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'You can't escape Christmas in school'

Christmas jumpers, Secret Santa – festivities lurk in every classroom corner, writes Sarah Ledger. It's all too much

Bah humbug Christmas

Christmas jumpers, Secret Santa – festivities lurk in every classroom corner, writes Sarah Ledger. It's all too much

I don’t like Christmas. There! I’ve said it. I’m aware this bold assertion might divide my readers. If your response is to clutch and accidentally crush the bauble you’re polishing in preparation for adorning the branches of your classroom Christmas tree, this article may not be for you. If, however, you’ve sat numbly through a thousand nativity plays, listened to endless discussions about whether it’s OK to festoon a SmartBoard with tinsel (it’s not) and been derided as Scrooge because you refuse to suspend your Austen-rich curriculum in favour of a series of seasonal word searches, I need you to know you’re not alone.

It’s true it’s become a Christmas cliché to say Christmas is awful. But, honestly, if it’s OK for the languages department to play a recording of Mlle Berenger and the Year 7 choir’s rendition of Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant on a continuous loop every year from 19 November onwards, then it’s OK for us "christougenniatikophobics" to bang on about our hatred of all things merry.

Christmas is hard enough to escape anyway, but beyond the school gates there are ways of avoiding it. Sticking to iPlayer only, for instance, muting the words "John Lewis" on Twitter and ordering groceries online until January all work for me. But in school you’re trapped. In teaching there’s the additional emotional pressure of doing it for the kids. No matter what your reasons are for finding Yule uncool, there will be colleagues who regard your choice not to participate in Christmas shenanigans as a willful act of child hatred. I teach in secondary and although I cannot begin to imagine the torture of a primary school Christmas (advent, Christingle, tantrums over who gets to jingle the sleigh bells at the carol concert …), in recent years a special sort of Christmas mania has gripped the 11-18 sector.

For a start, who thought up Christmas Jumper Day? Let’s not pretend that one’s for the kids. We have enough trouble persuading them that a polyester blazer is the last word in sartorial sophistication, let alone an itchy jumper with a penguin in a Santa hat on the front. It tends to be staff (mainly – and I’m sorry to have to say this – SLT) smirking at their own ironic tastelessness yet somehow maintaining the moral high ground because it’s  – you know – for charity. As someone who dresses sternly in head-to-toe black – even in the height of summer – there’s no other day in the year when my anti-Noel propensities are more evident. Despite my convictions, even I don’t feel comfortable being the wicked fairy at the christening while everyone else is expressing their jollity via the medium of festive knitwear. A couple of years ago, I considered ordering myself an anti-Christmas jumper – what a hoot – and joining in with the gang, but all I could find were either jumpers with ‘Bah! Humbug!’ written on them, or jumpers that were downright rude. I concluded there are less elaborate ways of handing in one’s resignation, without resorting to sporting a sweater with breathtakingly obscene slogans etched in glitter across one’s bosom.

Dickens' annoying Christmas gift

While I’m here, I might as well tackle the Scrooge slur. I curse Dickens every Christmas because if ever there was a cynical money-spinner, A Christmas Carol is it. Written in haste, wrapped up in self-righteousness and as ungenerous in spirit towards the working class as Scrooge is in deed, this book created the perfect monosyllabic insult to shout down anyone who expresses reservations about Christmas excess. I wish Dickens had followed it up with another seasonal tale – The April Fool perhaps –where another pithily named antagonist finds previously shunned joy in being tricked into sitting on a whoopee cushion

And then there’s Secret Santa. There’s no way the non-celebrator can win with this one: opt out and you’re a miserable killjoy; opt in and you’re a hypocrite. The only solution is to go along with it, stick rigidly to the £10 limit and schedule yourself an extra lunchtime detention duty while the Secret Santa reveal takes place. Then quietly unwrap the little present left aside for you and have the humility to be touched at the thought that’s gone into it.

Of course, there are alternatives to Christmas. Most large school communities have a pagan or two – in my experience they tend to reside either in the grumpier depths of the science department or the flightier end of the art faculty. Presenting a gloomy assembly with photos of Long Meg silhouetted against the grey sky at the Winter Solstice is a delicious antidote to the relentless cheer of snowflakes, reindeer and the Baby Jesus.

Fortunately, it will soon be over. Before you know it, the Christmas tree in the foyer will be dismantled, the Year 11 mocks will be marked and it’ll be time to launch the "New Year, New You" growth mindset initiative; phasing it in in Year 7 and rolling it out to the rest of key stage 3 in subsequent years, unless a better idea comes along in the meantime.

I’d wish you the season’s greetings, but you would know I don’t mean it, so I’m wishing you a happy UnChristmas instead.

Sarah Ledger is director of learning for Year 10 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria, and has been teaching English for 30 years

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