Why Christmas is important in schools

When you’re caught up in the craziness of Christmas at school, you might find yourself muttering ‘Bah, humbug!’ But you should take comfort in the fact that the festivities will have a long-term, positive impact on your school. Dan Worth unwraps research revealing how Christmas brings children and teachers closer together, breaks down barriers in parental engagement, builds community links and even improves pupils’ learning
20th December 2019, 12:04am
Why Jingle Bells Rocks
Dan Worth


Why Christmas is important in schools


As the last tinsel is swept away and the final "Merry Christmas!" is shouted across the playground, you might be glad that the whole madness of Christmas in school - with all the planning, repetitive events, manic children and zany frivolity - is over for another year. You may even be one of those teachers who would rather such festivities were kept to a minimum or avoided altogether in school hours. After all, there's a lot of curriculum content to get through.

But avoiding Christmas in schools - or resenting it - would be pretty foolish. Because in fact, that slightly chaotic carol singing, that Christmas card postbox, even that comedy Christmas jumper have all made your job easier.

This is because Christmas in a school is a unique opportunity for deep engagement between that school and its community, and teachers and their pupils, which no other point in the year can quite match. In short, research suggests that you need Christmas.

It's easy to understand why teachers might begin to resent Christmas. Like shop workers who cringe every time Mariah Carey starts warbling, teachers tend to get too much of a good thing: in schools, festive cheer tends to be thrust upon you.

And then, on top of the usual stress of the job, children start frequently disappearing from your classroom for rehearsals when they are meant to be practising Spag, your first 10 minutes of science gets hijacked by Christmas-related admin, and across the board the pupils - even the older ones - have dedicated half their cognitive load to mentally ticking off Christmas present lists.

When you have an Ofsted-ready sequenced curriculum to canter through and scheduled retrieval sessions that can't be missed, Christmas might seem like a disaster.

But let me give you a different perspective. There are some factors it would be worth keeping in mind the next time you try to throw some tinsel at a wall in a fit of rage (it will never reach the wall, by the way - tinsel is surprisingly floaty).

So come, all ye faithful, on a little joyeux Noël journey, and I shall reveal all.

1. Christmas really does make us get along

"People like Christmas because we are all doing the same thing," reveals Carol Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Reading. This doesn't mean that we all celebrate Christmas in exactly the same way - some don't celebrate it at all. But almost everyone is engaged in Christmas as a collective experience throughout December (and in November, and I am sure I saw some Christmas trees in October this year, too…).

Collective experiences are fundamental to what it means to be human, as Veronika Rybanska, a developmental psychologist and cognitive anthropologist who studied at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, explains. "Knowing that someone goes through the same thing that you are experiencing can provide an important feeling of not being alone," she says. "It creates the feeling of belonging, and that provides a powerful sense of identity."

Christmas is particularly good for this, she adds: "The spirit of coming together to celebrate something special, and highlighting the spirit of community, all give Christmas that unique power that can help us create cohesion and celebrate our similarities rather than alienate us based on our differences."

Essentially, if everything is a bit fractious, the staffroom is a battleground, and the pupils are all tired and have had enough, Christmas is the shot of collective joy in the arm that ensures that this whole education thing does not collapse a mere term in and it helps to make sure that we all pull together and make it until summer.

2. It pulls in the wider community

The run-up to Christmas is possibly the only time of the year when parents are likely to visit without a clear educational reason. For parents who do not engage with school through fear of negative experiences, or because of perceived threats, Christmas is a chance to engage on neutral - safe - terms.

That's important mainly because we can begin to break those barriers down, which can benefit the child enormously (we have all read the research around the huge impact of parental engagement in school). But there are other knock-on effects, too.

"Throughout the school year, a parent might never walk on to the school premises, which might later affect the way he/she responds when approached by school, whether it is collecting funds, volunteering work or recommending the school to others," says Rybanska.

She adds that the festive fun can also help us to see each other (parents, teachers and pupils) in a different way.

"Attending a Christmas event can supplement a connection and gently remind various people within a school community (students, parents, teachers) that they are, in fact, connected and should support each other," Rybanska says.

Fuller agrees. She says that this type of engagement can also serve to remind parents that the school is not a faceless organisation but a place run by real people who have their pupils' best interests at heart.

"For schools to be the phenomenal power within a community that they can be, then they have to have relationships with people in that community - otherwise they are just another institution that people don't trust," she explains.

3. Whatever the play - and however much hassle is involved in staging it - it's worth putting on a show

One of the most common reasons why parents visit a school at Christmas time is to see a play. However, a school Christmas production creates the potential for conflict around how religious (or not) it is, given that school communities are usually multifaith and include those of no faith.

Jonathan Wynn, a sociologist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, notes that the Christmas show can be a source of arguments because societies place a lot of significance on plays.

"A holiday play is in many ways about what the morals and values are of the community that is putting it on," he says.

This explains why some of those in a community expect to have traditional Christmas stories - ie, the nativity - and are vocal if they don't see them performed, even if they are not actually religious. Wynn likens the situation to a blues band in Chicago having to play classic songs such as Mustang Sally because that is what the audience demands. "The musicians hate it but they have to conform to the expectations of the audience," he says.

There are compromises on offer, Wynn suggests. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, he explains, is a morality tale that promotes the core ideals of traditional Christmas - charity, togetherness, goodwill to all - without being religious.

"Dickens is a palatable middle ground - there's a good reason why Scrooge gets promoted [for school Christmas plays] because it can serve the same purpose [as a religious tale] without having the baggage that can have the unintended consequence of 'othering' groups," Wynn says.

Whatever the choice of production, putting it on is a huge undertaking for those in the school - missed learning time, pressure on staff to work extra hours to make it as good as possible and multiple logistical challenges. But it's worth it, says Wynn, because the shared endeavour is a huge lesson in togetherness and kindness.

"You see moments of great generosity and kindness from different people who have agreed to be co-present in a moment - and there can be a real effervescence to that type of collective gathering," he says.

It also provides opportunities for parents and teachers to publicly praise children for non-academic tasks, for pupils to see parents and teachers aiming for the same goal, and for all the adults to drink too much mulled wine and feel a warm fuzz of "isn't this great?", which can produce enough goodwill to get everyone through to Easter without too many arguments breaking out.

4. Christmas helps pupils to learn - honest!

It turns out that the repetition of Christmas rituals is not only a crucial part of the collective experience but also helps to boost children's learning processes.

Rybanska has researched how rituals impact on children, focusing on pupils in both Europe (in Slovakia) and Oceania (in Vanuatu). She found that engaging with rituals improves children's ability to delay gratification. This, in turn, has benefits including improved academic performance.

"Given that a poorer ability to delay gratification has been shown to predict ...lower levels of academic performance, our results may have important implications for the design and implementation of future educational strategies," her research paper states. Essentially, having to wait a whole 24 hours for your next bit of advent calendar chocolate is a life lesson worth learning.

Rybanska elaborates on this by explaining that ritual helps children to understand that there are "correct" ways to do things and this helps to develop faculties that link to core learning concepts.

"Despite widespread opinion about rituals being simple copying, they, in fact, require rigorous computation and cognitive control to do them correctly. This is because rituals require one to be mindful about his or her actions - there is only one way to perform a ritual: the proper way," she explains.

Rybanska adds that the sort of Christmas rituals that achieve this do not need to be especially complex, with examples such as opening the windows on advent calendars or lighting advent candles all aiding this development. "Instead of lighting advent candles mindlessly, we can do it with the children present, and really focus on what it means and stress that it must be done at the same time every week - even though the answer to why we do it at the same time is 'just because'," she says.

5. Christmas jumper days are about more than just silly sweaters

Every year, many a teacher exclaims that they hate Christmas jumper days, but these events perform a very important role.

"[Students] see the traditional teacher wearing a Christmas jumper and that causes surprise … but it also helps them to engage with them more because it helps them to realise that teachers are human beings, too," says Fuller.

Indeed, the humble Christmas jumper is particularly good for this (almost as good as a pupil stumbling across a teacher in Tesco, I imagine, but no one seems to have done that study). Matthew Slater, an associate professor at Staffordshire University, has researched how clothes worn within a group help to bond people together.

"In sports, the kit of the team - which often links to broader aspects such as the team's badge, history and values - plays a part in bringing the individuals on the team together to a collective whole," he says. "We can use this point to make sense of why running a Christmas jumper day - where teachers and children in schools wear their favourite winter woolly - can help to develop psychological connections between everyone by making us feel we are all part of the same group."

Furthermore, because Christmas jumper days are now something of an established event, often taking place on a set day each year and with a charitable focus, the bonds they create can go beyond a single school and wider into society. "It helps people to think about 'we' and 'us' in addition to 'I' and 'me'," says Slater. "For example, all the people in a school, and all the people in schools across the region, [and] in the country, [are] engaging in Christmas jumper day and it can be seen as part of the same higher purpose."

Unfortunately for those who are less than keen on the day, if you just sport a green jumper that you claim is "green like a Christmas tree" you will quickly be spotted as a fraud. "It has to be authentic - students are able to spot who doesn't want to be doing something," says Fuller.

6. Rather than less Christmas, we should aim for more

Schools could (and perhaps should) be doing even more. For example, what about designing the local Christmas lights, or at least being part of the show?

Julia Bennett, of the University of Chester, has been researching how Christmas lights on high streets help to create community engagement. This research has been focused on the Chester suburb of Hoole, and she explains that this year there has been a push to get children from the local primary school involved in arts-based projects, including making lanterns and puppets for a lantern parade.

"The rationale for this is twofold: children are the future of the community. Therefore, involving them in the event and creating memories will hopefully encourage them to continue to attend in the future, and potentially to help organise the event," Bennett says. "Secondly, with children come parents, grandparents, etc, and as Hoole's identity is linked to its award-winning high street, we want to encourage people to use their local shops."

Fuller agrees that this sort of outreach is important, recalling her time at school helping to put on a Christmas meal for an old people's home as building this type of community engagement that delivers long-term benefits.

"Children are 'protected members' of a community, but once they become adults they are still part of that community - so we need to teach them from youngest ages of the importance of community and coming together," she adds.

To time-poor, metric-assessed teachers, this may sound like a halcyon ideal that is hard to achieve. Yet, Christmas in schools still has a status whereby the normal rules are altered, even relaxed, giving everyone the chance to engage in activities that create intangible benefits and memories that live on long after the moment.

Dan Worth is a Tes features writer

This article originally appeared in the 20/27 December 2019 issue under the headline "Why Jingle Bells rocks"

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