The Ghost of Christmas Past

4th December 2014 at 19:29

Christmas is my favourite time in school, even more so than, say, Performance Review season or St Gibb's Day. I was a fortunate child; my Memory Palace of December was a Snow Queen's carnival of carols, excitement and magic. Lessons then seemed to blur with the glue taste of paper chains, ice inside the single pane window and dodecahedron balls made of tinsel and cards. Christmas is, possibly was, one of the last great festivals that Britain celebrates as a national enterprise. Everything changes; from the hyperbaric chamber of advent, when we attempt to do everything we normally do in less time, to the great pause of the 25th when – impossible to imagine – some places even close, like some kind of national emergency. When I was a child, the whole world closed.


Looking back, what made Christmas special then wasn't, I confess, a particularly close commemorative admiration for the Return of the King Who Isn't Aragorn. It wasn't merely the anticipation of presents either, although, under oath, I'll admit it played a part. It was because the time surrounding the event was invested with so much meaning. It was treated with such importance that it became important. Caledonian Decembers often saw snow, and thick hearty blankets of the stuff, not the anaemic frosting we see in this fallen age. That meant fights with balls speckled with pebbles ("snow globes," my mate called them), drying out steaming clothes during arithmetic, sitting with a paint brush in gloved hands because portacabins seem to capture and magnify hypothermia rather than protect against it. We learned to wassail and watched fog coalesce with every brittle note.


Then a Christmas concert; weeks of choir rehearsal learning to pronounce lowing and manger without comprehension; a church service with all references to virgins' wombs removed because this was the goddamn Church of Scotland, not some secret cell of Popish fundamentalism, although we had no idea what the difference was. Then, on the last day of school – and I remember Christmas Eves spent in the classroom through some peculiarity of timetabling – the teacher might, might hand out mini-Wispas, and we loved them for it, and marvelled at their generosity. Parents throughout North Glasgow would enjoy a bounty of handmade cards covered in breakdancing reindeer and glitter, there would be no doubt about that.


There's romanticism here, of course, but only a little. Meaning and value exists wherever things are valued and embraced. Christmas, whatever one's position on the Pantone chart of faith, is still a special time of the year to whoever chooses to invest in it. Like Tinkerbell, if you believe in it, it becomes true. It doesn't matter if you look at a night sky and see Aquinas's prime mover, The Zodiac, or Brian Cox's gurning face imploring you to marvel and gawp. My father used to shake sleigh bells outside my window on Christmas Eve, sending me into a diabetic fit of anticipation. Long after the the illusion faded, I can still hear the bells if I try, even now.


Christmas in school is easy to get right, and easy to get wrong. What it shouldn't be is a procession of wordsearches (kill me) or the first forty-five minutes of Transformers 2, replayed five times. It isn't free lessons, or turning your classroom over to thirty children looking at their phones and walking in and out of the door. I don't know when the concept of free lessons originated, but I sympathise with tired teachers who cave to it, while rejecting its siren call. I value my students, which means I give them the best thing I possess – an education, as far and as long as I can. That means right up until the last door in the calendar if I have to. Let Christmas decorate your curriculum, your classroom; run Christmas Jumper days for charity; theme your algebra with elves; turn the 12 days of Christmas into a Haiku. But don't sacrifice a week or even two of something as precious as an education to the entropy of the December finishing line.


In fact, the only thing I can think of that comes close to the value of their education is being a teacher itself, and the privilege that entails. If we're lucky, we walk home with few cards and chocolates ourselves (I still celebrate the hand-knitted gloves I received from my quietest pupil). But the best present we get is the chance to add something to someone else's life. And that's something we should remember at least once a year. It's a wonderful job.


Merry Christmas.