Thursday, December 22, 2011

teaching preschoolers about the pagan roots of yule

I taught college students for years, but when I joined Lilly's Montessori preschool this week to introduce the children to some of my native Yule traditions and customs, I felt myself a bit jittery. It's almost embarrassing to confess how much time I spent mulling over my "lesson plan." Thinking about how I would go about doing it all, teaching the children a little about the pagan roots of jul (from the old Norse jól) while keeping their attention and having them interact with me. My goal was also to semi-teach (I didn't expect them to learn all the Norwegian words!) a julesang (Yule song) with its dance around the tree.

I really wanted the children to experience that sense of joy and magic, which I imagine once experiencing as a child celebrating jul at my grandma's. But you can't force or fake that sentiment; it has to be true.

So, I began by asking the children if they celebrate Christmas, and that of course got everyone animated, talking excitedly on top of one another. About Rudolph and presents, and the Grinch (and how did he steel Christmas again?). One boy pointed out that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birthday. Many talked about having a tree, and I asked if any of them would dance around it. No one did. Then I told them that where I come from, for more than a hundred years, people have brought a tree into the house, decorating it much like people do here. But unlike most people here, people dance and sing around the juletre (Yule tree) on julaften (Yule eve) and at several tree parties thereafter.

My grandma was a good storyteller and I had her voice in the back of my mind as I told the children that even though we too, in far away Norway, celebrate at this time of year, we don't call it Christmas or Krist-messe (Christ-mass). We call it  jul because that's what people used to celebrate in Norway before the arrival of Christmas and many still hold on to some of the holiday's ancient customs and meanings, which have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

If there's a way to better prepare for how to respond to the collective lack of impulse control of a group of twenty-something little children (ages 2 1/2 to 5), I would have liked to know about it. In the end, the teacher encouraged me to move on and not respond to each and every eager question and interruption, to explain the children how jul, observed around the solstice, was originally a celebration of the end of a harvest and a looking forward to the coming of a new season. And that in contrast to Christmas, jul was really more of a celebration of nature and the gifts of the earth.

We talked a little about harvesting and the children shared some of the impressive amounts of what they'd harvested from the school's garden, including tomatoes and carrots, flowers and much more. Before getting flooded by more questions and excitement, I asked if they look forward to green grass and a new growing season. Which got some of the children thinking about going to the pool again and so on. Then I told them about how for centuries and centuries, people in Norway have brought evergreens into the house, perhaps to symbolize the hope of a new growing season, and that they'd have a big party. And that we still carouse and party during jul, but that we now have a tree inside instead that we dance around in circles.

Which brought us to the singing and dancing around some evergreen boughs that the teacher placed in the middle of the circle.

Lilly loves the upbeat melody of this particular carol (Å jul med dine glede -- Oh Yule with your joy) and knows almost all the words of the lyrics. The dance accompanying the song involves dancing around the tree, clapping hands, spinning around in circle, curtsying and bowing. Loosely translated it goes something like this:

Oh, Yule with your joy and your childlike delight
We wish you all welcome.
We greet you all with jubilating voices
Ten-thousand times welcome.

We clap our hands
we sing and we laugh.
That's how glad we are, how glad we are,
we swing around in circles
and we curtsey and we bow.

In the final verse, everyone crosses arms and gives the right hand to the person on the left, and the left hand to the person on the right and ties love's sacred bond and promises to love one another.

It is all a blur thinking back at it now, the many excited voices and questions, both related and unrelated. And I don't know how much they will remember either. But perhaps some stuff about dancing around an evergreen or a tree. The idea of being thankful for the harvest and green grass to come. And a lot of excitement and joy, dancing, clapping hands and spinning in circles, curtsying and bowing, all of which they did wonderfully. Some might even remember at least two Norwegian words, God Jul! (Good or Happy Yule!) which they pronounced better than I ever managed to get some if not most of my college students to do (the Norwegian o is nothing like its American counterpart). The teacher thought it sounded like yodeling, and since the children have also learned some Swiss yodeling this month while the cultural geography focus has been on Europe, the children finished off with some yodeling before the teacher read a book to them and it was time for recess.

Lilly was quick to head out, no longer interested in me. But I lingered inside, grateful for the trust given by the many children who approached me, asking for my help with coats, hats and boots. One thing is helping Lilly with these ordinary things; helping the children of strangers felt like such a gift to me.

And they say it's the season of giving. But with all the commercialism and stress that it's turned into, Leighton and I have mostly dropped out of that part of it all. But giving this lesson, sharing some of my traditions and customs with the children, dancing and singing with them, and helping them get dressed, that to me truly brought home the gift of giving.

(The photos and video are from a juletrefest (Yule tree party) we hosted at our house.)

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