It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!
A Culturally Relevant Look at the Winter Holidays – Michael Reisman, M.Ed., Director, Early Childhood Education
Last week’s social media post about the Montville substitute teacher who blew the lid off the Santa Claus myth for a class of first graders intrigued me. Due to whatever motivation, this substitute teacher evidently stood in front of a first grade class and announced there’s no such thing as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. According to reports, the children were in tears throughout the day and the school’s principal issued a written apology. There was a litany of parental anger, passionately condemning the teacher’s behavior (understandably). Accusations ranged from “destroying the innocence of childhood” to “liberal infiltration of the school systems.”
This level of outrage speaks to the emotional importance of family traditions, and the way we feel when an outside influence throws those family beliefs or traditions into question without our consent. As an early childhood professional, I am fascinated by topics such as family traditions and childhood belief systems. Other questions immediately came to mind, besides, “What was she thinking?”
What about the other children in the class?
I don’t know the religious or cultural demographic of this first grade class, and I don’t know much about Montville. What I know is that most classrooms in New Jersey have diverse populations, and that there are a number of internationally celebrated Winter Holiday customs and traditions to enjoy this season. I wonder, were there Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist children in this class? What kind of conversations are happening in American homes when the family custom or tradition is not the dominant cultural tradition, in this case the American Santa? Just this week I learned about the German celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6) which does not include Christmas trees or chimneys or religious ties. (Although Christmas trees did come from Germany). How did children in the Montville first grade class (or the parents) from other cultures react to this teacher’s whistle-blowing?
Who’s fooling whom?
Belief in Santa is fun! Children (and adults) love to suspend disbelief for the sake of joy. However, if we believe children are too naïve to determine for themselves whether or not Santa is real we may be doing them a tremendous disservice, or at least undercutting their intellect. Granted, first graders are still very young and prone to believing the fantastic when perpetuated by adults (or Hollywood). However, as long as I have worked in preschools, specifically with Pre-Kindergartners, teachers are directed to assess (developmentally) if a child can differentiate between “real” and “not real.” My experience is that by age 4, children know the difference.
Research supports this conclusion. Children are asked questions to assess this skill. They are not questions about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, (for reasons stated above), they are about superheroes, talking snowmen and unicorns. Not only do the majority of children understand the difference between what’s real and not real, they can also differentiate between knowing and believing. Unicorns provide the best example of this. One of the great rewards of my career is knowing many children who understand unicorns are not real, but choose to believe in them. This is not a contradiction, it’s a choice to suspend disbelief for joy. I keep a unicorn at my desk to remind myself of this magical nuance. What I propose, and you can choose to believe or not, is that because our customs (and their respective myths) are so steeped in family traditions and meaningfully perpetuated by adults, it is the children who are playing along, and not the other way around. And why not? It’s such great fun!
Whatever your beliefs or traditions, it’s important along the way that we, the adults who set the example, are mindful that what is believed in our home may not carry into another. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about reminding our children that their community is made up of people from lots of wonderful places where family traditions or beliefs are different, but just as meaningful and shared with the same amount of love and joy. The substitute teacher in Montville might have ruined someone’s day, but didn’t ruin anyone’s Christmas.
Links regarding internationally celebrated winter holidays:
Resources demonstrating childhood understanding of reality and fantasy:
Full on scholarly reading:
Happy Hanukkah y’all!