How do you celebrate multiple cultures simultaneously? Is it even appropriate to talk about religious holidays in a public-education classroom?
The Polite Pirates experienced a "cheese & meats from around the world" tasting, following our performance. --Many thanks to Dr. Deb Campbell for the amazing charcuterie.
One of the ways I taught my students (The Polite Pirates) about various Winter Holidays and customs from around the world was by having them read plays. I’d construct the plays from the text of picture books. I’d have the Polite Pirates practice and perform the plays for their parents right before winter break. One of the plays is about Old Befana. It introduces an Italian tradition of getting stocking stuffers on January 6th (Epiphany) from a “Christmas witch.” There’s one about a family making Latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. Parents loved listening to their children pronounce the fancy French words from Margie Palatini & Richard Egielski’s “Three French Hens” that I turned into a play.
Many of the texts have wonderful themes. One of my all-time favorites is “The Christmas Piñata” by Jack Kent, a story about two pots who have very different uses. The “good pot” is made into a beautiful and useful watering can, while the other comes out of the kiln broken. This broken pot is sad that it can’t be as useful as the “good pot…” until one day it is made into the star of the Los Posadas parade in a Mexican village! This makes for a very powerful play whose theme, even the youngest children can interpret.
This year I decided to do something different, and it proved totally awesome! Rather than use an already existing book to make a play, I wrote my own. I wanted to have the Polite Pirates travel around the world to experience various cultures. Perhaps their pirate ship could magically become a flying vessel that skips from one continent to another. Then, the idea came to me… I would use my silly pirate captain to lead everyone all over time and space by appropriating the zany television legend, Doctor Who and his TARDIS. Instead of “Doctor Who,” however, it would be “Captain Who”.. and the idea for a time-jumping class of kids was born!
Of course Mr. Weimann has a smoke machine… And, of course we had to use it each time we jumped through time!
Instead of focusing on winter holidays, I decided to research the origins of the Christmas tree. I knew that the symbol of evergreen predated the dominant religion’s appropriation (Schroeder, 1992). I did not know that the use of branches, trees, wreathes, and plants to symbolize immortality stretched back to ancient Egypt and beyond (History.com Editors, 2021). The variety of places, cultures, and uses of evergreen over the face of the Earth and throughout time is staggering.
Rather than deciding which of the many facts to include in our classroom play all by my lonesome, I decided to include the Polite Pirates in the project. We practiced research by writing down open-ended questions. I wetted their appetites by giving them teasers like, “Did you know that Christmas trees were illegal at one time?” and “Some cultures don’t call them Christmas trees.” Then I had my students read the History.com article (2021) that started me down this rabbit hole.
After learning many interesting facts, the Polite Pirates and I decided on our favorites to include in our play. Each story would be a separate scene for our TARDIS-traveling pirate players to visit. They would explore one of the oldest cultures to use greenery as a symbol of life; ancient Egypt; with its mythology of the sun god becoming ill, and therefore reducing its daily dose of light. The god gets increasingly sick, until the Winter Solstice finds him lying in bed the longest of any day of the year! Egyptians would decorate with palm fronds to encourage Ra to awaken and feel better.
We also wanted to share the experience of getting in trouble for having Christmas trees. This happened during the puritan era of early Massachusetts. They believed it sacrilegious to make merriment on or near the day they celebrated Christ’s birth (December 25th).
How did Christmas trees come to be a favorite holiday decoration? It was a popular monarch who changed everything. And, it wasn’t a king. Queen Victoria was the evergreen tree trend-setter. She had married Prince Albert of Germany, and invited him to share some of his Christmas traditions with her. This little story was a nice way to show the Polite Pirates open-mindedness and acceptance, as well as cause and effect. It was a newspaper illustration that turned tree decorating into a national craze. A picture of the royals standing next to a 4 foot high tree decorated with glass ornaments from Germany and placed on top of a table was published in a local London newspaper in 1846. After that, Christmas trees were the rage in every English-influenced culture.
Finally, it’s always helpful to include something the students are extra fond of. Everyone wanted to know the story behind the German pickle that hides in the tree. Here was an opportunity to learn that research does not always yield neat answers. According to Alexandra Churchill (2021) of Martha Stewart.com, no one knows exactly where this tradition originated.
The Christmas Pickle
I made a scene at the end of our play that has a shop owner speaking with a pickle-eating worker, while a couple of patrons peruse the recently invented and imported German-made glass ornaments. This story encapsulates the way myths are born. In the play I even named the pickle-eater “LEGEND WRITER” to point out that this tradition stems from people simply making up the idea.
In several ways the process of researching mirrors the Scientific Method. After coming up with a question, looking for answers, and carefully observing information, recording what you learned, one must do something with what is found; The crux of it all is to publish your findings. The Polite Pirates are well-versed in writing paragraphs. Why not use what we learned to produce performance art? Of course that was the point all along, but I pointed out that our classroom’s winter holiday celebration play is actually a way of publishing or “making public” the information that we researched.
And so, without further ado, here is our play; the readers’ theater that the Polite Pirates performed for parents visiting the Willow Lane cafeteria on December 21st, which actually is the Winter Solstice! Feel free to use, adapt, and enjoy this play with your class. Perhaps you want to use this process to have your class make its own. Let me know how it goes.
SETTING: Behind 2 foot high pirate ship
PIRATE3: Land, Ho!
PIRATE4: More like “School, ho!”
PIRATE5: This DOES seem like a place of learning. But, what’s that tree, there?
PIRATE6: More like a place for eating to me. What are those called?
PIRATE3: cafe? Trattorie? (Italian for casual restaurant, pronounced “truh*tor*ee”)
PIRATE4: restaurant? Are we in Italy?
PIRATE5: eatery? I thought that this was Pennsylvania.
PIRATE6: No, no, no…
STUDENT11: (enters, wearing a Santa hat, and seeming to ecco PIRATE6) Ho, ho, ho…!
STUDENT12: (addressing the hat-wearer) If you want to play Santa in this performance, you’ll have to “Grow, grow, grow…”
STUDENT13: Not necessarily. That all depends on whether you want to portray the original “Saint Nicolas” or the modern, mythological…
PIRATE3: Students… HO! Never mind labeling the luncheonette! Here are patrons.
PIRATE4: (ignoring everything, and continuing with synonyms for cafeteria…) Not tratorrie. Osteria (Another Italian word, pronounced “oh*stir*eeee*ah”)
PIRATE5: These DO appear to be students. Let’s see if they can help us figure out where we are.
PIRATE6: (triumphant, and ignoring others) Cafeteria! That’s what it’s called.
(All of the students stumble to the ground in alarm.)
STUDENT11: (first to regain composure) Why hello there. Nice ship. Where do you sail?
PIRATE3: (In an overly loud, boisterous voice) Hello! We are the Polite Pirates, comrades of Captain…
PIRATE4: (Addressing PIRATE3, as much as the students) There is NO need to shout at them. (And then, polite speaking to the students…)
We, the (throwing the word “polite” over his shoulder, at PIRATE3) Polite Pirates are pleased to make your acquaintance.
STUDENT12: Yes, well, welcome to the cafeteria of Willow Lane.
STUDENT13: (over-emphasis the “who”) Who is your captain? From whom do you take orders?
PIRATE5: The captain comes and goes. He has invented… or found…
PIRATE6: Captain entered an old fashioned police box the other day, and we haven’t seen him since.
STUDENT11: (seemingly beginning to get frustrated…) Yes, but…
(smoke from smoke machine, and blue police box; Doctor Who-style TARDIS appears from behind ship)
CAPTAIN: Hello everyone! Are these new Polite Pirates?
ZEUS: (ignoring everyone, and pointing at the tree) Hey! Captain! There’s one here! We have our very own Polite Pirate Christmas tree.
MARY: But, it’s not decorated. How do you know it’s a Christmas tree? Perhaps, it’s only a…
CAPTAIN: I know you two are excited, but do you think that it is polite to ignore our audience?
ZEUS: Who? Them? (points to parents watching the play)
MARY: No, no, Zeus. Captain is simply calling our crew and these newcomers an audience because they witnessed our arrival in the TARDIS.
PIRATE3: Excuse me. The what?
CAPTAIN: (matter factly) TARDIS; Time And Relative Dimensions In Space… machine, portal, or whatever…
ZEUS: We aren’t completely sure how it works, but it’s loads of fun.
PIRATE4: What does it do?
MARY: I’d say loads of learning…
CAPTAIN: It enables us to travel through various… eras (say that last word with mystery)
STUDENT11: Why do you need a fancy box to travel through air?
ZEUS: “Air-uhs…” E, R, A, S. Eras are specific times and places in history.
MARY: An era will have unique elements that separate it from other times in history.
STUDENT12: That sounds wild! What sorts of places have you visited?
STUDENT13: Traveling through space and time sounds scary. Are there any slow moving, wanky robots to fear?
CAPTAIN: There are a few from the 60’s series, but mostly we have been exploring some winter holiday traditions.
PIRATE5: Winter holiday traditions? Like what?
PIRATE6: Yeah, tell us what you learned.
CAPTAIN: How about we show you? Come on.
EVERYONE: Yeah! (Everyone enters the TARDIS. More smoke.)
SETTING: A Puritan village in 1649 New England
(Students and pirates observe the exchange between the police officer and puritan, without getting involved… Students speak amongst themselves over on the side.)
POLICE: (Hands a person a piece of paper) You must pay this fine to the local magistrate by the end of the week, or we will be forced to return and confiscate something of comparable value.
PURITAN: I don’t see what the problem is with hanging a little evergreen around my house. It is MY home.
POLICE: I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them. No decorating on or near December 25th. That’s the law.
STUDENT11: What? People are not allowed to decorate for Christmas?
PURITAN: I bet the baby would have liked the wonderful, lively smell of evergreen. It would have covered up the foul smell of all of those barn animals.
STUDENT12: It sounds like they mostly like the smell.
POLICE: While I agree that your evergreen clippings DO smell rather pleasant, you know the law: No hanging of decorations on or around December 25th. This is a sacred day.
PURITAN: Officer, I am NOT (said with attitude) “pagan-izing” my home just by making it smell nice!
POLICE: Are you being obstinate, my puritan friend?
MARY: This must be the puritan era.
ZEUS: Around the 1650s…
STUDENT13: What if the puritan really does just want the place to smell nice?
STUDENT11: I have a pine freshener that I took from my parents’ car this morning on the way to school. (Tosses the pine tree air freshener to the puritan.)
PURITAN: What’s this? (Holds pine tree to nose and sniffs.) Oooooh, this is wonderful.
POLICE: What do you have there? Where did that come from? What kind of witchcraft is this?
PURITAN: It’s just a thin wafer of wood, scented like an entire forest of evergreen.
POLICE: Hmmm (smelling pine tree), that does smell rather nice. I’ll have to check on this.
PURITAN: It’s so tiny (whining), can’t I keep it?
POLICE: (still smelling the tree… over and over, clearly enjoying the fragrance) I’m going to need to keep this… (to himself) I could hang it above my head in the paddy wagon. If only mirrors were invented, I could hang it from a rearview mirror… (wanders off)
PURITAN: Hey! (disappointed and whining) I found it!
(Captain pulls students back into TARDIS. Smoke. Police and puritan disappear.)
CAPTAIN: What are you doing?! You can’t share technology and ideas from the future with people from the past!
MARY: I totally forgot; We might mess up the space-time continuum.
ZEUS: The whosie-whatsit?
CAPTAIN: If you go back in time and alter something, it could completely change the future; our time! We could cease to exist.
STUDENT11: Oh no! What have I done? Am I fading? I think I can see through my fingers.
STUDENT12: That’s because you have them spread out.
STUDENT11: (closes fingers) Oh, you are right.
STUDENT13: Where are we now?
ZEUS: And, when are we now… I mean what is “now”? Or, when is “now”?
MARY: We get it, Zeus. Come on, let’s find out.
(Mary leads group away from TARDIS, toward pyramids.)
SETTING: Yellow pyramids in background. People hold palm fronds and speak to each other. One has a cold and is sneezing.
EGYPTIAN14: (pointing) I think it looks better over there.
EGYPTIAN15: Yeah, but no one will smell it over there.
EGYPTIAN16: I don’t know how much smell palm fronds have, my Egyptian friend.
(Egyptian15 sneezes several times.)
EGYPTIAN14: We could put the fronds in water, if we arrange them in this vase. They might last longer.
(More sneezing by 15.)
EGYPTIAN16: Oh, for crying out loud! (Talking to 15) Can’t you take something for that?
EGYPTIAN15: I think I’m allergic to palm trees.
EGYPTIAN14: I don’t think that’s a thing. We live in Egypt. They are everywhere. You probably have a cold.
(Again, the students and pirates remain separate from the people from the past. Just observe the Egyptian conversation.)
PIRATE3: (speaking to the TARDIS travelers) So, we are in Egypt this time.
PIRATE4: Your powers of observation are impressive.
PIRATE5: That doesn’t sound very polite?
PIRATE4: You’re right. (turning apologetically to pirate3) And, you are right. I wonder what these Egyptians are doing with those palm fronds.
PIRATE6: It appears they are using them as decorations. I wonder if they are celebrating a holiday.
EGYPTIAN16: Why don’t we just get more fronds and put them on both sides of the house?
EGYPTIAN14: I like that. They can symbolize both, Ra rising and Ra setting.
EGYPTIAN15: (sneezes) Ra has forsaken me!
EGYPTIAN16: No, he has been experiencing the same thing you are.
EGYPTIAN14: Maybe he gave you his cold.
EGYPTIAN15: That would explain why it is so powerful (extra big sneeze)
EGYPTIAN16: But, now we turn the corner.
EGYPTIAN14: After today, Ra will return in strength.
EGYPTIAN15: I can’t wait for my strength to return.
EGYPTIAN16: This will be your darkest day.
CAPTAIN: I bet the Egyptians are celebrating the Winter Solstice.
MARY: The shortest day of the year.
ZEUS: Who is Ra? And, why is he sick.
CAPTAIN: Ra is the Egyptian sun god. They must be talking about his disappearance.
MARY: Because there is less and less daylight.
ZEUS: They think he got sick?
CAPTAIN: That would explain why he hasn’t been around as much.
MARY: And, after today, the daylight will begin to increase.
ZEUS: As in Ra is recovering…
SETTING: Palace in England
QUEEN: This is such a magical time of year, my dearest husband.
PRINCE: So true my queen. Might we decorate the palace to celebrate the season?
QUEEN: Tell me, your majesty. What traditions did you practice in your homeland of Germany?
PRINCE: My people erect trees in their homes and decorate them with fruits and nuts.
REPORTER: “Queen Victoria Goes Nuts for Trees!” Get your paper. Hot news for sale.
STUDENT11: What? That doesn’t sound right. Would they be able to print that kind of salacious news?
MARY: I don’t think so.
ZEUS: I’m pretty sure they would lose their head.
CAPTAIN: This is 1846, not the dark ages.
STUDENT12: Yeah, he said Queen Victoria, not the Red Queen.
STUDENT13: Did you think we were in “Alice in Wonderland,” or something?
PEASANT: I’d like to purchase one of those newspapers, please.
REPORTER: Sure. That’ll be two pence.
PEASANT: Here you go.
REPORTER: Thanks. Everyone loves Queen Victoria.
PEASANT: I know. With this illustration of her and Prince Albert standing with their family next to a decorated evergreen tree up on a table, I wouldn’t be surprised to find one in every house tomorrow.
REPORTER: I already got one! Apparently, they are the rage in Germany. The Queen asked the prince about his childhood traditions.
PEASANT: She honored his traditions. How classy.
REPORTER: Right? The people will be happy to decorate. Somber occasions are no fun.
PEASANT: No fun at all. (Looking closely at newspaper) What do they have hanging on the tree?
PRINCE: My people used to place apples and other fruit and nuts upon the tree to symbolize the harvest. Then they began adding marzipan cookies and more.
QUEEN: That sounds joyous! I think it would look even better with color.
PRINCE: In the future people will make strings of popcorn.
QUEEN: They could dye the popcorn with various bright colors. Then they could mix berries in to vary the texture…
PRINCE: In 1847 people began making glass ornaments.
QUEEN: Like these?
PRINCE: Yes, like these.
REPORTER: (announcing to crowd) Queen’s tree full of glass!
PEASANT: Ornaments; glass ornaments.
REPORTER: Just a technicality.
PEASANT: No, truthfully…
REPORTER: Just trying to sell some papers, my man.
PEASANT: (reading newspaper) It says here that the tree is only 4 feet tall and sits upon a table. Is that true?
REPORTER: How do I know? I can’t read!
PEASANT: Oh, sorry. Well, according to this article, the dime-store magnate, F.W. Woolworth from Pennsylvania will visit Germany in the 1880s, bring some glass ornaments back to America and then make a fortune importing more. This will begin a trend in American Christmas tree decorating that will grow from there.
REPORTER: That article says all of that?
PEASANT: No, but that DOES happen…
STUDENT11: How do they know about Woolworth, when this is only 1847? That doesn’t happen until 1880.
MARY: I don’t know. Perhaps we are messing up the space-time continuum, doing all of this TARDIS traveling.
ZEUS: I don’t know, but I’m getting hungry. Do they have a Christmas pickle? That’s German, isn’t it?
CAPTAIN: I’ve heard the legend of the German Christmas pickle. I think it’s an ornament. Perhaps we could go to Germany next.
SETTING: Inside an old fashioned general store
STUDENT12: Are we in Germany?
PURITAN: There’s some lovely glass ornaments over here. (PURITAN & POLICE wander around the shop pretending to browse.)
SHOPOWNER: (in a “salesy” voice) Oh, yes! We just got those in from Germany last week. Hot off the furnace.
LEGENDWRITER: (eating a pickle, says to himself) Those were probably made months ago.
SHOPOWNER: (whispering to the LEGENDWRITER) Shhhh, we want them to think that our German glass ornaments are better than ever.
STUDENT13: These two seem a little shady.
LEGENDWRITER: Sure. Why don’t you just get ornaments that are unique and special? Something different. (Hold up a pine tree air freshener.) This one’s different…
SHOPOWNER: (scolding) Put that down! That is sacred. And what are you eating?
STUDENT11: Hey, that’s my air freshener!
STUDENT12: I don’t think we’re in Germany. They keep calling these glass ornaments “German.” If we were in Germany, they’d just be “ornaments.”
POLICE: (sort of complaining) We already have one of all of these.
SHOPOWNER: (complaining to the LEGENDWRITER) As if I have any say over what arrives from Germany. It’s the 1800s. It takes weeks to get a shipment of ornaments that have sailed across the Atlantic. It’s not like they can just fly them on over in the matter of hours. It’ll be another 200 years before Amazon takes every last bit of work out of shopping and shuts me down!
STUDENT11: That was a lot to unpack. Are we in the 1800s?
STUDENT12: I’m pretty sure we are.
(LEGENDWRITER is munching on a pickle louder and louder, drawing more and more attention to his actions.)
CAPTAIN: I wonder if the space-time continuum is fracturing.
STUDENT13: How would this shop owner know about Amazon?
ZEUS: Uh oh, we should probably head back to our time.
MARY: What did you say, Zeus? I can’t hear you over this guy munching on… What is that thing?
LEGENDWRITER: (answering everyone, but talking to the SHOPOWNER) This? Oh, it’s a pickle. I was hungry.
SHOPOWNER: Well, put it down! We have customers.
(LEGENDWRITER slyly sticks pickle on a shelf.)
PURITAN: (picking up the pickle) Hey, we don’t have one of these.
POLICE: That looks like a pickle.
SHOPOWNER: That’s not just any old pickle…
LEGENDWRITER: (mumbling to himself) Yeah, it’s my pickle. And, I’m still hungry.
SHOPOWNER: It’s a magical (draw the word out, making it sound mystical) pickle! (elbow the LEGENDWRITER)
LEGENDWRITER: Sure… It has magical powers (barely buying in to the silly sales pitch).
SHOPOWNER: With this pickle… Whoever finds this pickle (Look to the LEGENDWRITER for inspiration)
LEGENDWRITER: Okay, ok (sighing, and giving in). Look, (in a matter a fact voice; unimpressive) this pickle is to be hidden on the Christmas tree… Every Christmas tree… And, whoever finds it first… You know, when the tree is first revealed, or something, that person gets good luck for the year. Yeah, that’s it. (Clearly, this guy was making up this legend as he went.)
SHOPOWNER: (impressed with the story) Ooooh, that’s good.
PURITAN: What if it’s an adult who finds it every year. The kids would hate it. It’s just a pickle.
LEGENDWRITER: Right. Well, the adult who sees it should leave it where it lies. They’ll just know that they get good luck for the year… see? And, the first kid to find it gets to be the one to begin the gift opening.
POLICE: That will solve the problem of deciding which tyke begins the present mayhem.
STUDENT11: That’s what we do in my home.
STUDENT12: Is this really how the German Christmas pickle tradition began? I’ve heard that a Civil war hero was saved from starvation eating a pickle.
STUDENT13: I heard that Saint Nicholas saved two boys by sticking them in a pickle barrel.
SHOPOWNER: You should write down those rules. That was good.
LEGENDWRITER: Sure. Or, we could add to the rules, change them, make up new stories each year, building on the legend. Who knows? Perhaps it will become a tradition.
SHOPOWNER: It’ll help us sell more German glass ornaments, anyway.
CAPTAIN: Come on everyone, let’s return to the present.
ZEUS: Did someone say present.
MARY: Not the kind you open. It’s a homonym…
SETTING: Back on pirate ship, but the entire length of it has pine tree air fresheners all over it.
ZEUS: What is that funky smell?!!
STUDENT11: And, what is all over the pirate ship?
PIRATE: Are those pine trees?
MARY: It feels like my nose is being accosted by an entire evergreen forest!
EGYPTIAN14: What? We are just decorating for the annual pine tree air freshener party.
PEASANT: (slightly correcting the Egyptian) Polite Pirate Pine Tree Air Freshener Party.
REPORTER: When we celebrate the Winter Solstice with the smell of the everlasting…
QUEEN: Forever green…
PRINCE: Symbol of life…
POLICE: For our hemisphere may be cold and dark, now…
EGYPTIAN15: (small sneeze) With Ra… (sniffle) I mean the sun… hiding himself a large portion of the day…
EGYPTIAN16: But, today we turn the tide… Our day begins to grow… With the smell of these magical trees…
(Everyone turn and gaze at air fresheners, pointing, and “aaaahh-ing”)
ZEUS: Wait a minute, remember, Lea threw the air freshener at the puritan back in the 17th century.
MARY: The police officer took it.
STUDENT12: He must have kept it. He had mentioned attaching it to a paddy wagon, whatever that is.
STUDENT13: I think it is the equivalent of a 17th century police car.
PIRATE3: Perhaps, this is where the tradition of hanging air fresheners on rear view mirrors comes from!
PIRATE4: I don’t think that is really a tradition. It happens all year long.
PIRATE6: Yeah, without one, you wouldn’t want to step foot in my family’s car!
PIRATE5: Could we have altered the past when we left that marvelous feat of modern technology behind?
STUDENT12: (incredulous) A pine tree air freshener?
STUDENT13: Feat of technology? Really?
STUDENT11: They are pretty marvelous… And, sorry;)
CAPTAIN: That must have fractured the…
EVERYONE: Space-time continuum!
Churchill, A. (2021, November 3). The Untold Story of the Christmas Pickle Ornament. Martha Stewart. https://www.marthastewart.com/1097532/decorative-past-tradition-christmas-pickle-ornament
History.com Editors. (2021, December 8). History of Christmas Trees. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees
Schroeder, H.W. 1992. The tree of peace: Symbolic and spiritual values of the white pine. In proceedings of the White Pine Symposium (p. 73-83), Sept. 16-18, 1992, Duluth, MN. https://www.nrs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/jrnl/1992/nc_1992_Schroeder_002.pdf