Left to my own devices, I would ignore Christmas. But as the mother of two small children who are becoming more aware, and extremely excited, about the season, it is not possible. Being a mother around Christmas time means being dragged into the season, and I endure it like I do their love of Yo Gabba Gabba.
Among atheists, Santa is rather controversial. Some believe telling your kids that Santa comes down the chimney and gives them presents is lying. I’ve even known some radical atheists who discourage anything make believe with their children, and considering what solace I’ve found in imaginary worlds I find that to be downright harmful. Then there are atheists who believe that Santa is harmless fun.
The author in the above post makes the point that Santa is a myth best conceptualized as the Spirit of Giving. While there may not be a man in a red suit who climbs down chimneys, the Spirit of Giving is real. The more I think about it, this is what sums up my experience with Santa growing up, though I’d also extend it and say in some ways, though I could never articulate it as such, I realized I was partaking in a ritual.
I know some people, my mom for instance, were devastated when they learned Santa wasn’t real. When my mom had the talk with me I remember thinking, “this is it.” I would insist Santa was real, but deep inside I knew I was playing a part in a ritual. In other words, I wasn’t surprised by my mother’s admission. I took it in stride. It was part of growing up. My parents pretended to be Santa and I received gifts. While I wanted to believe, every logical thing I knew about the world told me it wasn’t possible for a man to drive a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers to deliver presents worldwide. But I was expected to play the role of the believing child, so I did.
And when my mom brought me to reality, I asked to help them play Santa with my sister. Adults and children old enough to know the truth had to play the part of the Spirit of Giving in my mind. It wasn’t earth shattering, it was just the way things were.
Andy and I talked a little bit about how to address Santa with our kids. I don’t think Andy’s family seriously did the Santa thing. We decided to go through the routines and let our kids come to their own conclusions. Sissy is still so young, but Buddy knows who Santa is. Strangely, he knows him through “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but Buddy seems to understands that there is something special about him because unlike the other characters from the movie, Santa pops up at the mall and other media. Santa is one of the few things we can point to a picture of, ask Buddy, “Who is that?” and he’ll respond enthusiastically, “Santa!”
I don’t know if Buddy understands that he is a fictional character like Jack Skellington and Sally or if he thinks Santa is real. I don’t know if he believes that Santa brings him presents or if he thinks Mom and Dad gave them. But I know he loves Santa, and seeing Buddy respond with such joy dispels any doubt about the merits of playing Santa with him. Santa may be fictional, but he helps Buddy interact with the regular world. And atheists who downplay the importance of imaginary worlds do a disservice to the critical role that the imagination plays in child development and language development.
Might Buddy or Sissy feel betrayed when they get older? I hope not. I hope they take it in stride like I did, though I can’t say for sure. What I think is more important, though, is that giving becomes more important to them
Like Amy Weir, we focus more on giving out of love and grace, not because someone earned it for good behavior. My mom always strongly insisted that Santa gave gifts because he loves us, and that’s what we’re doing with our children. And more importantly, I want to see my children be gracious and to give themselves.
For me, part of growing up was focusing less on what I was getting and more on what I was giving. I can honestly say that I look forward more to seeing someone’s reactions when I give them a gift that I spent a lot of time picking out than opening a gift that’s for me. I hope my children get to that point, and I hope that they go out of their way to give.
Right now I’m still waiting for them both to get a bit more mature, but when they do, I have a few activities in mind to help them give back to their communities. But not just at Christmas. That’s something that needs to happen year round.
Me and Christmas have a complicated history. I think if I didn’t have young children and family who celebrated it I would not observe it. But I have both, so I do, some years more enthusiastically than others.
Traditionally in my family the day after Thanksgiving was reserved for decorating the house for Christmas. My parents would give my sister and I an ornament every year and decorating the tree was a nice trip down nostalgia lane, something the whole family would do together. We’d see the ornaments from previous years and talk about the memories tied in with them. We’d play Christmas carols, bake cookies, etc. It was nice.
I figured my Catholic husband would enjoy decorating a tree. While we were dating we never bothered, but when we got married we got a tree. And I was the only one decorating it. Turns out Andy really doesn’t care about the tree. His lost his father and oldest brother around the holidays and it soured him on them. He just likes the good eating on Christmas Day but other than that doesn’t want to do much with them. After Buddy came around, I was still the only one decorating the tree while wrangling Buddy, and then eventually wrangling Sissy as well. All by myself. And wondering why I was putting in such effort for a holiday I merely tolerate. Especially as the thing that made decorating the tree enjoyable was sharing memories with someone who could speak. And neither of my kids have that kind of vocabulary yet.
But if I mentioned to people I was thinking of not decorating they would insist I had to. I have young children! It would be horrible if they didn’t have a Christmas tree! So I did. Resentfully.
Last year Buddy loved the tree, but in his excitement was not as careful with it as he should have been, and keeping the tree safe from him, our German Shepherd, and our cat was an exercise in frustration. We also lost some ornaments, some of which I was secretly glad were broken, others which had sentimental value to me.
And then of course after all this effort to decorate and keep the tree safe, there’s the extra effort in taking it down. Which is also a tremendous pain in the ass.
So after taking the tree down last year I decided that this year we aren’t doing a tree. Or decorating. And damn what anyone else thinks!
Considering my kids are so young and do get so excited about the tree, something about not decorating seems downright scandalous. But I’ve been working on creating other traditions instead. For instance I got some green felt and cut it out in the shape of a tree and had them decorate that with little pompoms, which they liked. They liked it so much I’m going to have to run out and get more pompoms as soon as I’m sure that the stores won’t be crowded (yeah, I have issues with agoraphobia). And they both enjoyed dancing to Christmas carols.
They’ll be cookies to decorate, shows to watch, and we take them to plenty of activities where they can meet Santa and see Christmas trees that they won’t be lacking in Christmas activities. But for now dealing with a tree is just more stress than I can handle, especially when the bulk of caring for it falls disproportionately on me.
And perhaps, once the kids get older and more mature, we can get the tree out again.