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Monday, November 27, 2006

To Santa, or not to Santa

While going through my online columnists this morning, I found this one, and it got me thinking about the whole Santa deal. It was these passages in particular that got to me...

So there I sat on Christmas morning, crying uncontrollably, trying to figure out what I had done to make Santa angry.

and then...

As an adult, I can't even imagine what it's like for a parent to explain to their children why Santa overlooked them while all their friends received countless presents and enjoyed a huge holiday feast.

I can't even imagine this situation in the first place. As a child, Christmas was a HUGE event - but it was a religious and cultural event. Christmas Eve (Wigilia) was the highlight of the year. Only Easter came close to compare. My parents bought the gifts, and they were wrapped and stored on top of one of the kitchen shelves, in full view, or at the top of one of their bedroom closets. Out of reach, but not really hidden.

I had this vague notion of someone called Santa, but to my childhood mind, it was meaningless. Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Wigilia, followed by Midnight Mass, was the core of our celebrations.

With our own children, we've made a point of telling the kids that, while we don't do the Santa thing, some families do, and to be careful not to say things like "there is no Santa," just as we tell them not to say "there is no tooth fairy." I'm not sure when I discovered that some families went to extreme lengths to make their kids believe in a literal Santa, but I do remember thinking it was the strangest, most dishonest thing a parent could do. It's one thing to have fun with it; my in-laws, for example, send gifts to our kids labelled "from Santa." We joke about it the same way we joke about the tooth fairy being a big hairy guy with a beard (Dh) in a pink tutu. It can be harmless fun, but when the myth is perpetuated so strongly that children judge themselves based on whether or not "Santa" got them what they wanted (see the first quote from the column), I see that as a problem.

Then there's the next part. The idea that poor people have to explain to their kids why Santa "overlooked" them. Good God. Are people really doing that?

I grew up in a cash poor family. I can't say that we were actually poor - partly because I believe poverty is a state of mind - but we were definately broke. Thankfully, we lived on a mixed farm, and as such, we never had to worry about where our next meal would come from. We provided most of our own food. We didn't get a lot of presents, but there was always something. I even remember making a gift for one of my brothers - a checker board made out of construction paper. I doubt my brother ever used it (I never saw it again, that I can recall), but I was quite proud about the fact that I made that gift for him. At the time, it never occurred to me that money was needed to provide gifts. Money was something we just didn't have a lot of.

The gifts themselves tended to be more practical. New clothes, for example, with perhaps a few toys. We never had a lot of clothes to choose from, with lots of hand-me-downs, so getting new clothes for Christmas was pretty exciting. Small boxes of chocolates were fairly common. My parents would buy extra and wrap them, just in case we got unexpected guests. At no point did we ever feel deprived because we didn't get as many things as other kids got. I don't even remember caring what other kids got. Christmas was so much a family focused event, I don't remember it ever occurring to me to compare to what other people did. In our community, there weren't a lot of people who celebrated Wigilia, and that alone made our Christmas different and special.

The thing is, we kids knew there wasn't a lot of money. No one had to explain anything to us. There was no myth to perpetuate. Christmas wasn't about presents and "stuff," though we certainly enjoyed and appreciated them. Christmas was about traditions, faith and family. It was about gathering around the table, sharing the oplatyk. It was bundling up against the cold to go to Midnight Mass - church at midnight! - being sure to get there very early, so we'd have seats, and to enjoy the singing of carols beforehand. Sure, I loved going through the Sears catalog and dreaming about the stuff I'd like to get, but it never occurred to me that I actually *would* get what I wanted from there, other than perhaps one or two small items. Maybe.

While I have nothing against contributing to charity to help people in need for Christmas, I can't help but feel that our culture puts too much emphasis on Christmas as this gift giving orgy. I remember a few years back, some friends of ours were going through very hard times, and found themselves needing to use the food bank. I remember being amazed at how much food they got as a family of three. They got more food given to them than I needed to buy for our own family of 4 - and they were just on a top up program! Then Christmas rolled around, and they got even larger amounts of food, including baked treats and party food, a frozen turkey, and more gifts for their one child than we bought for both of ours together (I can't even remember if Dh and I bought gifts for each other that year). The irony of it is that part of the reason our own Christmas was so short was because we kept giving money to help others who were in more need than we were, whether it was for groceires, gas in the tank to get to work, to take a course for certification needed for a new job, or whatever. We've never really given much to charities, but we've given a lot to individual families over the years.

I remember looking, as I sometimes helped pick up, unpack and put away our friend's food bank goods, in awe at the sheer volume of food, thinking there was something wrong with this picture. It's great that these services are available for those in need - I'm thankful for it, and I know it'd be a relief if we ever needed such services - but it blew my mind that people on the food bank program were getting top ups that were more than we could afford buy for ourselves, and to feed fewer people. We certainly weren't going hungry, either.

Back to the Santa concept, though. I think the idea of fooling children with the literal Santa myth not only does them a disservice, but that it's much more far reaching. It's unfortunate that donations to charities seem to need something like Christmas to remind people to donate, but are we doing the right thing by increasing people's expectations like this? Are we doing our children any favours by going to such extremes to convince them that there really is someone called Santa? If a family is in dire straights to the point that they need to rely on charity, this sort of dishonesty can cause an aweful lot of pain and confusion in their children. Why do it? Why not just tell your kids, "money is tight right now, but we can still celebrate Christmas without it." Being broke is nothing to be ashamed of and, unlike some of the charity ads I've been seeing, doesn't mean you won't have Chrismas because of it. I recently picked up a free magazine and found and ad reading "Imagine No Christmas..." Below, it pictures a child sitting on front of an empty plate, in shadow so the face is unseen, but with a starburst glint added to the plate. Ads like that disgust me.

Christmas, after all, isn't about how many presents you get, how much food there is, or about Santa. No matter how much the secularists want to water it down, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It's a celebration of faith. While some have replaced Jesus with Santa, and others go on about the various pagan festivals we christians supposedly took over in choosing Dec. 25th to celebrate, it doesn't change the fact that it's a religous holiday and, above all, a birthday celebration.

For someone else.


  1. This was really lovely.

    When we were growing up, although my parents bought us presents "from Santa" as kids, we were only allowed to give handmade presents within the family.

    No matter how unskillful or clumsy the offering, my folks treated our gifts as if they were the most precious of jewels.

    I really love the way you write!

  2. No matter how unskillful or clumsy the offering, my folks treated our gifts as if they were the most precious of jewels.

    What great parents you had! They raised themselves some good kids. :-D

    I really love the way you write!

    Thank you. Having become a regular reader of your blog, I really appreciate that. :-)


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