Friday, December 2, 2011

Santa essay, for those who want to fight about it

I've had quite a few people searching this week for an old blog post of mine.

Actually, it was originally published as an essay at the Dallas Morning News; it may still be available in their archives, but I'm suspecting you might have to have a subscription to access it now.

Since 'tis the season, though, I thought I'd make it easy for those who are looking for it:

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.

Read the whole essay here.

I'm happy to report that my children suffered no damage from our sharing the mythical aspects of the St. Nicholas story with them, and even appreciated the whole thing when it was time for them to move beyond it.

I'm happy to share another blogger's experience of the same thing, and to point out that we need a bit more pretending around childhood, instead of the stern realism that wants five-year-olds taught the mechanics not only of sexual intercourse but of various perverse sex acts as well.

I'm happy to insist that we don't have to start the reading of every fairy tale or the playing of every princess DVD by sitting with our children and saying, "Now, you understand that this isn't true, right? That it's just a story? That there have never been dragons to be killed or enchanted princesses to be awakened with a kiss? I wouldn't want you going around and believing in any of this," even if they do, in fact, believe in a magical land full of princes in disguise and noble deeds and heroic chivalry until they're old enough to realize that the world of childhood enchantment wasn't strictly true--but that it ought to be.

And I'm happy to wish, as his feast day draws nearer, that all of my readers will welcome St. Nicholas, whether he visits their home and children or not--and that those who choose not to continue this charming tradition will not stigmatize the rest of us as evil liars bent on fraud and diabolical deceit--because we all know that the hallmark of the evil one is stepping back and letting a holy saint in Heaven take the lion's share of the credit for parental generosity and gifts of love once a year, right?

Um, not.


Anonymous said...


Michael said...

The comparisons seem rather hyperbolic. I don't have a problem with reading a fairy tale to children without warning them against believing it. However, if they ask me outright whether it is a true story, I would say no. Are you saying it would be fine to say yes in such a case?

Red Cardigan said...

Well, Michael, perhaps my problem is that I think fairy tales are true--possibly truer than many forms of math, though that's just bias on my part. :)

Rebecca in ID said...

yeah, but if your kid is seriously asking you whether it really happened, wouldn't you answer them in a kind of qualified way? I do think there is a great deal of truth to myth and faerie, and that's why I love to read that stuff to my kids, but for one thing, by the time they are old enough to understand the story line, they know it is "pretend" on one level--but that does not seem to be an obstacle to their enjoying pretending about it.

The confusing thing about your essay (to me), Red, is that you talk about kids pretending and believing all in one breath, and it seems as though you equate the two. This leaves me scratching my head and wondering if my kids are abbey-normal or something, because they enjoy pretending about things that they know to be true in a historical sense as well as things they do not put in that category. They love, love, to pretend about fairies, but that doesn't necessarily mean they literally truly believe there are little fairies hopping around in our yard. They truly believe there was a St. Nicholas, a generous Bishop, who now watches over us from heaven, and they love to pretend about him, and they believe that God truly became man, and they pretend about that, and they love stories about monsters and fairies, and they pretend about that, but they don't believe monsters and fairies exist on the same level...and perhaps they believe things in different ways partly because I tell them about things in different ways, and partly because they glean for themselves what adds up and what doesn't?

so maybe I'm not so much objecting to anything you're saying, as just not quite getting it--what exactly you are objecting to or insisting on. When I was a kid, it was kind of de rigeur to try to convince your kid that Santa really comes down the chimney, and my parents tried it with us, but we just didn't fall for it, and they weren't good at being convincing. But we loved the story and liked to pretend through the years. With my kids, I never went to an effort to get them to believe in Santa qua coming down the chimney any more that trying to get them to believe more literally in fairies and medusas, and they naturally place that in the same category, and enjoy it on that level. I never went to the trouble of making sure they didn't believe in fairies, but if *they* are experiencing any confusion, which is pretty rare,*they* would ask me very seriously for clarification, and I would answer them as directly as they were asking. I missing something?

Maybe part of my confusion is that it almost seems to me that you're kind of implying that if our kids *don't* think Santa comes down the chimney on Christmas, we must have trampled upon their imaginations by sternly sitting them down and making sure they don't pretend, or making sure that they don't think something is literally true that isn't, forcing them to make adult distinctions...I could be wrong about that...but I do think that this particular tradition is relatively new, and a bit like trick-or-treating on Halloween--fine to do it, fine not to, and let's not get too worked up about it?

Charlotte said...

Watch out, Red, here we go with the "this particular tradition is relatively new" argument.....

Rebecca in ID said...

uh...that wasn't really my main point, but I guess I wasn't under the impression that from time immemorial, Catholics all over the world have had St. Nick show up to fill stockings on Christmas I wrong about that? I'm happy to be corrected.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, your comment deserves a thoughtful reply, but I'm not sure I can get it all in a comment box. Maybe a post, eventually?

Here's the thing: my standard operating procedure when my girls would ask about Santa as they grew was, "Well, what do you think?" When they were little, they answered with confidence about how the dear Saint managed all the toy-magic. As they got older, they didn't ask for a while, hovering between believing and not-quite. When they finally answered my question, "Well, what do you think?" with understanding and wisdom that mom & dad had to be involved, I knew it was time to let them in on our part--but I also let them know that I did, and do, still believe that St. Nicholas helps many a parent get beyond our adult impulses and stress each December so that Christmas can be unabashed joy for all the family, especially the youngest children.

Have there ever been fairies, dragons, etc.? I can't say with total confidence that there haven't! Does that mean that fairies are tiny smudges of Disney clad twinkling light parading about in gardens, or that dragons are asleep under the oldest mountains in China? Of course not--but do the legends and stories point to some as-yet unknown bit of creation or reality, or something that once was and is no more? It's fun to think about--and why should particle physicists be the only ones who get to speculate about impossible-sounding bits of matter that might yet be discovered?

Perhaps I can flesh this out in a post at some point.

But the final thing is: I don't care if people don't do the St. Nick/Santa thing; do what works best for your family, as always. But don't call those who *do* Santa liars. I don't call trick-or-treaters evil secret satanists full of demonic influence, after all; I see it as a mostly harmless custom in a highly-commercial society, a custom which never quite worked for us. I'd appreciate it if the no-Santa types saw the Santa thing the same way.

Charlotte said...

Well, there haven't been automobiles, light bulbs, computers, Facebook, and lots of other things since time immemorial, either. However, people DID believe for "time immemorial" in things like the sun god, using leeches to cure disease, and a host of other stuff that was bunk.

Not trying to pick on you, but when people trot out that argument to poo-poo Halloween, anything post-Vatican II, the Easter Bunny, and Santa, etc., I get annoyed. We live in the here and now, in the culture that surrounds us. I am all for tradition and I love history (much more than the average person, for sure), but there is something to be said for the "current" tradition that surrounds us. As far as St. Nick goes, that tradition has been around for longer than you think.

Charlotte said...

Oh, and I don't think Red brought this up today because of St. Nick on "Christmas day," as you mention. It's because TONIGHT is the eve of St. Nick's feast day. My son will be waking up to gold chocolate coins and an ornament in his shoe - me too, and my husband.

Rebecca in ID said...

Charlotte, my point was not to poo-poo it. We do follow the tradition of putting out the stockings on Christmas Eve; that carries a great deal of nostalgia for me. All I was saying was that there are a lot of traditions to pick and choose from; a lot of people in Europe, for example, do the shoe on the feast of St. Nick, and exchange presents on Epiphany. So I wasn't against it because it is new, but I don't get all worked up about going out of my way to see to it that my kids think this one certain thing, and it bugs me when I see pressure on kids from different media sources to "believe", a lot of stuff about how you aren't really a kid, you don't have imagination or magic or love, if you don't "believe in Santa", etc., meaning the stocking/chimney stuff, and it just seems pretty blown out of proportion. So I'm not so much trying to come down on those who choose to do this with their kids--fine, but I just want to make the point that it really is okay not to, and those of us who don't go further than pretending, aren't necessarily missing out on the magic and love, we're not necessarily grinches, we're not necessarily crushing our children's imaginations.

Rebecca in ID said...

Oh, good point. Yes, the St. Nick tradition is much older. I admit we do both. Shoes on St. Nick and stockings on Christmas. My girls even put their dolls' shoes out for them tonight.

Rebecca in ID said...

Red--I agree with you about the unknown world, and when my kids ask about dragons, I seriously tell them that I'm not sure whether something like dragons have or have not existed. I'm pretty sure fairies cannot exist because there would be some theological difficulties, so I say so, but I try to be pretty open-minded about the possibilities. Magicians such as Merlin--not sure. But I could never get away with "what do you think?" when my children really want to know. They would pin me down on the floor until I answered them. I guess I was that way too as a kid, so that's just my experience. I think my kids are pinning me down on stuff like that by around age four.

So tonight I really tried to notice what was going on, and I watched my three-year-old's reaction while we all talked about St. Nick and what he might leave, etc. The older girls all know what's up, but Elizabeth was thrilled to hear she might wake up with candy in her shoe, and she kind of talked like she thought St. Nick would really come, but she also kind of seemed to be pretending. So I think maybe she's right there, in that little window where there's not a clear line between fantasy and reality. She also told me earlier that she wanted to marry Zorro. So anyway, she's enjoying it.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Stories have meaning and purpose. I don't share the impulse that to be a Good Christian, one must solemnly affirm that every account in the New Testament is a literal account of an empirical event. But when facing a tide of skeptical atheism, I usually just say "Don't mess with the stories." They are there for a reason.

I recall at the age of 5 proudly telling my friends (in mid-summer) that Santa Claus isn't real. (I use the word "proud" in the sense of the deadly sins, per Catholic canon). An older sister of one of the neighbors pulled me aside and said "You know that, and I know that, but you're making them cry, so shut up."

I prefer St. Nicholas as Erin presents him, to "Santa Claus" as developed since 1840 or so FOR THE PURPOSE of fueling the seasonal orgy of shopping we all decry. On the other hand, the editor who wrote "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," had the right spirit. Still, I rather enjoy "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."

Hector said...

Re: Red--I agree with you about the unknown world, and when my kids ask about dragons, I seriously tell them that I'm not sure whether something like dragons have or have not existed

Dragons (as in literal 'winged reptiles') can't exist. The laws of biomechanics tell us you can't have a winged animal heavier than a certain size, because it wouldn't be able to fly. The word 'draco' can mean 'snake', so I think the Biblical reference to dragons are probably referring to large snakes.

It's certainly possible that a demon or whatever could appear in the form of a winged reptile, but actual physical winged reptiles couldn't exist.

Rebecca in ID said...

I kind of didn't want to know that, Hector. :) But thanks. Well, sigh, at least there are Komodo dragons. Hey, maybe there were winged non-flying dragons. Maybe they just sort of hopped around like chickens do.

Red Cardigan said...

Hector, serious question: what do you make of the fact that according to biomechanics most land-based dinosaurs were too heavy ever to have walked on this planet, despite ample evidence that they did just that? I've always been puzzled by that one...