Bring back Advent for an oasis of calm

24th December 2004 at 00:00
hristmas Eve. Schools have closed over the last day or two and teachers are relaxed and eager for the forthcoming festivities. Fat chance, I hear you say. Teachers are zonked out after the stresses of a school Christmas and are smothered in guilt clouds over the struggle to raise enthusiasm for their family Christmas. Two Christmases in a row is extreme overkill.

Last month, the head of one Scottish primary school ran the gauntlet of media ridicule after banning any reference to Christmas until December. The reporting and the street interviews treated her as a killjoy, denying the poor children their one enjoyment of the year. All that was lacking was Charles Dickens to conduct a crusade against her. Fagin and Wackford Squeers would not have had a look in.

I thought the headteacher's stance was eminently sensible. Why the fuss? She was not proposing to cancel Christmas, just to control it in the name of sanity. Don't the rest of us do the same? I may not announce it to the world but my annual advice to teachers is to ignore Christmas until December. There is an exception for activities which require a high level of preparation, such as music for public performance but even then we keep festive references low-key for as long as possible.

Supermarkets and television advertising may begin their Christmas season in October, but there's no need for children to do so. Prolonged excitement would cancel out most of the Christmas term. It's not compatible with good learning and is similar to teaching a class of 30 children permanently high on a diet of sugar and caffeine. An extended Christmas season does nothing for teachers, either. The longer it lasts, the higher the stress levels.

Whenever it begins, Christmas will put a strain on a school's work and routines and will devastate any notion of the season of goodwill. The manufacture of decorations and other artwork covers everything and everyone in a blanket of card, glue and glitter. The ears and brain are assaulted by the deadening repetition of "Away in a Manger", while in my case the "Dashing White Sergeant" is a reminder that the lungs are not as flexible as they used to be.

Announcement of the "Gay Gordons" must be accompanied by a ferocious glare to remind the boys of the horrendous consequences befalling anyone foolish enough to express the facetious comment hatching in his brain. And no, we haven't tried a politically correct retitling. "The Happy Gordons" or "The Jolly Gordons" is even more camp than the original. Note for next year: just drop the dance.

Then there are parties. In our school, too many children and too little space means that we have nine parties - yes, nine. They wreak havoc with the PE timetable and wear down any remaining adult enthusiasm. How I envy our secondary school, which has a disco for everyone from S1 to S6. One evening and it's over.

Christmas activity disrupts a school from top to bottom. You may attempt quiet and settled work with your class but, if you're the odd one out, you can't escape the movement, noise and excitement from nearby.

We could do worse than take a leaf out of the Christian liturgical calendar. The four weeks before Christmas are designated as the season of Advent, a period of quiet preparation and contemplation a time to stand back and take stock of our lives prior to the great event. Following the centuries-old practice, the season and celebration of Christmas begins on December 25 and runs until Twelfth Night on January 6. So children's celebrations of Christmas take place during the holidays and completely within the bosom of their families.

Restore Advent for a saner Christmas, "normal" working in schools and calmer children. The result? Fitter teachers enjoying their family celebrations.

Happy Christmas.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary in Perth.

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