Discover the meaning of Christmas: Fish, chocolate and grammar

17th December 2015 at 15:30

Dr Heather Martin, Subject Genius, Discover the meaning of Christmas

Get thee behind me, Christmas card! But especially making one. It may seem like an innocent, heart-warming way of cruising towards the holiday, but this is one particular gift-horse language teachers need to look firmly in the mouth. And it will take some doing, as canny children close in like lions sensing weakness in their tiring prey.

Oh alright then, maybe it's fair enough as a seasonal activity in the first year of learning, when the novelty factor is still high. And given that once you get beyond 'Feliz Navidad' or 'Joyeux Noël' the grammar of greetings is in fact quite advanced (as are the idiomatic touches that arise), maybe even in the last year too, when your students can generate language independently rather than merely copy conscientiously from the board. Otherwise, of making many Christmas cards there is no end, and much colouring is a weariness of both flesh and mind. In terms of value added, it's right up there with hanging flags on the classroom wall.

On the other hand, if you make the right choices then you could herald in Christmas right from the start of term. The challenge is to extract the maximum information from the minimum material, and nothing lends itself more readily to this enterprise than a well-chosen carol. Or just about any carol, in fact, if you work at it hard enough.

A big favourite of mine is the folkloric 'Los peces en el río'. It gives you humour (fish drinking in the river), science (fish drinking in the river) and geography (sunshine and rosemary vs holly and snow). It poses interesting questions: what part of the world is Mary from? Is she working mother (washing and hanging out the clothes) or fairy-tale princess (combing her long golden tresses with a silver comb)? How do you interpret 'the hands of my heart'? Do fish normally pop up in our (English) carols? And what might the fish symbolise?

That's just cultural significance. Linguistically, it introduces regular verb conjugation, reflexive verbs, the imperative, the two verbs for 'to be', the present participle and the past participle too, not to mention the diminutive and the multi-purpose preposition 'en' (on, in, at) and the tricky conjunction 'por'. Helpfully, 'la Virgen', 'los peces' and 'los pajaritos', provide a handy cast of characters to write about. It ticks the box for pronunciation and spelling too, featuring the  distinctive laughing letters 'g' and 'j', both the hard and the soft 'c', the 'll' or 'elye', the pervasive diphthongs 'ei', 'ie' and 'ue', and the use of accents for emphasis. You might be tempted to say that almost the whole of the Spanish language is contained within it, if only you look closely enough: almost, but not quite.

Choose another classic and you'll be equally well rewarded. 'Hacia Belén va una burra' ('A Donkey Goes to Bethlehem') promises a more traditional tale, until it turns out, just four lines in, that the donkey is carrying not just Mary but a cauldron of drinking chocolate, together with a whisk and a portable stove! Cue some resource-based enquiry-led learning and an impromptu history lesson: what do children infer from this about the time and place in which these lyrics were written? Mary is somewhat harassed, running hither and thither to protect her precious cargo from would-be thieves, including some mischievous marauding mice. Later, in the stable, the mice steal the nappies from the newborn baby and the donkey tucks into a straw hat worn by a traveller worshipping at the manger. This is a crazy, chaotic tale which will fill your classroom with seasonal mirth and merriment.

Grammatically, this carol makes exemplary use of the present participle, with poor old Mary running and flying all over the place while all around her others are taking, robbing, and eating. But it also offers a fantastic introduction to the perfect tense - 'hurry, they're taking it, oh no, they've taken it' - with the auxiliary 'haber' (compare and contrast this Germanic verb with the more Latinate 'tener'), as well as the object pronoun 'it'. It even features the preterite and imperfect tenses, and while the details are difficult, it's nevertheless a great opportunity to become acquainted with the short, sharp endings of the former and the longer, softer endings of the latter. So much of language learning is about attuning the ear, not just training the brain.

The motif of the journey, which is likewise central to 'Campanas de Belén', perhaps the most famous of Spanish carols, also provides a natural context for teaching the verb 'to go' and the associated prepositions 'to' and 'towards' ('Belén' means 'Bethlehem' and is also a common girls' name, akin to Beth). A beautiful tradition to pick up on, maybe even to enact in a sympathetic school environment, is that of the Mexican 'Posadas', where for nine nights before Christmas boys and girls travel from house to house singing the parts of Mary and Joseph as they look for a place to stay: a 'posada' is an inn, a shelter in which to pause along the way.

This kind of in-depth investigation of a finite text will enable your pupils to learn a lot about the language and the world. But it will also teach them the essential critical skills of literary analysis, transferable to other areas of the school curriculum and incidentally preparing them brilliantly for the requirements of formal assessment too.

Oh, and I almost forgot to say: they'll have loads of fun learning and singing the songs, be fitter aerobically, and feel thoroughly uplifted too. ¡Felices fiestas!


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head at Kensington Prep School.