Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Santa Essay

I've decided to post my whole essay from the Dallas Morning News (Dec. 2006) on the Santa question. This is mainly because I'm rather tired of the notion that telling our children that Santa, or Saint Nicholas, brings them surprises at Christmas is some kind of a lie. I respect that parents may make different choices about whether or not to include Saint Nicholas in their Christmas celebrations, but I'm getting a little tired of the latent Puritanism that sees all forms of play-acting as sinful. Let's face it: Jesus told parables to the crowds. Was He lying to them? Is the Good Samaritan a lie, or the Prodigal Son? If it's not lying to tell stories that are, at their heart of hearts, truer than what we foolishly like to call "reality," then it's not lying to play Santa for those few precious years when our children enjoy the mystery of it all.

Anyway, my essay goes into that, so here it is:

In my house tonight, the children will be waiting for St. Nicholas with eager joy. Not all Christian parents would be happy with this situation.

Some have decided that whether you call him Santa Claus or St. Nick, the Christmas Eve night caller is not welcome in their homes. The real St. Nicholas, they say, was a holy bishop about whom little is known. This jolly fellow surrounded with legends of secret generosity or stories of elves and reindeer is really just a fib. And Christians don't lie to their children.

Are we lying to our children, with our ancient stories and cherished poems of a kindly saint who loves all children and hears their whispered wishes and dreams? Not at all – we are telling them the truth. It's just that some truths can't be found in scholarly lectures or discovered in dry books of facts. When we teach our wide-eyed little ones the legend of St. Nicholas, we are teaching them essential lessons about faith, hope and unconditional love. When we sit by glowing embers to share with them our December stories, we instruct them in such virtues as generosity, patience and the sort of kindness that expects no reward.

And they are able to learn these things from us because for a few short weeks every year, we find it possible to enter the world of make-believe. We fill our homes with songs and stories, and turn ordinary rooms into glittering palaces. The everyday world is swept away.

In the classic novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, Don Quixote lives in a world of his own imagining. But a funny thing happens when he encounters "normal" people; they find themselves pretending to see and believe in the things he does; they must enter his world to communicate with him. In a way, I suppose, they are lying to him by entering into his fairy tales. But if they stay in the mundane world, they can't relate to him at all.

The world of a child is a mysterious and magical place. The blooming of a rose in the garden is an enchanted event beyond all understanding. The weekly arrival of the great noisy garbage truck is anticipated with the fear that it might not happen and the joyous dread that it will. When my oldest daughter, then nearly 1 year old, was brought out of her crib late at night to see the lights on our Christmas tree for the first time, she whispered, "Wow" – an as-yet-unexpressed richness in her tiny vocabulary. She said it a lot that first Christmas, as enchantments she'd never dreamed of appeared all around her.

We adults forget the fairy-tale lace that drapes childhood and screens it from so much of the ugliness in the world. It is our privilege at Christmas to attempt to add a little to the embroidery, with our St. Nicholas and our hidden generosity. We're clumsy at it, no doubt. We're a little like the people in Don Quixote, pretending we see giants and ladies and noble squires instead of the mundane and everyday.

But underneath it all, there's a stirring at our hearts, and I think it's then that I understand, a little, what Our Lord means when He says we have to be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Little children have a special gift. They can easily transcend the merely real and find the truth that lies beyond material reality. But this gift of childhood is lost with age and experience, and all too often, adults, even Christian ones, act as though this present day, this physical world, is all that is. St. Nicholas is not only real; he is as much for us as he is for our children. He leads us back to the time when we knew, with complete certainty, that the world was more than what we could see or touch. He calls to us from the place where he is now and will be forever, aglow not with Christmas lights or moonlight on snow, but with the glorious light of the beatific vision to which these earthly realities point.

He may or may not be jolly, but he is filled with joy, a joy we may one day experience as well. The joy our children feel when they discover that St. Nicholas has filled their stockings will pale in comparison to the joys of heaven.

But if the joys of heaven seem just a little familiar, I think we will have St. Nicholas to thank.

[UPDATE 2011: The essay is no longer available online without a subscription, so this is it's only "free" home at the moment, that I know of. :)]


Anonymous said...

Red, I just love this article. I think I'm going to pass it along to some friends of mine, too. Well said, all of it! Santa will definitely be at my house this Christmas Eve! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

--Elizabeth B.

Red Cardigan said...

Merry Christmas to you, too, Elizabeth! And thank you! :)

opey124 said...

What timing. Our daughter was just told by a fellow catholic mother that Santa doesn't come to their house because they are christians, I suppose meaning we aren't if we do "Santa". Ha. Even down to the red color and flying reindeer being a pagan symbol.

Rebecca said...

I like the essay, Red, I like poetry but I also like clarity. I do think it's okay to pretend St. Nick fills the stockings, and it is okay not to pretend as well. It is one particular tradition that is popular in this country, a kind of melding of the traditions of Catholics with Protestants with advertisers. Of course, all human traditions start that way, kind of messily like that. And it seems like if you were in a good society where a particular tradition is universal it would be weird and grumpy not to participate in that. Like the Christmas tree, for example; that seems pretty universal. That was always part of the magic of Christmas for me; that tree with lights. Believing Santa personally filled my stocking wasn't part of the magic of Christmas for me, and it isn't for most people I know, so I don't feel a particular reason to make that be part of our Christmas tradition. I don't know if you'd disagree with that or not; I can't tell from what you've written.

I said I think it's okay to pretend with kids; I do think it is *possible* to lie to them, and the distinction should be made. If a child asks, in a *serious* way for you to be straight with him about the fat man coming down the chimney, and you answer him, "Yes, Johnny, I really mean it, and it's important for you to Believe," that would be a lie. It seems like that's not what you're picturing in your essay; I think you're picturing it more like telling a mysterious tale which the child enjoys and is content to accept without yet wondering about the literal aspects of the tale. Maybe no parent actually exists who would really lie when eventually called to the reckoning, but the distinction needs to be made. I also know that there are people who think any sort of pretending or telling of tales is lying, and that is just silly.

That is my very unpoetic take on Santa, bless him. Bless us, rather, since he's already blessed.

Rebecca said...

I know I said way too much already but one more thing: I think the Christians who don't do Santa fall roughly into three categories: one bunch doesn't do him because they are, as you said, puritanical, meaning that the communion of Saints is completely foreign as is anything resembling the sacramental, and they can't distinguish between story and lie. I think some don't do Santa because they associate, to some extent rightly, Santa with commercialism, and are simply ignorant of the Christian roots of Santa and are therefore unable to draw him intelligibly into Christ's birthday. Some Christians don't do Santa because it's not part of their family's or country's tradition--in many Catholic countries St. Nick shows up on Dec. 6, and gifts are on Epiphany.

Anonymous said...

We're the fourth category. We don't do Santa because our faith is awe-inspiring and wonderful enough without him.

Rebecca said...

Yeah, Anon, but I think that puts you in the third category. My faith is awe-inspiring and wonderful enough without Christmas trees or candles or homemade caramels or red dresses, too, but we do all those things because they *are* in our traditions; they are part of the way we celebrate that faith at Christmas time.

Dymphna said...

My parents didn't allow me to believe in Santa because frankly, we were too poor for nonsense. I knew and was thankful that my gifts came because my parents worked so hard. Did that ruin Christmas? Oh no. We had the most loving, happiest Christmases you could imagine and Jesus was the main focus, not the Protestant/JC Penney version of Saint Nicholas (who deserves better).

Rebecca said...

It doesn't have to do with being poor. No one is too poor for a little nonsense. We were way poor too, but that's not why we didn't do Santa. It sounds like you have some bad associations with the commercial Santa, and also that it's just not part of your family's traditions. Look, we all know that a lot of people replace Jesus with Santa, but it is also quite possible, as Red's essay beautifully articulates, to draw St. Nick into Christmas as an enhancement rather than a minimilization of Christ. We're not Protestants, who think that any focus on a Saint is a de-focus of Jesus. I guess all I'm trying to say is--don't diss eachother! Santa-doers, don't tell us non Santa-doers that we don't know how to have a good time. Non-Santa-doers, don't call Santa-doers heathens. I'm not a moral relativist but this is not a moral matter.

My dough is made...my house is clean...the clothes are ready...now we're going to make music.

Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!

Anonymous said...

I just love this post, Red. Thank you for giving me more to ponder.

We had a priest who once said that since the Vatican II council there have been those who deny certain articles of Faith, like the Virgin birth, is Christ really God, and some who even doubt the existence of St. Nicholas! Why, don't they know that every Sunday, they recite a prayer that St. Nicholas helped to write? The Nicene Creed? St. Nicholas had a hot temper too. When Bishop Arias denied that Christ was God, St. Nicholas punched him.:)

I just love this dear saint.

Weird question: In my informal poll, parents who spank also have St. Nicholas as a part of their Christmas celebration, parents who don't spank-no St. Nicholas. Just a weird observation from people watching.

Thanks, Red. I enjoy your blog.


Anonymous said...

we do St nicholas on Dec 6th- he leaves gifts which should (mostly ;) ) fit in the kids boots.
AND we don't spank.
Our kids open gifts from relatives on Chirstmas day, and gifts from us (mom and dad, other sibs) come on Epiphany. (usually do three gifts per kid for obvious reason.
I hate and am saddened reading the American history of how American "Santa" came into being, and how the commercial retail industry took off with it.....
I guess I always thought my family was a European melting pot of Christmastime traditions, just bypassing some of the American stuff...
lisa from 4real