Hugh Reilly: Christmas – a deserved break for our teachers

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE true meaning of Christmas may be in danger of disappearing, but my conscience is clear. For decades I have selflessly waged war on materialism and stoically endured the brickbats thrown at me by feckless seasonal spendthrifts.

At staffroom Christmas functions, a teacher receiving a present that looked as if it had been a leftover at a Poundland half-price sale would immediately stare in my direction and out me as their Secret Santa. My defence that I had merely stuck to the rules by not going over the agreed £10 budget fell on deaf ears; stating that “it’s the thought that counts” only served to increase the din of disapprobation.

My Christmas frugality can be traced back to my childhood. In my family, an orange in a stocking at the end of the bed was considered to be an ostentatious display of wealth. When we inquired of our Glasgow Corporation lorry driver pater if we could leave some milk in a glass for St Nicolas, he curtly informed us that Father Christmas suffered from acute lactose intolerance. As for putting out carrots for Rudolph and his caribou companions, my dad insisted this would be a waste of valuable food resources as reindeers were voracious carnivores who fed on red squirrel heads and slow-moving fluffy rabbits.

Back then, we were innocent. My brother and I shared a double bed and, on Christmas Eve, we retired to our sleeping quarters hell-bent on catching Santa red-coat-handed. Our foolproof plan was to take turns staying awake. Unfortunately, both sentries fell asleep at their bedposts within minutes of hitting the pillow, allowing the clinically obese Winterfest fugitive to remain at large for at least another year.

These days, a Christmas wish-list has evolved into an extortion racket. Call me nostalgic, but I believe most parents hanker for the days of a handwritten request for Yuletide goodies rather than the current practice of cutting menacing words out of newspapers and gluing them to a sheet of A4. Wee Johnny will be a bad boy for a whole year unless his cash-strapped parents go easy on luxuries like, erm, food and buy him the latest games console. When I taught in some of the most deprived schools in Scotland, places where more than 40 per cent of kids qualified for a free meal, I was always amazed to see herds of pupils return to school in January wearing £200 Berghaus jackets and the like. I guess that must be the magic of Christmas.

For many children, a welcome fall-out of the decline of the nuclear family is the sheer number of potential present-donors. In the traditional Oxo-cube family arrangement, mum and dad plus any surviving granny or papa would pay their Noel-time tributes to grasping youngsters. Nowadays, there’s extra gift-gravy thanks to an extended family comprising of a “real” dad (biological father), mum’s partner/boyfriend/sexbuddy, an assorted combo of half-brothers and sisters and, of course, a wheezing octogenarian granny in a care home eagerly anticipating the family’s annual 30-minute visitation.

By dint of teacher demographics, the end-of-term bash has changed. According to government statistics, the average age of a chalkie is 49. This explains why teachers descend upon quiet wee pubs not reverberating with the sound of any of that “boom, boom” music nonsense that threatens to disturb their profound conversations about the Curriculum for Excellence. With women now outnumbering men in the secondary sector, the raucous laughter of ale-swilling menfolk has been replaced by the high-pitched squeals of schoolmistress ladettes on the lash, drinking over-sized glasses of Chardonnay wine.

One thing that has remained constant is the desire of headteachers to thrust Christianity down the throats of their largely secular workforce and pupils. Most schools hold a religious service on the final morning, a ceremony that that usually attracts an audience of less than 10 per cent of the school roll. Teachers dutifully sing the jolly hymns, counting the minutes till they can cry freedom into their beer. In not my finest moment, I remember tiptoeing down a backstairs exit to avoid compulsory carol singing. On reaching the fire-door, I encountered a band of fellow atheist brothers (and one sister) debating if opening the door would set off the alarm. It was a chance we had to take to escape the horrors of warbling the Good King Wenceslas chorus.

Merry Christmas to each and every teacher. Enjoy your break – you deserve it.