Jenny Fox Eades writes about the Celebrating Strengths project, which uses the Christmas story to explore emotions around hope and spirituality

Perhaps the most magical festival in the Celebrating Strengths project is advent. Advent is the period of waiting and reflection that traditionally precedes the celebration of Christmas. We decided to celebrate advent within the project, partly to remove some of the stress and hype from Christmas by leading up to it over a longer period in a calm and reflective way, and also so as to make space for thinking about two important strengths: hope and spirituality.

In a world of instant gratification, where Christmas decorations appear in shops from October and in many homes by the end of November, the concept of advent as a time of waiting and reflection may seem quaint and old-fashioned. However, impulse control, or the ability to wait, is a key factor in a healthy emotional life.

Another important aspect of emotional literacy is the ability to reflect, to think about oneself and others. Reviving the tradition of advent seemed to offer important opportunities for building these key abilities.

We have also added a third strength to this festival: humour. This might seem rather strange at first but we felt it balanced the serious side of the festival and anyway, spirituality without a touch of humour is deadly!

During this festival, the schools involved in our project tell the story of Christmas in a slow and gradual way, building it up week by week. In the hall, the children build the ‘road to Bethlehem’ from pebbles laid out on the floor. The pebble road gets longer every week and every week the children meet another character travelling along the road to Bethlehem to see the Christ child. The children take turns at ‘being’ the characters walking along the road. Each character has a candle on an advent wreath and the children light the candles, one more each week as the story progresses.

These quiet assemblies allow the children and adults who make up the school community to take part in this ancient, hopeful story for themselves. They also have time to reflect on the nature of hope and what, if anything, an ancient story can say to them today. In the classroom the children will also be making connections between the hopes of the characters in the Christmas story and their own hopes or Christmas wishes.

Hope, or optimism, is linked to spirituality. It is a spiritual quality, present in all faith traditions; it is also an essential ingredient of education because without hope in the future, there is no point in acquiring an education at all. Optimism and hope help us to flourish and to lead fulfilling lives. Recent research indicates that optimism is linked to good health and even to longer lives. Making a quiet space in the school day for a profoundly hopeful story, such as the Christmas story, may be one way of helping to build optimism and hope into the life of our school communities.

There are other activities going on during the festival that can also encourage the strengths of hope, spirituality and humour. I am a firm advocate of the importance of cooking in the emotional and spiritual development of children. Making Christmas cakes is, in my view, a profoundly spiritual activity and one I would encourage everyone to engage with. It is the opposite of instant gratification – making a cake now to eat in six weeks’ time, feeding it with brandy, enriching it and waiting for the time when it is appropriate to share it with loved ones.

Children can make and decorate individual cakes – not in one day but as a process spread over a few weeks. To build humour we tell some of the funnier traditional stories, like Lazy Jack and a slightly bizarre version of Cinderella I wrote in collaboration with a group of teachers who shall be nameless. Sometimes these stories are told at the end of the day, in the gloom of the late afternoon, by candlelight and the lights of the class Christmas trees. Older children are encouraged to learn and tell jokes for themselves since telling jokes is a good first lesson in storytelling. Prizes can be awarded for best – or worst – joke told!

Sadly, not everyone enjoys Christmas. The advent festival tries to increase enjoyment for children and for adults by reducing the stress and frantic activity sometimes associated with this time of year. It allows us to work on the important strengths of hope, humour and spirituality. The activities of the advent festival also aim, quite explicitly, to build happy memories for the children and staff.

As a wise person once said to me, ‘Store up the happy memories as a treasure to help you through the hard times.’ Treasuring our happy memories is a key skill of emotional literacy and it is one we can help children to learn. At advent we aim to create moments of stillness and beauty – and moments of laughter – for the whole community to enjoy together. In that way, we can lay down ‘treasure’ for the hard times.

Celebrating Strengths

The Celebrating Strengths project has evolved through three years of work with Riddings infant and primary schools in Scunthorpe.

In issue 23 of the update (December 2005), Jenny talked about how the project weaves together three strands:

  • an awareness of children’s needs for structure, rhythm and celebration
  • desire to develop and restore the place of storytelling within education
  • the application in educational settings of the insights of positive psychology and the work on character strengths done by Martin Seligman (www.positivepsychology.org).

In issue 11 (October 2004) of PSHE & Citizenship Update, she wrote about the academic, social and emotional reasons for taking time as teachers to reflect on their work and practice. She described how the schools used this idea to develop a series of festivals and celebrations that have ‘reflection’ as an important element. These included an Endings festival three weeks before the end of term.

The Endings Festival forms part of a cycle of festivals that the children will celebrate each year, in slightly different ways as they progress through the school. The aim is to provide security through a predictable rhythm.

In issue 22 (November 2005) she wrote about the importance of assemblies as a time when ‘the entire learning opportunity of adults and children can gather together.’

Seeing that adults value listening to sacred stories, thinking deeply and taking time to be still, children learn that these are appropriate things for adults to do – not something that is only for the children.

The advent spiral: a simple and profound experience

Spirituality is also an important part of a healthy life and of emotional wellbeing. One way we have found of making space for spirituality is through the advent spiral. For many of the staff and children, this is the highlight of the festival. It is an adaptation of an ancient Christian form of prayer that involved walking a labyrinth.

One of the most famous labyrinths is in Chartres Cathedral. Monastic cloisters were built along similar principles to allow a slow, walking prayer to take place, where the physical journey made by the body along the path or labyrinth mirrors the spiritual journey of the soul.

In the schools, we build the simplest kind of labyrinth, the spiral. We use the same pebbles that are used to build the road to Bethlehem – because this journey is linked to that one – and the children enter a darkened hall where quiet music is playing. They sit around the outside of the spiral and, in front of each child, there is an unlit tea light in a holder. In the centre of the spiral is a single large lighted candle.

An adult enters the spiral first, walks to the centre and sits down. Then, one by one the children walk the spiral for themselves. It is their walk, their spiral. But we invite them, if they wish, to think as they enter the spiral of a happy memory that they can carry with them. In the centre, their tea light is lit from the large candle and as they walk carefully out of the spiral, carrying their own light with them, we invite them to think of a hope, a Christmas wish.

When the adult in the centre lights the candle for each child they can, if they are comfortable, use the ancient prayer that Christians have used for centuries at this time of year ‘The light of Christ in glory shining scatter the darkness from before your path’.

When the children reach the outside of the spiral, they carry their candle back to their place and sit down, placing it in front of them. As more children and adults walk the spiral the outer circle of light grows until it is completed by the adult in the spiral walking out and taking their own place in the outer circle. Then we sit and enjoy the lights!

What fascinates me about the spiral is both how simple and how profound an experience it is. It is a great privilege to hand children a candle and see their faces light up. It is also a privilege to provide a group of adults and children together with a little bit of time for quiet reflection.

Sometimes, when we have done this, the memories the children have brought to the spiral have not been happy ones – or not purely happy ones. It is not uncommon for them to turn to me at the end and say, ‘I was thinking of my grandad who died this year’ or ‘I felt sad as well as happy’. It is a safe place and time for them to bring such memories – though the adult who is helping them walk the spiral will need to be aware of, and comfortable with, the possibility that it may evoke sadness as well as joy.

Wonder and joy

Other children’s faces shine with a simple joy and wonder. I have realised, since doing this activity, that in every class one or two children show by their reactions that this, for them, is simply wonderful. I have concluded that these are children for whom spirituality is a top strength. We do not always have much time for spiritual reflection in our crowded school days but, for all of us, and especially for such children, it is an important part of an emotionally healthy life.

The ending of the spiral is as important as any other part. I tell the children that their happy memories are like candles that burn inside them and never go out. Now, though, I am going to do some ‘magic’ with their actual candle. I use a candle snuffer and go slowly round the circle of lights snuffing each one by holding the snuffer over the tea light and then lifting it with a flourish, allowing the smoke to spiral upwards towards the ceiling. It was a particular pleasure to have one streetwise Year 6 boy, familiar with all the latest technology of the 21st century, respond to a simple candle snuffer with a look of awe and the single word, ‘Cool!’

When I put out the candles, I place my hand gently on their shoulder – that is the time when, if they wish, they can share what the spiral meant to them. They often do, though I do not invite it. Whatever they share, whether it is a memory, a smile or simply silence, it is accepted quietly.

The children leave the spiral slowly. I have never had a group that failed to engage with dignity and respect. It has been walked by children from nursery to Year 6 and by adults too. One six-year-old was heard to say to another as they left the hall, ‘That was nice.’ The other boy replied, ‘No, that was beautiful’. There is, quite deliberately, no ‘keepsake’ or souvenir to take home – we don’t need ‘things’ to take away the whole time, sometimes just memories will do. It is a small experience of beauty in a school day. This is one that seemed particularly appropriate to the advent themes of spirituality and hope.

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