As Christmas approaches (fast), the annual debate over what Montessori said about Christmas and Father Christmas comes to the fore. As always, there are many versions of what Montessori said, some supported by Montessori text, and some by “Montessori said…”
So, what did she say?
In a series of lectures delivered by Montessori in London in 1946, lecture 28 given on 29 November 1946, focussed on Religious Education. This was preceded three days earlier by a lecture on ‘Truth and Fairy Tales’. If you have a copy of the 1946 London Lectures, now is a good idea to break it open and read these lectures!
One thing that Montessori was very clear about was on religion. She felt that religion was a universal sentiment that exists inside every person and that every person has a tendency to develop a religion just as s/he develops a language. She also felt that religion is not something that is given to children, but rather something that develops in the child through the influence of the environment.
… we must not give it; we must see it develop. The sentiment is there, and if it were not, we could not give it and we could not help it develop. It is like a nebula, a living thing that needs to develop. It must develop through the influence of the environment. We must see that the environmen is right; this is very important. … Religious sentiment is created at this time and afterwards only developed.
When speaking about Christmas, Montessori remembers her early Christmas memories as times deeply rooted in her Catholic sentiment. This all centred on the church celebrations of the birth of Jesus.
We had no presents, no noise, and no visits from other people on Christmas Day. All we had was this festival in the church.
Later, different customs appeared in Italy from the northwest of Europe that included a lighted tree with presents underneath and a special feast day on January 6th to celebrate the coming of the three kings and their gifts. Montessori felt that these were ‘beautiful customs‘ and ‘very nice‘, but that these customs did not convey a religious idea.
Today in my country they have the feast at home and gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. But this is very far from our church celebration and our images of Jesus and all our religious feeling. One is a religious feast and the other a wordly feast. If the two are confused, there is no clear order – for order and clarity it is necessary to separate them. If you mix them, something will be lacking. The sentiment that comes from something great will not be there. You can have the feast with the Christmas tree and presents and all your friends and relations coming in, but do not confuse it with the great celebration of the birth of the Infant.
And what about Father Christmas?
If you must, you can have a Father Christmas with a mask and a sack of toys. It is like a theatre, just an act. … But don’t think religion is a toy and an amusement. Father Christmas only gives us a desire for possessions, not a sentiment for beautiful things.
So use this to make whatever you do work for the children you work with in your own way. Montessori goes on to say:
If you give children the serious things, you can give them the light and amusing things too – fairy tales, the theatre, fun, etc. We are accustomed to lies. Why should we worry if our joy with chidlren comes from little things like that?
The point of consciousness, however, comes with the separation of religion and custom.
We must only be careful not to confuse them (the children) with this other thing. Don’t take away from the greatness in order to give futilities.
(Susanne van Niekerk)