Merry Montessori Christmas!
One of my favourite things about the Montessori method is that it can so seamlessly into the life of the child, the family and the school. When the method is understood, and the adult is ‘prepared’, there are very few roadblocks between Montessori and real life. This is largely because Montessori is a ‘ground up’ methodology; it was built on the foundation of the child’s natural impulses, so it perfectly suits the child’s needs. Yet it seems than many people believe there is one area of life that is completely incompatible with Montessori; Christmas. In particular, the Santa story!
Over the years – both in my own Montessori Pre-school and within the online community of forums and Facebook groups – I have consistently noticed that parents seem to believe that Montessori and Christmas are not a harmonious couple. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that the ‘fun’ parts of Christmas would be challenged by the Montessori principles. As such, families seem to feel compelled to choose between them. They ask themselves (and each other!) “Do I just let my Montessori principles go out the window for a while so we can enjoy Christmas…or should I avoid some of the Christmas traditions so I can stick to Montessori?”. The good news is – you don’t have to choose! It is not a matter of one or the other. Authentic Montessori can easily co-exist with a joyful Christmas. It is just a matter of tweaking a few of the minor details of some of our common Christmas traditions. The changes would be barely noticeable to anyone unfamiliar with Montessori – but to those of us who know the power of the methodology we will see how much smoother Christmas can become when we employ these principles.
Please note: I am absolutely aware that Christmas is not universally celebrated by all individuals, families, schools or cultures. My choice to write this post reflects the fact that, in the current cultural landscape of Australia, many families do choose to engage in some or all of the traditions associated with Christmas (such as gift giving, family celebrations, stockings, Santa stories and so forth). Since these traditions are common in our community, and here at Montessori Child we seek to provide information and inspiration relating to the Montessori approach, it is a relevant question for me to consider how Christmas and Montessori fit together. However, it is imperative to note that this does not imply that celebrating Christmas is a necessary part of the Montessori method. You can absolutely practice the Montessori approach without the need to celebrate Christmas (just as many people celebrate Christmas without a thought for Montessori!). Montessori is a non-denominational approach and there is nothing in the method that suggests that Christmas is any more important than any other cultural celebration (such as Ramadan, Hanukkah and so forth).
Imagination or Fantasy: a Montessori perspective on the ‘Santa Story’.
First and foremost, this is my opinion! It is a considered opinion, based on my Montessori training and my experiences in both a family and classroom context, but it is nonetheless still just an opinion! You might find it useful as ‘food for thought’ or as guidance but you do not need to treat it as gospel.
To understand how the Santa story might relate to Montessori we first need to consider the Montessori approach to imagination.
The Montessori philosophy distinguishes between ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’, effectively defining them as two completely different cognitive processes. The easiest way to understand the Montessori definition of, and differences between, the two is to consider the role of reality.
Imagination is rooted in reality. It is the act of bringing to the ‘mind’s eye’ something that is not physically present, or using past experiences and existing knowledge in order to envision a new concept or creation. Imagination has a positive relationship with reality. It starts with real experiences and it tends to lead towards a real outcome. Art is an example of imagination – it takes real colours, shapes and textures and combines them with experiences of real images. Imagination then creates a completely new and unique image or object that might look nothing like its real ‘roots’ but possesses those roots nonetheless.
Fantasy breaks away from reality. It is about escaping, ignoring or contradicting what is true, possible and present in the real world. There might be real elements in there somewhere but they are heavily diluted by the impossible. Fairies or superheroes, for instance, represent ‘fantasy’. In the real world there are beautiful little flying creatures fluttering around the garden, but they are butterflies not fairies! Reality also offers truly brave heroes, but they are not imbued with the powers of radioactive arachnids and they don’t have to fight robotic octopi. It can be argued that the value of those fantasy stories is in the allegories that they offer. Superhero stories are intended to teach of bravery and responsibility, but this message is lost on young children who are so distracted by the fantastical elements that they lose touch with any of the real-world relevance. Ask a four year old what Spiderman teaches and you probably won’t get a lecture about courage; they’ll just pretend to fling a web in your face.
During the first plane of development (ages 0 – 6) the Montessori method very strongly promotes the presentation of reality to the child. In these early years the child is building his or her understanding of the world and, as such, Montessori believed that to this young child we must present reality in all its beauty. As the child’s understanding of the world solidifies, and his/her cognitive processes mature, a more fantastical version of imagination does become more relevant. The Montessori primary school child (6 to 12 years) will have more experiences with ‘fantasy’ based stories because they are now cognitively and emotionally ready to interpret their metaphors and analogies (rather than taking them literally, as a 3 or 4 year old would). The child in that ‘second plane of development’ (6-12) will explore the ‘5 Great Lessons’ that rely on imagination to understand the concepts that are not tangibly available for us to observe or experience; the Coming of the Universe and Earth, the Coming of Life, the Coming of Human Beings, Communication in Signs and The Story of Numbers. In the early years, however, the emphasis is on what is real; what is tangible, present and available to our senses.
In these early childhood years the Montessori philosophy encourages meaningful experiences with the real world. Imagination is absolutely relevant but it is in the form of learning to bring to the mind’s eye what is not physically present or of creating something new based on personal creativity. It is not imagination in the sense of “pretending” or “fantasising”. A Montessori classroom tends to encourage the actual, real experience in place of “pretend play” (that is, providing real cooking experiences rather than simply encouraging a child to “pretend” with plastic food or empty saucepans). The Montessori early years also actively avoid fantasy, where fantasy means completely unreal and impossible concepts (such as superheroes with powers bestowed by arachnids or aliens). In Montessori young children are actually discouraged from descending into pure fantasy. The reason for this is complex but it mainly comes down to two primary risks; confusion and disconnection.
One risk is that during early childhood the child cannot adequately or reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy. At this early stage of life the child is actually building his or her understanding of the world. The child relies on sensory experiences to create a picture of his or her culture, community, nature and reality. Everything the child knows about the world comes from what he or she sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells. It is almost impossible for a young child to conceptualise that something that he or she can see, hear, touch, taste and smell can still be “not real”. The idea that their senses can lie (or that adults can manipulate their senses) is incomprehensible to the child. If you try to tell a pre-schooler that his/her favourite character isn’t real then you will be met with a response ranging from incredulity to downright disdain. Of course it’s real, they will utter, I’ve seen it on my TV! Fantasy might seem harmless enough if it’s just for fun, but if a child believes it to be real then it starts to have much deeper – and perhaps more harmful – connotations.
This leads us to the second major risk; that the child’s experiences with ‘fantasy’ can build a wall between the child and the world. This is a matter of time and space. If the child spends a lot of his or her time with fantasy then there is quite simply less time left to engage with the wonders of reality. If the child builds relationships and affinities with fantasy then there may be less space for other, real connections. This ‘space’ can be both literal and figurative. If the child’s shelf is filled with toys representing fantasy characters then there is not much room left to fit the wonders of reality and nature; shells, flowers or science experiments. If the child’s heart feels filled by their ‘relationships’ with these fantasy characters then there may be less ‘space’ that needs to be filled by real friendships. I’m not suggesting that a child who loves superheroes will be without friends (in fact, these characters can be an icebreaker when children chat about their interests) but I have encountered children who would rather watch their favourite show, or play with their favourite figurine, than engage with a new peer. I have also seen a vast number of children who become so consumed with fantasy that they are only able to engage with others through this outlet, as opposed to building a wide range of social strategies.
So what about Santa?
It is in the early childhood years that most children will be introduced to the idea of “Santa”. Santa is (spoiler alert!) a fantasy character. He does not exist. There are suggestions that his myth has an origin story rooted in history, but the version we tend to present today lacks a connection with reality. The “Santa” that most children know about is a jolly man who lives at the North Pole, flies in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer and squeezes down chimneys to leave presents (and eat cookies).
Since Montessori discourages fantasy in the early years does this mean that Montessori-inspired parents have to opt out of the Santa story? Do they have to joylessly tell a toddler that Santa isn’t real? Do they have to tell a crestfallen pre-schooler that all their friends will get stockings filled with presents but that it won’t happen in our house because we are a Montessori house?
No. That’s not necessary. This is not an “all or nothing” choice. There is the potential for balance.
The balance, in my perspective, is to present the Santa story as exactly that; a story. A fun, family tradition. Not a literal reality.
The Santa story has become so deeply embedded in the Christmas celebrations of our community that it has become a part of our culture. It is a tradition associated with a festival. So the presence of it as a story is, in fact, now a part of our reality. People really do play out the Santa traditions at Christmas time. So we can make this distinction when presenting it to our children.
In my Montessori classroom we discuss the fact that “some families talk about a special character called Santa”. We don’t say “Santa visits on Christmas eve”, nor do we say “There’s no such thing as Santa”. We simply state the honest fact that “many children choose to play some special games like hanging stockings”. We can even go so far as to honestly say things like, “when the children check the stockings in the morning they are filled with presents”. Sometimes a child will ask a specific question like “Does Santa put the presents there?” and we can honestly answer, “Well lots of families like to say that the presents are from Santa but in other families the presents in the stocking are from mum and dad.” Or a child might ask “Does Santa come down the chimney?” and we can reply “Well lots of families tell stories about Santa coming down the chimney.” I have often told children “In my house nobody comes down the chimney to give presents, my family and I give presents to each other”. This reply seems to completely satisfy the children – they aren’t worried that Santa doesn’t come down my chimney because they’re still young enough to remain open-minded.
This respect for the idea of Santa, without needing to confirm or deny a literal interpretation, is similar to the way that many families are now quite happy to celebrate Christmas as a tradition without feeling compelled to literally accept or promote the idea that it is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ*. Many Australian families have absolutely no aversion to going through the motions of Christmas customs – singing carols, wrapping gifts and placing a star on the tree – without feeling compelled to tell their children that the songs are about Jesus, the gifts symbolise those offered by the wise men or that the star guided those visitors to the manger where Christ was born. We are quite easily able to separate the customs from the ‘faith’. Since so many families are easily able to adopt the practices of Christmas without promoting the divinity then it seems much easier to accept that we can present Santa customs without promoting a literal belief in him.
*Just to clarify – I am absolutely not commenting on whether the Christian faith is ‘real’ or not. I am also not drawing a direct connection between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Santa’. I am simply comparing society’s relationship with the two concepts.
So one way to balance Montessori and Santa is to present 'the story of Santa' rather than trying to actively suggest that it is 'the truth'. But that's not necessarily going to be exactly the right solution for your own unique family culture. To help you make your own way to deciding what's right for you I'd like to share some experiences from my own family.
In my own family history I have learned three important Montessori-Santa lessons.
One came from my older brother. He was the first child born to our Montessori mum (Barbara). When he was very young she lovingly made a special book for him that talked about the story of Santa. It showed images of different cultural incarnations of the character, such as St Nicholas. It detailed and depicted many of the different rituals that children from around the world performed at Christmas time. Mum presented my brother with the story of Santa in a beautiful, loving and joyful way, but she never lead him to believe that Santa was literally ‘real’ – and this never bothered him. His understanding of the Santa story didn’t contradict anything that his friends said at pre-school (and then primary school) so he didn’t feel remotely left out or confused. Nor did he feel the need to suddenly declare “Santa isn’t real”. He was seemingly unaware that his peers took it more literally than he did – he was just happy to play along with the story and related customs.
So it is possible for Christmas to be joyful, fun and special for a child who knows, right from the outset, that Santa is just a story.
My second lesson came from mum’s reaction to my personality. As a child I really enjoyed pretending. As a toddler I lined up my teddies to give them 'lessons' and take 'class photos'. As a pre-schooler I played 'hotels', stealing keys from around the house to hang them on hooks behind the 'front desk' ready for my many guests. I demanded a 'fairy party' for my 5th birthday, dressing up in wings and hoping I would receive magic powers as a birthday gift. So what was my Montessori-mum to do? She knew all the theory, but here was this child seemingly eschewing the first plane of development and demanding fantasy! Mum decided that the needs of the child and respect for the individual trumped strict adherence to the details of the theory. So I did not receive my brother’s carefully prepared book of the history of Santa. I was, instead, allowed to believe in a more literal version of Santa. I wrote earnest letters (requesting a cat, despite having an allergy to them!) and carefully prepared plates of cookies (and carrots for the Reindeer). In return my parents wrote responses in disguised handwriting and took sneaky bites of the treats. They actively participated in creating and keeping alive the ‘fantasy’ of Santa for me. And I was really, really happy. I have incredibly strong and joyful memories of those Christmas traditions – I loved finding footprints in the chimney and feeling like I was so close to magic. I do remember the exact moment that I realised Santa wasn’t real (there were old-fashioned air vents in the wooden door to our living room and one year I used these to spy on my parents as they placed presents under the tree and nibbled on Rudolph’s carrot). Yet I don’t feel that I was traumatised by the discovery. I must have already suspected – that’s why I was spying – and I think more than anything I just felt disappointed because I would have liked him to be real. I do know that I kept writing letters to Santa for several years after discovering the truth – because I knew that this would be a good way of getting what I wanted for Christmas! I figured that as long as my parents thought I still believed then they would be inclined to keep the myth alive by fulfilling my requests!
So it is okay to respond differently to different children – even within the same family – and it is possible for a Montessori child to truly believe in the Santa myth without being scarred for life.
My third Montessori-Santa lesson blossomed as I cared for my beautiful niece, Emily. She was always a crazy kid – I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at her wacky antics and said “well, better to be weird than boring!”. I sometimes think the universe manufactured her to make me more appreciative of my mum, because Emily is, in many ways, exactly like I was as a child. (This seems to simply be in her nature, but our similarities have only become more pronounced as I have nurtured her over the years – we still jokingly say “psychic connection!” to each other when we randomly arrive at the same conclusion at the same moment!). Emily has always loved being funny, crazy and silly! At the age of three she spontaneously found her way into my make up case, covered her face entirely in blue eye-shadow then placed a green rug over her head and body before walking around the house repeating “I come in peace” like an alien! (Perhaps she is a bit of an alien; it would explain a lot!). So it was obvious to me very early in Em’s life that she would love engaging in the fun customs of Christmas. Yet I didn’t really want to actively manufacture the “lie”. So our solution was this; when she was too young to know the difference (0, 1, 2, 3) we just did the traditions without bringing Santa into it (hung the stockings, made cookies and placed them under the tree etc but never mentioned 'Santa' specifically). When she was about to turn 5, and nearing that second plane of development where analogy and metaphor are more comprehensible, we started to introduce the Santa story because she was encountering it through her peers. We spoke to her about the "stories" of Santa but we carefully injected subtle but powerful words like imagine - "some people like to imagine that Santa brings special presents" rather than "Santa brings presents down the chimney". At this point we introduced the idea of writing a letter that identified some special things she would like to receive or that she would like her family to receive. She would draw or write a note and these would result, on Christmas morning, in a reply ‘letter from Santa’. I was, however, very careful in how I phrased the letter. The letters never directly referred to literal elements of Santa. Instead I used the letters as an opportunity to reflect on the year that Em had experienced, to mention the things that she had done that were particularly special or important.
To this day Em still receives a letter from “Santa” every year. He has grown with her. His letters acknowledge the year she has had and celebrates the interests she has developed. Several years ago he signed it “Santa Paws” as a joke because she had fallen in love with my new puppy. Last year he admitted that he was a “Directioner”, because Em’s currently in the throes of adolescent obsession with the band One Direction. Emily absolutely understands the humour and metaphor inherent in the letters – and she actively, willingly participates in this. It’s our family tradition. She hasn’t outgrown the Santa story because the story has grown with her. The letters give a self-knowing nod and wink while encouraging a little sparkle of fun in our Christmas morning.
So you can still have all the fun of Santa, for all the years of ‘childhood’ and beyond, without being dishonest.