the over stimulation that frequently occurs when activity after activity build toward Christmas in middle and late December (Taylor, 1985).
- Emphasizing the giving aspect of the holiday rather that the receiving of presents. Children can make gifts for parents or each other, or study about people in need and those who work to help them.
- Giving parents room to communicate their personal beliefs to children by neither encouraging nor discouraging Jesus or Santa Claus (Taylor, 1985). It is appropriate and expected for teachers in religious schools to endorse a particular religious view. It is intolerable when teachers of diverse children in non-religiously affiliated schools and centers do so. Imposition of religion is not qualitatively different from imposition from imposition of culture. Sending the minority-religion child home with an ornament for a nonexistent tree is akin to calling the Hispanic child "Charles" when his given name is Carlos.
- Becoming aware of important celebrations in other religions represented by children in the school or center and recognizing these at their appropriate times of year. If minority festivals are to be celebrated, they need to be understood on their own terms and not fitted into the curriculum merely to justify the intensive Christmas curriculum in December.
- Maintaining professional judgment in the face of pressures of the holiday season. Children, not Christmas, should be the number one priority for teachers when they are planning lessons in December. The application of principles of child development and multicultural sensitivity should not be set aside for one month of each school year.
Children's Defense Fund. (1987). A children's defense budget. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Hollander, E.K., Saypol, J.R., and Eisenberg, M. (1978). Religious Holidays in the public schools—No easy answers. Childhood Education, 55. 84-88.
Kamii, C., and DeVries R. (1978). Physical knowledge in preschool education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Marion, M. (1981). Guidance of young children. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby.
Rosenthal, N.R. (1986). Guests in their own country. Liberty, 81, 5, 10-12.
Schlachter, B. (1986, September 21). Stocking stuffers for the person who has everything. Las Cruces Sun-News, p. 1D.
Taylor, B.J. (1985). A child goes forth (6th ed.). Minneapolis: Burgess.
Reprinted by permission of Steven A. Gelb and the Association for Childhood Education International, 17904, Georgia Avenue, Suite 215, Olney, MD. Copyright ©2002 by the Association.