Danielle Ray | Item Correspondent
STERLING – The mood was joyful and jovial at Houghton Elementary School on Dec. 23 for the Winter Festival, an annual tradition that was adapted this year like so much else.
“Every year Houghton has a holiday singalong on the last day before vacation,” said art teacher Kate Blehar. “Children, teacher, and staff all come together in the gym to sing songs, do fun skits and enjoy festive activities before our break. We knew it was going to be impossible to all be in one space this year, so our amazing music teacher Jess Wilke came up with the idea of traveling to five areas of the school, visiting door to door, and spreading holiday cheer.”
The Special Agents – Blehar, physical education teacher Michael Walsh and Wilke – organized the fete and were joined by fellow staff, PTO members and community volunteers to enable students grouped by classes to visit five different areas in the school for singalongs, music and hot cocoa and cider.
“The Houghton holiday singalong is a decades’ long tradition to kick off the winter break,” Wilke said. “As we continue to live, teach and learn throughout these trying times, the Houghton arts team wanted to be sure to bring the fun and levity of our school tradition to both kids and adults in a responsible and safe way.”
She said they figured out a way to hold a slightly different version that adhered to pandemic caution and set up areas in the cafeteria, gymnasium, library, third and fourth grade common area, and in front of the school for the students to walk to and stop by.
“We were inspired by the old English tradition of wassailing, visiting door-to-door to spread holiday cheer, and thought we could use the larger gathering spaces in our school to keep crowd sizes down,” Wilke said. “We set up five stations children could travel to and reached out to musically talented Houghton parents and alumni and were quickly able to fill the bill with a diverse set of performers.”
First Church in Sterling Associate Pastor and Houghton parent Zach Kerzee, Houghton parents Brian Duplessis and Ann Marie Jaber, the Special Agents and school psychologist Danae Allison and Nurse Bertha Josiah-Ogbomo led singalongs featuring holiday classics such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” and many more songs the students energetically sang at the top of their lungs.
“Children were excited to learn the music and create art for our winter festival in the weeks leading up to the event,” Blehar said. “There was a lot of joyful participation and anticipation from both students and staff.”
The Crushers, with Houghton alumni and town residents Jacob and Zachary Brennan, who are now college freshmen, played outside with their bandmates while PTO volunteers served the student warm drinks.
“They were excited to be invited back to their elementary school to be part of the event,” Blehar said of the twins in the band.
She made festive holiday sweaters for the Special Agents to rock out in and led her students in creating gingerbread houses, robots made from recycled objects, and other holiday décor.
“I loved working with my students on special art to be featured in our program,” Blehar said. “My fourth-grade artists painted a beautiful winter scene on the cafeteria windows, made 3D paper snowflakes, and painted large cardboard trees. Third grade artists made snowflakes and a painted cardboard gingerbread house. Second grade artists made paper chains and paintings featured in our door decorating prizes. First grade and kindergarten artists made paper ornaments to decorate our cardboard trees. Every child had a part in the artwork and could see their work showcased. They were excited and proud to transform our school for this special event.”
Principal Tony Cipro said they were happy to continue the tradition in a new way.
“As a child-centered school, Houghton has always looked to promote the public performance of children,” he said. “This could be as simple as a grade four student joining the principal in conducting daily morning announcements or full school performances by all children as with our Peace Pole ceremony in the fall, the holiday program in December, or our Flag Day program in June.
‘Our children look forward to all of these and despite the COVID virus, these continue to take place in modified fashion thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of the Houghton school staff with the support of our PTO. The Winterfest holiday program highlights these attributes,” Cipro added.
Wilke said many people came together to ensure “the great big experiment” was a rousing success.
“This event was a true community effort including support from the Houghton PTO, special lighting provided the Sterling Fire Department, hot chocolate and cider by the Houghton cafeteria staff, a giant inflatable Grinch borrowed from the Long family, and amazing artwork and stage props created by our Houghton artists and guided by art teacher Kate Blehar,” she said. “I am continually amazed by the willingness of our Houghton community to make sure that the yearly traditions of our school are maintained no matter the challenges that have faced us in the last two years.”
Blehar echoed her sentiments, saying it was important to the teachers and school staff to provide this bit of normalcy for the students, albeit adapted.
“Traditions and community gatherings and projects are a big part of Houghton,” she said. “Providing these special experiences and bringing joy to our students feels more important than ever. Children have experienced many disappointments and have made a lot of sacrifices because of COVID. Anything we can do to lift spirits and bring positivity into our students’ lives is important.”