Christmas presence

19th December 2003 at 00:00
So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun.

But not in primary schools until the first day of December dawns and the first chocolate has been consumed from the health-promoting advent calendar.

This religious celebration traditionally coincides with every child's belief that nothing should be done in a jotter from now until the end of term and with every teacher's realisation that almost half the school year has gone and there's still a hell of a lot of work to get through.

Not so much"Ho, ho, ho" as "How many pages of Scottish Heinemann Maths can we possibly manage in 25 minutes if they are heavily disguised as festive activities?"

Nevertheless, Christmas finally emerges. Postboxes are found in the back of cupboards, dusted off and prominently displayed so that little hands can squeeze cards into them for all of their classmates. Well, only to the ones whose names they can remember, because obviously, parents can't be provided with a complete list of names of children in the class, due to data protection.

One of these greetings arrives on the headteacher's desk addressed to "The Hole of the School". I try not to read any personal message into it.

Christmas has the nasty habit of coming around when schools are beginning to keep a weather eye on their budgets. So, it might just be that teachers are forced to produce photocopied worksheets with wee jolly robins and sprigs of holly in a non-festive shade of grey.

But, at this time of year, teachers are more than usually creative, looking for every opportunity to turn craftwork completed earlier in the term into anything resembling Christmas accessories. Some of these ingenious ideas will become family heirlooms for bringing out and hanging onto Christmas trees for decades until offspring eventually leave home around 20 or 30.

Early presents from pupils arrive for the headteacher and are opened so that timely thanks can be expressed. One present is a teapot, painted to represent a cow in a frock. I try not to read any personal message into it.

Conversations overheard be-tween 10-year-olds reveal a stage of development in belief that Santa exists at all. Mark confides in his pals that he is getting pound;100 from his mum, pound;100 from his dad and pound;100 from Santa. He is totally stunned when he is scornfully informed that there is no such person as Santa. "How can he give me pound;100 then?" The horns of a dilemma.

Santa visits the nursery close to the end of term, so of course the school janitor does the honours, decked in what is distinctly the ill-fitting, second-best costume, dangling at knee-length above borrowed green wellies.

A horrified wee laddie says to him: "Santa, do you know, there are people going around dressed up and pretending to be you?"

Letters to Santa from seven-year-olds reveal more about their anxieties about the jolly bearded stranger than the possibility of them not having their wish list ticked off.

One child hopes that Santa has "anufe Christmas spirt" but they all seem to be fully aware that Santa has to be propelled from house to house, not under his own steam, and that he might be suffering from a touch of over-indulgence on his nocturnal round. One writes "I hope you do not drink beer on the way to my house". And another requests "Please can you be cwiit."

His clarity of thinking is clearly a worry, as one child is anxious that "the good and the bad lists of children don't get mixed up."

While they all enjoy the fruits of Santa's labours, they seem to be totally unconcerned about the lack of presents under his tree or about his condition on Boxing Day. According to the under-fives, all that Santa receives as presents is the beer and Christmas pies left out for him on his rounds. One perceptive child wonders if he might spend the next day in the toilet.

Mrs Claus seems remarkably blase about her husband's condition on Boxing Day, probably because he manages to be sufficiently recovered to spend some time playing with his PlayStation 2. Meanwhile the reindeers get some carrots as a reward for their travail and limber up to play football with Santa for the next 11 months.

Thanks to the innocence of children, we in schools are able each year to share their excitement and wonder and to take some of it home with us in our hearts. That must be worth more than anything that Santa can bring.

Merry Christmas!

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary, Aberdeen.

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