Sunday, December 28, 2008

to santa or not to santa...?

So, this year, Israel is not old enough to know the difference. Next year, though, the issue will have to be addressed in some manner or other and some trajectory will be set for Israel's relationship with the most perfect being ever to not exist: Santa.

When the hypothetical parenting discussions between friends took place years ago, my approach was to brush off the "Santa" issue as not a big deal and not worth really thinking about. After all, I can tend to over-think things and that was one thing I didn't want to over-think. I really enjoyed Santa as a kid. And I don't think my whole "I don't believe in God anymore because God is just something my parents taught me to believe in" time of life would have been avoided had they been bluntly honest with me about Santa's non-existence. I don't think Santa is evil and I don't think celebrating Santa coming at Christmas means a person can't or doesn't also celebrate Jesus coming at Christmas. That said, we realized this year that even if we say nothing about Santa, the question will come up for Israel and we will either give him presents from the jolly old elf or we won't. Here are some of the pros and cons we talk about.

- We both REALLY liked Santa growing up. We liked the surprise element of the presents. We liked his character and we liked the adventure of trying to catch him at his work. I liked the mystery of putting out cookies and "witnessing" him having eaten them in the morning, though I slept through his visit.
- Neither Pat nor I had traumatic experiences figuring out that Santa wasn't real; in fact, neither of us remember "the" Christmas when it happened. We don't remember anyone breaking the news to us, though I seem to remember one year finding out that my older cousins didn't believe in him. I don't think I ever had a direct conversation about it with my parents. I preferred to figure things out for myself and put the question to the big guy himself one year in my letter to him, which he answered satisfactorily enough.
- We don't want to have that kid who tells all the other kids Santa isn't real and we don't want our kids to think kids who believe in Santa are stupid.
- We don't like the idea of well-meaning adults asking our kid what Santa brought them and our young child answering, "nothing," or, "We don't believe in Santa." At Christmas time, that is cultural suicide. And we don't want people to think that we miss out on fun because we celebrate Jesus's birth and not Santa during the season.

- My first inclination not to teach Israel that Santa is real was that I just didn't feel like it. I don't feel like trying to find out exactly what the kids want each year and buying that "best" present only to give the credit for that work to "Santa." If I'm going to get my kid the bomb present, I want him to know that I did it because I love him, not think that Santa brought it to him because of how good he was the previous year. Along those lines, I don't want to be stuck giving my kids the second-best present every year.
- As a kid, I did not like that, contrary to the news spread about the situation, bad kids got presents at least as cool as mine. I don't want my kids to hear that they had better be good to get presents only to have that mean kid down the street get the latest version of Nintendo. Though perhaps it is an accurate picture of the way things are on earth, it is a screwed-up version of justice, since Santa is supposed to know how everyone behaves and reward accordingly.
- The idea of a fat, bearded man knowing when I'm sleeping creeps me out.
- I don't want to have to reinforce an idea that is not true. This is strange, because I don't think it's unethical to tell your kid Santa exists and have absolutely no problem with parents playing the "Santa" game with their kids. However, I don't want to ever have to tell my child to believe in Santa. And I don't want to be put in the awkward situation of admitting, after years of reinforcing Santa's existence, that it was all a hoax and I had led my kid to believe an untruth. Even now, I like being able to ask kids in my life whether I have ever lied to them and them having to admit that I have not. I want my kids to be able to take me at my word, even though this is kind of a trivial matter in our culture. (You don't think a person is a liar just because they say Santa is real.)
- I don't want to wait in long lines places to have my kid tell Santa what he wants for Christmas or to get pictures with Santa. I haven't even paid to have Israel's pictures taken with me, for goodness's sake! Besides, Santas are scary-looking unless they have real beards.
- We want to really be able to celebrate Jesus's birth at Christmas. There are MANY distractions and obstacles to this besides Santa. We may or may not be able to overcome all of them as we look to set our family Christmas traditions. But Santa is one distraction that is pretty easy to eliminate if we want to.
- I don't like that all the magic of the season is summed up in Santa in our culture. I know we don't have to pass that aspect of Santa on to our kids even if we play the game. But it's a whole lot easier not to send the message that Santa represents all things good and right and hopeful about the world and those in it if we teach our kids that he is not real, but that God is. Santa plays a role in our culture that is a little too close to God's rightful role for my comfort. Of course, all Christians would rather our children know God as the one who knows everything, gives good gifts to people near and far, has the grip on the scales of justice and is able to do things that are physically impossible (a fat man going down the chimney? really?) or miraculous than to think that those traits are embodied in Santa. Perhaps it is not an either/or situation, but as a kid, it was a lot easier to get excited about Santa, who adults said had those traits, than it was about God, who adults said had those traits. And even if all we do is put gifts from Santa under the tree, it puts us in the awkward place of having to validate all the stories other people and the songs and all that say about him. I don't want my kids thinking Santa is the best thing ever when he doesn't even exist!

But then, there is a strong pull toward Santa and we really mean that part in the "pro" section of not wanting to be spoil-sports at Christmas. We want our kids to be excited about it and to have the same sort of magical feelings about Christmas time that we had growing up. Can that be done without Santa? Of course, it should be able to be done. We're thinking through how we could go about it. Christmas is supposed to be a celebration and Jesus certainly enjoyed those as much as the next guy when he was here. God even mandated that the Jews celebrate many holidays a year -- more than I celebrate in a given year. So a full-out celebration is in order. We have trouble figuring out how to make a celebration about Jesus, though. Things about Jesus tend to involve silence and prayer and scripture-reading and all that. They are somber and contemplative. But that is part of what Advent is for. This is Christmas we're talking about!

Some of our ideas for solutions have been:
-Writing thank-yous to Jesus in place of letters to Santa. Or even having the kids write requests to Jesus instead of to Santa (though letters like, "Dear Jesus, please bring me a Wii," would be problematic).
- Throwing a party, with presents and good food. This is already done somewhat, with the gifts and elaborate meals at Christmas time, but it could be built upon.

What is difficult is that Christmas is spent, not at church, but with family. For some reason, living rooms and sanctuaries are completely different spaces and we don't do the same things in one as we do the other. As you read in my previous post, the Christmas celebration at our church was great and I'm sure some people (kids in particular) broke a sweat in their celebration. And that time was certainly about Jesus, as celebration and worship combined. It seems odd to think about doing such a thing with extended family, though, since we never do anything spiritual together besides utter a prayer before a meal. I don't see most people's families coming together, playing great music, worshiping, and dancing in the living room before preparing and eating a feast. That is the sort of thing (some) churches do.

Now, I know that most of the people in our particular families will probably celebrate together with us in Heaven. In that way, being with blood family and being with brothers and sister in Christ has the potential to be the same thing here. But doing church at family gatherings is just...awkward. And forced. It's not what people around us do and we're not into trying to make people do things or say things or pretend things just because it's Christmas and that's as true for belief in Jesus as it is for belief in Santa. Religious topics are so divisive and somewhat taboo in families -- even Christian families -- and it's hard to think of a non-awkward way to bring religious practices into family life. But Pat points out that, though this is part of our "how do we do Christmas now that we have children" conversation, it is a digression from Santa. And we can't digress from Santa.

We left the conversation pretty open-ended this year. Maybe it will be a little less open-ended next year. Maybe we will make some decisions based on our ideas of what would be the ideal way to celebrate Christmas; maybe some of these decisions get made for us by way of convention. Maybe some of you do things you have found to be great at Christmas time that we have not thought of and will share them with us. (Maybe we'll use your ideas and maybe we won't.) Maybe we should pay closer attention to the kids, who are really good at celebrating on their own. Maybe, we'll just put gifts under the tree from "?" and when the kids ask if Santa is real, we'll say, "Maybe."

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Okay, I'll start off by saying that you're in a pickle. You know this already, but you hinted just at the very end of how adults in your place have handled the pickle before.

This Christmas I really began to realize that I get more hyped about getting other people presents than I get about what presents I will end up getting. I think the point of Christmas as a kid seemed to be quite the opposite--but mostly because I couldn't yet get presents for anyone else. Christmas all comes down to giving. That's what Saint Nicholas was about. He was a real guy, ya know? He went around and gave presents to orphans. Jesus told us to take care of orphans and widows, and here you have a guy who did it.

It just so happens that now this well-meaning saint has taken the place of chief gift-giver thoughout the world. Can you keep your kids from hearing about him? No. I believe they should know that jolly ol' Saint Nicholas was a real guy and he followed Jesus' commandment to care for those who can't care for themselves. If they want to think all the American traditions about him, I really don't think that it will kill their faith. I made no correlation between Santa not being real and Jesus not being real.

On the subject of Santa doing cool things and Christ doing reall cool things: The hangup for me is that Santa had limited power. He could do some cool magic tricks and stuff, but God could make the world explode. It's like playing mario when you have a cheat that allows you to jump a little higher--that's cool. Now, replace that with a cheat that allows you to skip any level and you can't die. The game gets boring real quick. The same goes for tricks. Jesus has never been that fun to dream about because he can do anything...there are no limitations to explore or questions about how he does any of it. The conversation ends very quickly.

I don't know that I'll ever verify or denounce Santa to my kids. I sorta want to play it by ear and celebrate Jesus more than Santa at any rate. I'll let Santa get them the real cool stuff, 'cause if he messes up and gets the wrong toy it won't be my fault = ). There's pros to it as well. I dunno--I'll have to talk about that with Sarah when the time comes. Hope this helped in some twisted way.