How Professora Nearly Ruined Christmas

This year’s Portuguese class skews relatively young. Last year, my class ranged from 3rd graders to 6th graders. This year, it’s more like 1st through 5th grade. That wider gap in age and cognitive ability, combined with the fact that half of my class is new while the other half is in their second year with me, has made for some challenges in classroom management and lesson planning.

That being said, I think I’m doing okay. I had a close call this month, though. Professora nearly ruined Christmas.

It started innocently enough. POSSO, the Portuguese community center where I teach my classes, primarily serves the elderly Portuguese population. Every year for their Christmas party, we trot the students out to sing Portuguese Christmas songs so that the old folks can coo over them and appreciate that their culture is living on in the generation to come.

It’s not too different from when I was in Portuguese school at Five Wounds, the local Portuguese parish. Only instead of performing at a holiday party, we performed at mass.

However, while we got Portuguese Christmas songs drilled into us with no context at all, I don’t like to teach things in a vacuum. So before my students and I crashed the preschool class, I gave them a breakdown of some differences between Christmas in Portugal and the American Christmas they were used to. People leave out shoes instead of stockings, bacalhau is the center of the table instead of a fancy ham, massive and intricate Nativity scenes replaced Christmas trees and lights, and Christmas Eve was more important than Christmas Day.

“And Portuguese kids get to open their presents earlier,” I said. “Families go to midnight mass and open presents afterward instead of on Christmas morning.”

“So baby Jesus helps Santa deliver the presents during church?” one of my students asked. 100% earnestly, let me tell you. (She’d also said, with all the conviction in the world, that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. “That’s when we celebrate it, yes,” was the best response I could come up with.)

My students probably didn’t notice me pause, which is just as well because it felt like an eternity to me. Oh shit, these kids still believe in Santa. “Yes, exactly,” I managed to spit out.

I know I used to believe in Santa. I know I stopped at some point. I think it was a gradual thing; I don’t remember having one moment where the illusion was painfully shattered or anything like that. I was spared that and I’d hate to be remembered by my students as Professora Grinch Who Stole Natal.

I’m also not here to teach my kids about religion. Yes, most Portuguese are Catholic. But not all. One of my Portuguese school classmates was half Syrian, half Portuguese, and while I don’t know what religion he practiced, I have to wonder what it felt like for him to take for granted that he would have to sing religious songs for Christmas. Because while Jingle Bells is as secular as Christmas songs go, Bate o Sino, the Portuguese equivalent, has the same melody but is all about the birth of Jesus.

Which is what Christmas all is about, right? Eh, that makes me so uncomfortable. I know people of other religions who love Christmas. I know atheists who love Christmas. Not even the terrible capitalism fuelled consumptions parts—the spending time with your loved ones parts. The parts I consider important regardless of my somewhat Catholic worldview.

Anyway, I managed to spare my students the heartbreak of—spoiler alert—Santa not being real. But in so doing, I stumbled into facing how ambivalent I am about this season. Here’s to hoping that it doesn’t ruin my Christmas.

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