By Jennifer Whittington

For the generations of children who have attended St. James, the holidays are a magical time. Holiday traditions, music, arts, and fun fill the end of the year with joy. Parents treasure memories of the special holiday crafts, such as our Christmas plates, that their children decorate and bring home year after year and look forward to watching their children perform in our annual holiday pageant. 

These holiday celebrations and traditions are often the most exciting part of the school year for kids and teachers. But they also offer important opportunities to build strong bonds with our school community and create a kind and caring learning community that embodies the hope, peace, love, and joy of the season.  

Here’s how we keep the magic of the holidays alive through our traditions and celebrations. 

Infusing Learning with Magic and Wonder

Students learn best when curriculum topics are relevant, meaningful, and engaging. Children are surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes of the holidays. As educators, we seize the opportunity to integrate the literacy, numeracy, and science of the season throughout our student’s learning. 

To create our holiday magic, we build on the natural interests and curiosities of children. For example, in music class, the teacher discusses the difference between a Christmas carol, a song about Jesus’s birth, and a song about Christmas, which might feature Santa, Frosty, or other secular Christmas elements. They explore the origin of carols like “Silent Night,” discuss carols written in the 19th century and how people sang them long ago at Christmas, and discuss how we are still singing those very same songs today. This allows students to connect our current traditions to those of the past.

In our PreK-4 classes, students’ study of The Nutcracker begins with a dramatic telling of the story. They explore the characters, setting, problems, and solutions of the classic tale and investigate different versions during story times and in their reading center. Teachers introduce the music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and use it as the background of art explorations, rhythm instruments activities, and even nap time. They infuse all elements of learning with the story, using their class nutcracker to chomp syllables in their name and sharing family traditions. They add Clara, Fritz, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Mouse King to their Word Wall and combine them with illustrations at the writing center. Students culminate their study by watching the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker starring McCauley Culkin. 

Even STEM learning can be infused with the magic of the season. Teachers teach circuits by using lights, tin foil, and batteries to create holiday lights, They practice engineering and physics concepts by having students build gingerbread homes or Mary and Joseph’s stable and learn about the chemical changes that occur when vinegar is introduced to milk to create “milk plastic” that they decorate as ornaments. Bringing Christmas themes and ideas into the classroom adds magic to our lessons, engages students in learning, and creates a joyful and interactive classroom.

Creating Strong Bonds and Making Memories That Last a Lifetime

Holidays are meant to be celebrated. They bring people together and create a sense of belonging in the community. Our holiday traditions create strong bonds in our St. James community that last a lifetime. Students come together in small ways and big ones to celebrate the season, and these magical holiday traditions link the school community together. Everyone leaves their shoes in the hallway while attending the Friday Eucharist and learning about the Feast of St. Nicholas and return to their hallways to find he has left them treats inside their shoes.

Students across our campus take part in our festive Gingerbread Day celebration. Nest students bake cookies to help prepare, students enjoy a fun-filled day in their holiday pajamas with hot chocolate, and every student from our 5th graders down to our littlest learners decorates their own gingerbread house. 

Another long-standing tradition at St. James that students and parents alike look forward to every year is creating a Christmas plate as a gift for their parents. Decorated with traditional Christmas elements like Santas, elves, or gingerbread men and sometimes less traditional elements like horses and tractors, the plates are treasured keepsakes to enjoy for years to come. Alumni of St. James who still have their own set of Christmas plates look forward to adding to their collection with their children’s plates each year.

The annual Christmas pageant, put on by the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, allows students to be part of something bigger than themselves, working together to encourage one another, celebrate their successes, and put on a show that will delight and entertain the entire community. This year’s production —The Best Christmas Pageant Ever — tells the story of a Christmas pageant that is invaded by the “worst kids in town,” the Herdmans. The story helps students see the Christmas story through the eyes of children who are outcasts and realize the real meaning of Christmas — that the true spirit of Christmas belongs to all of God’s children.

At the end of the production, all alumni are invited to join the cast at the altar and sing the last hymn. This decades-long school tradition has allowed generations of St. James families to share in the magic of the season with their children.
St. James is a school steeped in tradition. Our faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and students take pride in this extraordinary community that we have created, and these traditions are another way for us to express our unity and connect our community with bonds and joyful memories that will last a lifetime. We are all a part of this magical community.