Christmas is such an exciting time of year for adults and children alike; the learning opportunities and experiences that the festive season bestows upon us are endless, and the magic and wonder that can be created for the children is truly heart-warming – especially in our sector!
Christmas can also be a particularly challenging time for both practitioners and parents alike; are we putting too much pressure on ourselves as professionals and as parents? Does the festive period need to be a stressful time or are there ways in which we can make it less high-pressured and enjoyable for everyone, especially the children?
This year in particularly we also have the financial strain of Christmas in a Cost of Living Crisis which undoubtedly adds intense pressure to everyone’s personal and professional lives and so we also need to be mindful as practitioners to ensure that we are not adding financial pressure for parents and families at an already stretched time of year.
Over the years, Christmas ‘traditions’ have grown, changed, developed and increased tenfold and many settings have adopted these as part of their Christmas celebrations/curriculum.
The most popular being “Elf On A Shelf” (Scout Elves are Santa’s eyes and ears over the festive period and many cause mischief within the home and communicate messages to children during the countdown to the big day) and “Santa Cam” (a webcam that provides Santa with a direct insight into your home life – whereby he watches the children to see if they are being ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’.) As Early Years Professionals, are we stopping to think about the messaging behind these ‘traditions’? Are they ‘harmless’ or ‘harmful’? Many of these modernised Chrsitmas ‘traditions’ are heavily focused on influencing the children’s behaviour and generally using Christmas/Santa/Elves/Presents as a means in which to encourage children to behave in in the run up to Christmas.
Whilst these are intended to be fun and light-hearted traditions for both parents and children; these behaviour modifying traditions can make the run up to Christmas feel high-pressured and stressful; for both the adults and the children. For parents and professionals; remembering to move the Elf and think of new and exciting mischief for it to get up to (particularly with the pressure on social media as our timelines become full of new Elf on The Shelf ideas, and not to mention the new merchandise and props you can now buy!) but also for the children themselves as they try desperately to maintain a certain level of behaviour in order to meet the expectations the festive period imposes upon them.
In some instances, many children begin to fear the traditions put in place in the first place (“What will Santa say?”, “I hope the Elves aren’t watching”. etc) and for so many, these feelings and expectations to inhibit their own actions/behaviour aren’t developmentally appropriate nor conducive to a fun and enjoyable festive period.
Similarly, what happens when Christmas is over? Christmas Day (and the days thereafter) are an exciting time for children, a sensory and emotional overload full of exciting new things, sugar and late nights and TV; all of factors which contribute to changes in behaviour and high emotions, particularly after an extensive period of restricting, masking and containing certain emotions and behaviours in anticipation of being on the ‘Good List’ – so then what do we tell the children? What ‘reason’ do they have to behave in this desired way with no external reward once they have received everything on Christmas Day and their nervous systems have been overloaded and overstimulated?
Additionally, advertisements for Christmas start from the end of October and therefore build up the hype and hysteria around the festive period and so this is a lengthy time for children to be coerced into positive behaviour, particularly when once the Christmas fever has died down, children are left confused as to what is acceptable and why there is no longer such high expectations on their behaviour.
It is interesting to look at the impact that technology has had the magic of Christmas; for example Talking Santa, Santacam, Track Santa – these things were not around 30 years ago, so what effect does this have on children’s understanding of Christmas? Similarly, Advent calendars are no longer just filled with the traditional chocolates, now instead laden with gifts and toys; making even the smaller ‘Christmas’ traditions more about presents and gifts and as a result losing the traditional meaning of Christmas, whilst using food and gifts as another behaviour modifier over the festive period.
Taking this into account, as settings, we could role model the real meaning of Christmas and organise a ‘Reverse Advent’ whereby children each have assigned days to bring in a packet or tin donation to put in our basket that can then be delivered to a local worthy cause to be distributed to those in need. This type of activity provides children with understanding and compassion and a sense of ‘giving something back’ truly encompasses the spirit and meaning of Christmas.
Everyone has their own Christmas traditions and beliefs and as Early Years settings it is essential that we respect, value and promote these as we explore Christmas together to ensure nobody feels left out and everyone feels their beliefs matter and get the opportunity to express themselves adequately in order to keep the magic alive for everyone. For example, the whole group joins in with a particular tradition from each child, as you would with other religious and cultural traditions and practices to ensure inclusion is paramount throughout the festive period.
Whilst the Nativity play or Christmas Production is a wonderful event and a popular one in many childcare provisions/schools/preschools, it is important to be mindful as both practitioners and parents the pressure this can put on us all. For practitioners, the gruelling preparation, practices, prop-making, line-learning, organisation, permission form signing and performance production is simply phenomenal.
We need to ask ourselves, who is this for? Do the children understand?
For the children this too can be a stressful process; so many children enjoy learning songs, dressing up, using props that comes with the build-up of a Christmas performance, however when it comes to the actual performance, this is a nerve-wracking time for most children (take into account that these children are 3 and 4 years old and have 50+eyes on them) and so stage fright is common, even in the most confident of children.
For parents, the Nativity play can add even more stress to an already busy and stressful period as they battle for time off in order to attend the performance, worrying about the time off they need take over the Christmas period already. For those parents who simply cannot take the time off to attend Christmas parties, Carol Concerts and Nativity plays, this guilt can be devastating. And so, whilst the Nativity Play/Christmas Performance is a lovely tradition, let’s not make it the focus of our Christmas celebrations and be mindful of the effects it has on everyone involved.
As practitioners, Christmas can leave us feeling a little bit like factory workers. At some point in our career, we have all been that person standing with a clipboard ticking boxes to ensure that every child has: made a Christmas card, made ‘Reindeer Food’, got a Christmas present, had their calendar made, got a part in the Nativity etc… the list truly is endless. But why is it like that in Early Years? Why must every child have the same generic format of cards/gifts/calendars etc? Where has this conveyor belt production line mentality come from? Is it us as practitioners trying to be ‘inclusive’ ensuring every single child has sat down and had their foot painted make an adult-led adorable reindeer/mouse/snowman inspired card? Or is it the parents’ expectations of ‘Why don’t I have a card from my child?’
Why do we insist that every child makes a card/present/dresses up for a calendar/makes reindeer food every year? Why does it send us into a panic when a child declares “I don’t want to.”? Why can we not see past the child’s reluctance and see that this child doesn’t want to physically create something Christmassy, but instead this child is choosing to spend their time outdoors pretending to be Santa delivering presents to the other children? Surely that is what Christmas is about in the Early Years? The child’s own representation of what Christmas means for them.
We should focus less on the production line of Christmas gifts and instead focus on providing the children with a variety of Christmas themed activities and experiences that allows them to explore the different elements of Christmas and use and represent these in any way they see fit. Encouraging the children’s own representation of Christmas is not only more developmentally appropriate and beneficial, but also allows us to encompass and incorporate their interests into whatever we do, which makes each learning experience that bit more meaningful and enjoyable for everyone.