Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Spirit of Christmas

Where would Christmas be without traditions? Our lives revolve around little customs and rituals that have evolved through the years, like decorating gingerbread houses, skating parties with Santa, and -you know what I'm going to say- the ever-popular and much maligned "Christmas concert." Perhaps as you are reading this you are heaving a sigh of relief because yours is over for another year, or cursing at the very thought of another class of tiny tots holding up construction paper letters to the glare of a thousand flashes and the hum of a hundred video cameras.

Christmas concert memories from my teaching days have all blurred together, except for one, the concert held in the small northern community where we lived many years ago.

"It's always been a tradition for our school to host a Christmas concert," our principal told us. "The community expects it, and I guarantee you will see parents there who would never attend interviews or meet-the-teacher-night. A few years ago we put on a musical, `The Littlest Angel.' We held auditions and practiced after school. Actually, I directed it. It was great. Having one school event is hard work, but it frees up class time for students who need extra help. Of course, being principal and all, I don't have time to direct it myself, but think about it."

After the staff unanimously turned this idea down in two seconds, we decided to go with the usual format. For the kindergartens and grade ones, it was easy. Does it really matter what they do? Who can resist thirty little ones in their Christmas finery, up on stage for the first time? The grade two-three class got their hands on a super musical about Santa and his snowmobile, which they performed with a beautiful wooden skidoo built by one of the dads. The grade three-fours did some skits they wrote themselves, and the five-sixes sang a couple of carols with their classroom assistant, a talented local musician.

But what was I to do? The seven-eight-nines thought the whole concept of a concert too juvenile for words. "Can't we just set up the chairs and pull the curtain open and closed?" One suggested. "We'll serve refreshments," another offered. "Do we have to?" In their own adolescent way, I knew they wanted to be a part of the evening, but they just couldn't figure out how. As the day of the concert drew frighteningly nearer, I tried to get creative. "You could write your own play about what Christmas in the north is like?" No way. "How about an air band with some contemporary holiday music?" Well, way. "What if you read and acted out `The Night Before Christmas'?" Forget it. "Okay, break into small groups and brainstorm your own ideas. But we have to put something on."

Imagine my astonishment when the final decision was handed down. "We want to read the story of Christmas from the Bible and act it out." This from a bunch of 12-18 year olds whose behaviour had caused the local nuns to cancel their religious instruction class? This from the group of wild and rebellious young offenders who had named their class `The Exterminators'? The Christmas story?

And so it was that the next week of afternoons were spent in a frenzy of tempera and tinsel. Helen and Susan painted brilliant backdrops in the style of Ted Harrison, Lorraine and others prepared their angel wings, Curtis practiced his humble bow as a wise man and Eddy and Eugene sorted through tea towels and rummaged for bathrobes befitting a native shepherd. Myra, a grade seven who had startling just burst into womanhood, rehearsed her lines- and Cindy volunteered to open and close the curtains.

The concert itself was bedlam. The classroom rang with last minute threats to back out by the principal players, screams that halos were misplaced, the baby for the manger couldn't be found, and where was Myra?

The community turned out in full force to watch, although the adults in the audience could have used a few lessons in concert hall etiquette. Dads wandered out for a smoke in the middle of songs, aunties gossiped with other aunties, moms visited the bathroom and shouted at their children at inappropriate times, but the kids were perfect. They shone with a glow more perfect than anything the makeshift spotlights could provide.

The next year, there was a new principal. In his wisdom he decided that given the chaos of the previous concert, the school would not host another. The stressed out staff did not protest. I never found out what the people in the community thought, and maybe they didn't care, but I know the kids missed their concert. They seemed to be the only ones who knew what it was all about.

Originally published in the ATA News, December 10 1997.