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Old Traditions, New Traditions

Paper lanterns representing Van Gogh’s Starry Night were created by kindergarten classes as part of their Day in the Dark study. Photo by Dena Cody.
The halls of Montpelier’s Union Elementary School are cheerful places, ornamented with children’s art. You’ll find self portraits, pictures of apples and oranges in the style of Cezanne, collage works based on a study of Matisse, and children’s interpretations of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. There’s a display of brilliant sunsets and drawings of families in all their many configurations. 

But on this cold December day, a time traveler from the 1970s or earlier would be struck by the sense that something was missing. No drawings of Santa. No red and green paper chains hanging from doorways. No carols coming from the music room. And you could hardly say not a creature is stirring, since the halls are alive with kids dressing for recess or walking to a “special class,” such as gym. They all appear to be serenely unconcerned about the total absence of Christmas in the school. 

Back in the 60s and 70s, the district routinely delivered Christmas trees to elementary classrooms, teachers organized classroom parties, and Secret Santa was a ritual at staff parties. The faculty tended to assume that, regardless of their faith, most families celebrated Christmas, although teachers did encourage their students to talk or teach about any special holidays that were part of their own family’s tradition.

Things began to change in the early 1990s. The district was becoming more diverse and non-Christian families noted how left out their children felt when encouraged to participate in customary activities such as making paper chains, which were designed to help kids count the days to Christmas, or gift swaps. Ultimately a new district policy was established, which now states that: “ There shall be no school initiated, sanctioned, formal or informal celebration or observance of religion, religious holidays, or religious festivals.”

As in other parts of the country, this change made perfect sense to some and saddened or even outraged others. Over time new rituals were sometimes established, and at schools like Union Elementary School, a celebration of the solstice, usually held on Dec. 21 and called the Day in the Dark is becoming a new tradition as well as a significant part of the curriculum. On the Day in the Dark, children, like those in Susan Koch’s first grade, may arrive at school in pajamas or “comfy clothes.” They carry flashlights, lanterns, and all kinds of light-up toys. Twinkle lights are hung everywhere and the overhead light fixtures are turned off, transforming classrooms into magical spaces. Koch’s first graders learn about the solar system and the reasons for the seasons. In the kindergarten rooms, children also bring in special items such as glow sticks, lava lamps, and even disco balls. They enjoy reading sight words by flashlight and listening to stories about the beginning of a new season. Teachers use globes and light-up devices to illustrate what makes the day and the night.

Montpelier’s efforts to move from religious celebrations to those that can be enjoyed by all reflect changes in schools all over Vermont. One former administrator, Tina Muncy, says that 20 years ago, even before her district had established a policy, the school was “careful to include holidays from many religions as part of the children’s learning.” She also noted that Christmas trees are not actually Christian symbols. “We still had trees in rooms and in the halls.” 

Other Vermont schools now tend to follow a similar approach. Fifth grade teacher, Lynn Wagner, confirms “Berlin (Elementary) does not encourage Christmas school celebrations … If we do teach it, we do a whole celebration of many holidays.” 

One central Vermont educator shares that during this time of year, the educational focus in her classroom is on the season of winter and the science of snow as well as an understanding of the seasons. Her students discuss the solstice and the beginning of the season, the “bringing in of the light.” 

Traditions are hard to let go of even if our feelings are based on nostalgia more than belief. When they reflect our shared values, traditions strengthen a sense of belonging and comfort. They may provide us with some of our most cherished memories.

New traditions take time to grow. In his book, “The Battle for Christmas,” author Stephen Nussembaum notes that, perhaps because of its Puritan roots, many Vermonters didn’t celebrate Christmas back in colonial days. From the time Vermont became a state, it took almost 100 years for the holiday to become a common tradition in much of Vermont.