Making the Holidays Multi-Sensory
By Jen Spears
From snowflakes on the tip of your nose to delicious hot chocolate on your tongue, there is more to the holidays than sparkling lights and window displays. Whether or not you admit it aloud, ripping wrapping paper and preparing elaborate holiday feasts with family are incredibly satisfying. And none of these require vision.
Holidays can be made tactile, too. You can make ornaments and decorations out of clay. You can write letters to Santa in Braille. Let’s not forget Alexa’s ability to mix a variety of festive music.
Imagine a living room ready for the jolly man in red to pay a visit. Picture four houses perched in a row on the windowsill. Each features a Disney character living inside. When the switches on the houses are flipped, Mickey, Mini, Pluto and Goofy all pop out of their front doors and sing classic Christmas songs. At the age of five, these decorations’ music meant far more to me than the houses and their appearance. At the age of twenty-seven, I brought an amazing little boy into the world. I am one of many blind parents within the National Federation of the Blind. (I now work at the Colorado Center for the Blind—one of the NFB-affiliated structured discovery training centers.)
Audio description, (both live and recorded) makes holiday specials family bonding experiences. You can find various audio-described holiday movies and classics on online entertainment platforms. In regards to live theater, the Colorado Blind Parents and other NFB divisions frequently sell tickets for lots of shows. Who doesn’t love the idea of seeing “Elf” live on stage, and being able to follow the sequence of events without your neighbor having to whisper in your ear? And then after, I can discuss the specials with my sighted family members, after having had an accessible experience.
There is a myth that blind people cannot enjoy Christmas lights because they are visual. Even though many of us cannot experience them visually to the same degree as our non-blind counterparts, the Colorado Blind Parents division put together an evening where families could enjoy them. We were driven through a display of lights which people described in real-time. I can tell you that, despite the visual nature of the lights display, people of all ages had a good time.
I’m sure that some of you are still asking how blind people find this experience enjoyable. What you may not realize is that visual displays can be multi-sensory. Blind people often learn to take advantage of these experiences through the reactions of others. When our children make sounds that demonstrate surprise and enjoyment, we know that we have given them an experience they will remember. A gasp may signal someone being impressed. A groan signals disappointment. An exclamation of “wow” may generate discussion. No, we may not see the lights, but we are still present with our family and friends.
Hands-on activities are another way to get everyone involved in fun traditions, both during the holidays and beyond. Cookie dough, fun cookie cutters, and icing make the holidays magical for blind people of all ages. Once they come out of the oven, it’s time to take a taste.
Maybe decorating tickles your fancy. Whether ornaments are store-bought or hand-crafted, hanging them on the tree or putting them around the house can be a family affair. You can hide an “Elf on The Shelf” decoration for others to find later. If you have a fresh Christmas tree or holiday-scented candles, the “most wonderful time of the year” can be a fragrant experience too.
Even if one doesn’t have the voice of an angel, nobody can stop music-lovers from belting out Christmas Carols or well-known Hanukkah songs. If one feels inclined to dance, embrace it and have fun. Whatever time of year, singing and dancing are good for the heart and soul. This is especially true if one or both are done like no one’s watching.
Every year, the Colorado Center for the Blind offers students and staff the opportunity to participate in a gift exchange. Names are written in Braille, and a questionnaire is sent via e-mail so participants have a better idea of what to buy. Gifts are labeled in Braille when it comes time for the exchange. If you’ve ever thought of arranging a Secret Santa among blind friends or family, our model has proven to be a success.
If you’re new to blindness, a blind parent or the parent of a blind child, I hope this sheds light on the magic which is alive and well during the holiday season. The next time there’s a blanket of snow on the ground, soak in the crunch under your feet. Savor the taste of peppermint when a candy cane breaks in your mouth. Make a mental recording of your children’s excitement as they open presents. Finally, don’t forget to hug the ones you love.