by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School
November 1. That is the day the radio began blasting holiday tunes into my vehicle, lists started appearing, and more physical space was given to store aisles dedicated to the “holidays”. You’ll find plenty of curmudgeonly material available bah humbugging about how the holidays have crept into every corner of our lives, earlier and earlier each and every year.
This post is not one of those.
Instead, this post is a celebration of the gifts of Montessori education during the holiday seasons of October through April (yup. 6 whole months).
I should say right up front that we don’t have big holiday lessons or celebrations in our classrooms. Even as an adult, I still vividly remember the day a woman dressed as a witch, with a broom, arrived in my sixth-grade classroom, serving apples with a cackle. It turns out it was Donna’s mother, our “Room Mother” (with apologies to the fathers), who had arrived to run our classroom Halloween party.
I remember it as my first all-out, holiday party after moving to a new neighborhood and new school where holidays were celebrated in grand style. Birthdays were also celebrated with cake, treats and lots of sugar in the classroom. In between, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, and even Easter made an appearance in that classroom. I think that first party remains so vivid because it stood in stark contrast from the regular classroom routine. When I think back on it as an adult, I cringe for the parents who received hyper, unfocused, and nutritionally-deficient children at the end of the day.
That just isn’t the Montessori way. You will find a dearth of parties and only subdued references to the holidays of the season. Before you accuse me (and others) of being “fun-suckers” who have taken the joy out of the holidays, I thought I’d share why we take this approach.
Our classrooms offer our children the gift of time, the gift of routine, and the gift of peace. Adding holiday parties would minimize those gifts.
Holidays are cultural and family events, and we do not presume to overlay our traditions over those of your family. Our students in Infant/Toddler through lower elementary understand holidays through the lens of their own experience and their family experience. Even if they have been told and can recite the stories behind these holidays (religious and otherwise) the importance of the event is their time with their family and their family traditions. Developmentally, they are not ready for the underlying stories and histories of the holidays, and we therefore ask questions like, “How do you do it in your family?”
For our older students who are developmentally ready for deeper conversation, we approach them with questions rather than answers. How do you imagine it happened? Why do you think people do it this way? What do you enjoy about this tradition? What do you wish would change? What have you read? Are there other perspectives? Like all things Montessori, we do not presume to have answers or even something to teach. Instead, it is our hope that we can foster learning and help ask really great questions.
For us, one of the richest gifts of our school is the importance of varied and vibrant traditions within our community. Students are encouraged to talk about how their families celebrate holidays and to share the importance of family traditions with friends. Friends in our community have shared traditions like Diá de Muertos, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Eid Al-Fitr, etc. Just as we do not presume to overlay our traditions over family traditions, we likewise do not presume which holidays to celebrate.
That does not mean that ignore holidays altogether. If you were to observe our classrooms, you would likely notice that work may take on colors, shades, and shapes of the seasons, with golds and reds in the fall, silvers and blues, reds and greens in the winter, pinks and reds in February. Art shelves often become filled with materials for students to express holiday traditions through art projects and creative expression. Pouring and transferring work will also reflect these new shapes and colors.
Books on shelves will likely reflect holiday stories, poems, and songs. These stories and poems are largely impressionistic in nature, designed to evoke feelings of generosity, kindness, sharing, and peace. Most Montessori schools, including ours, welcome book recommendations and donations!
In some classrooms, students will bring the energy of gift-giving into the classroom, making special gifts for family members and one another. They often direct these gifts, making something unique and personal.
Personally, I’ve come to love the pace of holidays in a Montessori classroom. In the midst of holiday parties, gatherings, family feasts, and the harried pace of our larger culture, our classrooms are places of peace and refuge.
As a parent, you can extend these gifts into your home with some of these more practical ideas:
1. Share the work—Many family traditions include large meals and gatherings. Invite your children and adolescents to share in creating menus, cooking dishes, setting tables, and decorating your home. These a great opportunities for them to experience the holidays as a time of coming together rather than being relegated to a separate part of the home while the adults have stress-filled moments.
2. Ask how they want to feel and what is most important to them—Rather than asking your children what they “want”, ask them how they want to feel and what is most important to them. This is a great opportunity to hear from them about the importance of time with family, traditions, and slowed-down moments. For older kids, ask them how your family can work together to achieve this goal.
3. Invite hand-made gifts—If gift exchanges are part of your family tradition, suggest to your children and family that you make gifts together for friends and family. Handmade soaps, cookies, and wood-working projects are excellent containers for the love and joy of the holidays, and they have the added bonus of the gift of creative time.
4. Emphasize the care of the environment—In our classrooms, we emphasize the importance of caring for our environment. For younger children, this may mean keeping a room clean, sweeping floors, or cleaning mirrors. For older children, this can mean regular responsibilities for rooms and larger chores. The holidays are wonderful times to create and build on the tradition of caring for our homes. Just be sure that children have appropriately sized tools (ideally, stored together in an accessible location), and any aids they might need due to their size (like aprons and step-stools).
5. Practice grace and courtesy—The holidays provide innumerable opportunities to practice manners: writing thank yous, offering hospitality, and even shaking hands. As a parent you can model these behaviors. Even better? Take time during a non-stressful, non-busy moment to talk about your expectations and give a lesson for these courtesies.
Above all, practice kindness to your child, to yourself, and to all those you encounter. That is the highest and most beautiful celebration of any holiday!
The gifts mentioned above offer your child the opportunity to feel valued as a member of your family. They offer opportunities for confidence-building. They offer your child peace and security. Opportunities like these allow your entire family to know each other and yourselves better and at a deeper level.
Best, these gifts offer you a moment to slow down as well. You might even create a new tradition!
You likely won’t see many construction paper holiday crafts coming out of our school. But, you will find a great deal of respect for your child, heaps of love, and an outpouring of grace and acceptance.