SOUNDOFF: Homeschooling rekindles holiday spirit

While many people dread the coming of winter with the ice-cold bitter winds and perpetually gray skies of the Pacific Northwest, I actually embrace it and look forward to it. It's a wonderful time to celebrate family traditions or start some new ones.

Before the kids started in the public schools on the East Coast, (yes, they had the experience of firsthand socialization at the hands of 25 or so, same-aged children, changing yearly) I recall fond days of craft making, baking and singing at the top of our lungs to Bing and our favorite, Harry Connick Jr. The few years in the system put a stop to that. Well, it didn't put a complete stop to it, but there just wasn't enough time for all the exciting projects we wanted to do as a family. For the first five years of my kids’ lives, we had a holiday family tradition going. It couldn't be continued with the public school calendar. Like most who follow traditions, to get that real feeling of tradition, year after year, it's all or nothing. Maybe the children didn't notice, but I certainly did.

Then we were to move back to Washington, my home state. I knew when we moved back we were going to give homeschooling a try. I researched it and found it to be our best option for education due to my son's struggling and failing self esteem. It took a lot of discussion with the husband and absolutely none with the kids.

By the end of that school year on the East Coast, my daughter, Grace, in her cute little skirt and turtleneck, was running to her third-grade classmates, bragging that she was going to stay home for school next year. She claimed she was going to do school work in her P-A-J-A-M-A-S while eating breakfast and watching Zaboomafoo on TV. Imagine the kids' shock at learning of such an outlandish idea. HA! When I would volunteer in class, they boldly would come up to me and check if Grace was lying. I had to giggle and let them know she most definitely would not be doing school in her pj’s, otherwise it was true. I had to make them feel good somehow.

We have spent the first couple of years trying out different methods of teaching. Schooling and structure were ingrained into me. Like most new homeschoolers, I set up a room that was our classroom. The kids each had a desk and we would start and end school at a precise time. I learned quickly that this was torture. The classroom is now a storage/playroom and the desks were tossed out at the last garage sale.

We have settled into a very eclectic style. For us, keeping our routine relaxed and flexible on a daily basis seems to be what works happily for us as a family. The kids love having a say-so in what happens. I love that I don't have to fight with them! Yes, they even get to stay in their pj's if they want.

So here we are, on our third year of homeschooling and we have all the time in the world for our family traditions. Why do I love this awful gray and cold-to-the-bone, wind-gusting weather? At the first sign of a series of chilly gray days, I know it's time to fire up the oven and bake. It's become the tradition to make our yearly iced pumpkin cookies and pumpkin cinnamon rolls, using fresh pumpkin pulp cooked up after the carvings in October.It's about the only time of year that I spend working hard in the kitchen. I love the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla all mingled together. I bake as often as it is cold. A fire crackles in the woodstove and when the kids and I wake up, we bundle up with hot chocolate and a good book most mornings just curled up in bed.

Immediately after Thanksgiving, the tree goes up. Long ago, we chose not to cut down a tree for our enjoyment indoors only to see it die within weeks. We have a lovely artificial tree for inside. I will trim the trees in the woods for the beloved pine smell of the holidays. The unneeded boughs of the living trees will do nicely on the mantel and piano. When the ground is frozen, we’ll go outdoors and decorate the trees with treats for the animals.

A fairly new family tradition that I learned about from the Dutch is called Sinterklass Eve (also known as The Spirit of Giving) held on Dec. 5. In our variation of the Spirit of Giving, we have the chance to leave a nice gift at our neighbors’ houses anonymously. It could be a home baked treat or a small chocolate from the store. The kids have seen firsthand what a joy it is to see somebody receive a gift without the expectation of one in return.

Meanwhile, we look forward to making our yearly gifts. Last year it was hand painted mugs and wine glasses. This year, it will be beaded pillows that we will learn how to do. It is so gratifying to give a gift made with our own hands. We have simplified our holiday tradition, focusing on family and needs, rather than all the wants it is so easy to give in to. It is very fulfilling.

Tradition. What does it mean to us? Baking, fires, smells of pine and cinnamon, holiday music, lights twinkling, crafts, hot chocolate and most importantly, family. A yearly constant happening that brings our family together. Thanks to homeschooling, we have the time to keep these traditions alive.

Erin L. Clark is in charge of publicity for Homeschoolers On Whidbey (www.howonline.org).

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