Christmas in the Classroom: How to be equitable *and* festive

Advent calendars, Elfs on the Shelfs, parties, concerts, trees, plays – the propensity for providing our children with fun and festive activities at this time of year is both exciting and exhausting. But when we translate these activities to the classroom we add a layer of complication that could inadvertently see undue burdens being put on parents, and children being left out of the very activities that are meant to be a reward and a treat for them.

I’m not going to address the issue of religious or cultural equality here, as I will navigate under the (perhaps na├»ve) assumption that our teachers are sensitive enough to be culturally inclusive, and that parents are flexible enough to not look for reason to be insulted by any perceived cultural slight.

(That being said, teachers – seriously, exploring “Christmas Around the World” is not at all being inclusive, and parents, relax, just a little.)

But in the face of all the celebrations happening during the holiday season, it’s easy for issues of equity to be overlooked. And when children are forced out of activities due to socio-economic circumstances way beyond their control, it’s a concern. A few examples:

The Problem: The expectation to thank a teacher for all of their hard work with a gift at the holidays, is pretty black and white. Children (or parents) walk in with armloads of presents, lavishly wrapped, and deposit each one on the desk of the recipient. This almost always includes a child’s homeroom teacher, but could extend to auxiliary teachers, classroom helpers and office and support staff. Discussions regarding teachers gifts starts almost as the school year does, and can cause a great amount of stress, pressure and (perceived) competition.

The Solution:
  • Change the tone of the conversation: Instead of discussing what to buy your child’s teacher(s), talk about what you could provide that a teacher would appreciate, and that would show your appreciation for them.
  • Think home-made: cookies, cake mixes, art, mittens – tap into your creative streak.
  • Enlist your child’s talents: I can’t think of any teacher that needs another homemade Christmas tree ornament (or mug, or pencil holder), nor one that could possible appreciate the effort of their small charges more. Gifts made with love and attention exude those sentiments.
  • Spend your time, not your money. If a teacher is interested or involved in a local charity, offer your time volunteering there on that teacher’s behalf. Offers of your time in the classroom are also invaluable, or have your child make a coupon book for classroom helper roles your child could fulfill.

The problem: Expecting parents to pony up money so that their child can participate in a gift exchange goes against nearly every equity goal I have ever seen in a school. It forces parents to spend money or see their child excluded from the activity. And then it allows children (and parents) to compare gifts in a negative way. If you spent $15 on a gift but the gift your child received seemed much cheaper, you’d be pissed. And kids can be cruel. A permission form to participate is even worse, as you are forcing a parent to formally admit that they cannot afford this activity. The whole thing is gross.

The solution: By all means, have a holiday gift exchange. But make it one that costs exactly little or no money. Some ideas:
  • Handmade card exchange
  • Favourite recipe exchange (bonus points: teacher or eager parent makes copies of all recipes and compiles for an end-of-year book/gift for students)
  • Short story exchange
  • Cookie exchange (i.e. one dozen each to exchange)

The problem: I don’t know of any school or classroom that does not participate in some sort of food bank/toy drive/winter clothing drive at this time of year. The activity in itself is an admirable one and worth organizing. The problem is when you put some sort of goal on the drive, and attach a competition aspect between classrooms. Giving in an anonymous, “we’re all in this together” way is fantastic. Promising a pizza party to the classroom that raises the most money or brings in the most food is problematic. Consider this: a family that feels obligated to bring in a food donation or risk their child being the cause of “losing” may be the exact family that will have to access that food via the food bank the next week. A family forced to donate a toy may see it under the tree at Christmas if they rely on social assistance to help get by. Do we really have to put families in that position?

The solution:
  •  A school-wide toy/food/clothing drive organized for the sole purpose of helping others, with completely voluntary, anonymous donation that is located in a centralized place where nobody will know who does or does not donate. Full stop.

This is a beautiful, wonderful time of year if things are going well for your family. If things are a little tougher, this is can be a stressful, painful time of year. School should not be the place to add more pain or stress on a family. And don’t kid yourself – even if your child goes to a “good” school, there are families struggling in some way. Let’s encourage our schools and families to place the emphasis on opening hearts and minds – not wallets.



Pick One Thing

sharing wishes

You can only pick one thing, my sister would say, which would prompt my bargaining to begin in earnest.

What if I pick two things on this page, and skip the next page?

No, she’d say, that’s not allowed, and besides, you’ll cheat.

The Wish Book sat heavy between us, our small laps a shared tabletop as we flipped each page—wishes made, wishes still to come. My sister was right, of course; I’d never want to skip a pick on the next page, and would push my reckoning well past the toy section, the clothing section, the jewelry, until we got to the bedspreads and the game was over. Our imaginary treasure boxes were filled to bursting and we had exhausted both the pages of the catalogue, as well as the fantastical Christmas list desires of two young girls.

That we didn’t celebrate Christmas was hardly the point.

We knew that there would be no tree, no Santa, no stockings, no gift list a mile long to present to eager parents. But there would be night after night of two small girls sitting on a couch, haggling over the merits of each of us picking a different superhero sleeping bag, and whether or not we would actually share the bounty, as we assured each other we hypothetically could. That the entire exercise was theoretical was perfectly unimportant. We would often call our mother over to look at an item we were particularly excited about.

Pick one thing, she’d tell us, and maybe for Hanukkah…

So we’d scan the catalogue again and again, unaware of our place in this grand holiday tradition, focusing all of our energy on narrowing down our choice.

* * *

The snow has finally begun—snow that assures us the winter weather is here; that this time it’s sticking around. I’m busy in the kitchen with the kinds of things mothers are often busy with: cleaning off dinner dishes, emptying out school bags. I am taking inventory of the tasks and obligations of the coming week. Parent/teacher interviews, book orders due, a meeting here, an appointment there. I wonder if I will be able to do it all; if I will be able to decide what gets pushed, gets left unfinished.

Hanukkah is coming up soon, followed closely by Christmas. Lucky ducks that they are, my children celebrate both. Hanukkah is songs and latkes and the lighting of the menorah, and customs carried from my own childhood, shared in the relative quiet of our home. Christmas is a feast of family and noise and celebration, and everything I adore about my husband’s background. If my children are spoiled, it is in the very best possible way—in tradition and culture and security and love.

The chores complete, I look in on my two daughters, who sit on the couch in our living room. Their childhood is very different from mine, which makes me at once both nostalgic and hopeful. There’s a fire burning in the fireplace, and a cat grooming herself precariously close to the flames. Between the girls there lays a book, and I recognize it instantly. Not quite as massive as the tome from my own childhood, the girls flip the pages of wishes slowly, methodically.

Oh! I want that, and that one, too my younger daughter cries, but her older sister admonishes her immediately.

No, Cassidy. That’s not how you do it. Look at each page carefully, and pick one thing.

* * *

Want a wish of your own? Sears.ca has generously outfitted me with three $50 gift certificates to give to my readers! Simply leave a comment telling me a favourite memory associated with the Wish Book, or what you would buy yourself or somebody else this year from the Wish Book or Sears.ca. Winners will be drawn on Wednesday, December 10. Good luck!

This post is sponsored by Sears.ca. I was compensated for this post, but all thoughts, opinions and wishes are my own.