I’ve come from a school where Christmas was very traditional. At KEGS, we all walked down to the cathedral for the annual Nine Lessons and Carols service. As an atheist, I found this odd to begin with but it grew on me; there is no secular equivalent of a church service that includes singing songs that cross generations, sung with feeling and meaning. I wrote a blog about being an atheist Head here. I developed an appreciation for the cultural richness that a traditional service offered and I began to accept/adopt the Jesus Christmas story as part of my own culture, despite the fact that I don’t believe it to be a historical narrative in any way.
Arriving at Highbury Grove, we were rather too busy to think about Christmas until fairly recently. I was approached by a member of staff who asked if I’d be OK with the staff doing their usual staff panto in the final assembly. Apparently it’s always fabulous and the kids love it. (The assemblies featured music and other things but the Panto was the main attraction – by far.) Sounded like fun – but, I asked a couple of questions. Would this be a modern panto that subverts all the stereotypes or one that basically has men dressed as women as the main gag? I explained that, like it or not, I’m someone who finds that whole thing to be a bit of a cringe; the message to kids about gender and LGBT equality is hard enough to promote without Mr X turning up in a tutu, a camp voice and hilarious fake breasts at the end of term. Perhaps I take this too seriously – but I have good reason. ‘So, you want us to write a panto that is just actually funny?’ said the teacher. ‘Yes please’, I said. A couple of days later, the word came back that there wasn’t really time to do this properly – so there would be no panto this year.
Word got out. Boo hiss. No panto? Oh yes there is. Oh no there isn’t! Added to my firm insistence on normal lessons (no videos or class parties) until the last day, I worried that I’d set myself up to be the school Scrooge. Political Correctness Gone Mad – I could see it coming. Fortunately, my colleagues reassured me. They were ok with it; it would be a relief to many and we could re-invent Christmas Assembly – and so we did.
With the help of Sarah, our Head of Music and Rachel, an Assistant Head, I tried to construct an assembly that provided something more than entertainment; a message, a celebration of achievement, some humour, some different cultural references and a sense of community. This is what we did – twice. (Our big assemblies have to be done twice, back to back, because we can’t fit the whole school in the hall at once).
On Entry: CD Playing Hallelujah Chorus from the Albert Hall, recorded in November when our choir took part in the Scratch Messiah.
Junior Orchestra– Tidings of Comfort and Joy. Oddly, this is something we never did at KEGS – the orchestra only played concerts, never in assemblies for all to hear. I love the Highbury Grove set-up with orchestra and choir central to proceedings.
Celebration of Achievement: We gave out some newly invented Community Achievement Awards alongside some House Awards; we also acknowledged all the teams who had won competitions during the term and held a prize raffle for all the 100% attenders. It was great to see students of all ages celebrated in front of a vertically grouped audience in a high-profile, formal setting.
The Meaning of Christmas
UEFA Video: Commemoration of the Christmas Truce in WW1. There is only one year where this would be necessary and appropriate. Students responded extremely well, giving the video a spontaneous round of applause each time. It moved them.
The Christian Meaning: I explained that, whether we are Christians or not, believers or non-believers, it’s important to recognise Christmas as a religious event for many; one with cultural relevance for all of us. I asked a Y13 student to do the same reading I had done in the Chelmsford Cathedral – sharing the language of the Bible, showing students how the story sounds when told from the source:
EIGHTH LESSON from Nine Lessons and Carols
The wise men are led by the star to Jesus. St Matthew 2
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Senior Orchestra and Choir- O come all ye faithful
Modern Christmas: Changing gear, two students introduced the poem that brought the modern image of Santa Claus to prominence in the US in the early 19th Century: Here is an extract:
Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863) wrote the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
A teacher then read this poem: We needed to lighten the mood now, and the teacher involved did a great job, emphasising the humour and the message:
Be Nice to Yu Turkeys Dis Christmas: Benjamin Zephania
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife.
Turkeys just wanna play reggae
Turkeys just wanna hip-hop
Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
‘I cannot wait for de chop’,
Turkeys like getting presents, dey wanna watch christmas TV,
Turkeys hav brains an turkeys feel pain
In many ways like yu an me.
I once knew a turkey called…….. Turkey
He said “Benji explain to me please,
Who put de turkey in christmas
An what happens to christmas trees?”,
I said “I am not too sure turkey
But it’s nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash’.
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.
The Magic of Christmas – and every other day.
I shared the material from a previous assembly – about the physics of Santa and how the 200,000 reindeer needed would be vapourised within 4.3 thousandths of a second – and then talked about the real magic of Christmas: people taking time to be loving and kind, showing appreciation for the people they love. There’s a message to be found in everything!
But there was still time for a short panto substitute in the form of an ElfYourSelf video – featuring me and some HGS characters:
And we had time for one last crowd-pleasing singalong – a spectacular arrangement for orchestras and choir.
Final Song: All orchestras and Choir- I wish it could be Christmas every day – Wizzard
Next year, I’ll start thinking about it earlier. The Panto Will Return – by popular demand – and they have a whole year to think about a script that walks the right line and doesn’t risk undermining a year’s worth of PSHE lessons and assembly messages about rights and equalities. I’ll have a better feel for the school community by then and will know where and when to bring in certain elements of culture – modern and traditional – to raise the tone and build some cultural capital whilst retaining the community spirit and keeping it all joyful. Maybe we’ll have students reciting poems from memory and writing their own – part of their Rhetoric curriculum! I wonder if we can learn some secular songs to add to the carols? (Any suggestions?)
Overall I think we did a reasonable job this year but, on reflection, it was perhaps a bit of a mash-up of bits and pieces. Mind you: Bah humbug! Behind You! Turkey, Mince Pies and Stockings. Elf on the telly. Oh Come All Ye Faithful! Shopping, shopping, shopping. Peace and Joy. That’s Christmas for you. Have a good one!