On top of all of that, music teachers have to try and walk a very tricky line that deals with the matter of what songs/what content is appropriate to teach. Do we delve into Christmas music and try to gloss over or ignore the holiday/religious background connected to the songs? That's easy to do with songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman," but not so easy with something like "Joy to the World" or "Silent Night." Do we teach songs from many religious traditions? Do we ignore the whole subject alltogether and just teach non-holiday songs?
I've tried several different approaches over the years with varying levels of success. I've never had a parent come to me or my administration and complain that there was a Christmas song taught in class, but I've always sort of lived in the fear that that might happen. Whenever I teach a song with religious connections I make sure to give a quick talk about why I teach the song. "You're going to hear this song in the malls and on the radio. I'm not teaching it because I think you must celebrate the holiday that's connected to the song. Some people celebrate Christmas, but many don't. Some celebreate other holidays like Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Diwali and some celebrate nothing at all. You choose what you want to celebrate! But today we're learning this song because it's something that's very popular in America and I want you to know what it is."
All of this stress and confusion just piles on at the holidays. That's why I love songs like "Breakin' Up Christmas." This song bridges the gap between the overtly religious holiday carols and non-holiday traditions like folk song and folk dance. When I teach this song I can connect it with our American culture and historical traditions from the Appalacian mountains. It's new for the kids, so they don't bring in preconceived notions about the song. I'm free to take this lesson in any direction that seems right.
LEARNING THE SONG - THE PROCESS
Once they have that main refrain down then I do a little back and forth with them. I let them sing the main line as a sort of refrain or chorus and I sing the next few "verses" with them. I sing "Santa Claus come, done and gone, Breaking up Christmas right straight along" and then they sing back with the refrain, "Hooray Jake, Hooray John..." We go through all the verses like this back and forth until we've sung through everything.
Then you can project the slide with the words (above) onto the screen and have the kiddos sing the rest of the verses with you as you do a little AB pattern. Sing a "verse" and then sing the main refrain of "Hooray Jake, Hooray John..." Pretty soon kids should be able to sing all the words of both the A and B sections.
THE FOLK DANCE
We do an easy little square dance with this song that goes like this. Head couples walk in for four beats and then back out for four. Then side couples walk in for four beats and then back out for four. Since the lyrics of the song talk about a do-si-do it makes sense to do that next. I usually have kids do-si-do their partner and then do-si-do their corner. After that, you can do whatever you want. You can swing partners, promenade, or any other dance move you want. If you've been working on folk dance you can tie in any move that you've been working on recently. One thing I like to do is have kids add in folk dance moves that they remember. If they can name the move that we've done before, we add it in. This gives them some ownership and takes the burden off of me to decide what comes next.
TEACHING THE VOCABULARY
There are so many connections you can make to this. Sometimes I go down the road of the "play party" and talk about how play parties were dance parties at on families house which is very similar to what happened with this song. We talk about what it would be like to have everyone over and have a party in your house with folk dancing and a band. Other times we talk about how this ties in with the 12 Days of Christmas or the traditions of Epiphany. There are a lot of connections you can make with this song (which is one of the many reasons that I love it so much!).
Then I show this video of "Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny" performing Breakin Up Christmas. We talk about how the group sings and then dances and then plays and does some solos. What's really great is that this video is taken in someone's house, just like a "Breakin' Up Christmas" party would be done in someone's actual living space. There's a lot you can talk about!
I made a "Favorite Carol" set for this song and in the kit I've included a bunch of media links where you can hear the song and see folk groups play the song too. Often we will watch a video and then I'll shut off the projector so that we can use the music by itself and we dance to the music.
Breakin Up Christmas is an amazing song to teach before or after your winter break and it would fit in really easily! In fact, you could teach the song before the break and use this as your "welcome back to school" song when you see kids in January since it is traditionally sung around January 6th. Please leave a comment below if you have any other ideas or suggestions when teaching this old favorite! I'd love to hear how you use this in your classroom!