Santa Claus won’t be climbing down our chimney this year – or any year for that matter – we have decided to not uphold the materialistic values of the St. Nick facade in exchange for truth, wonder at the miracles that happen in our world, and gratitude to the real people who give us gifts of any kind in life. As our daughter is four going on five, and cognitively developed enough to understand the idea of Santa as well as have the imagination to believe in the story, I am at a place where I must stand strong in our resolve to carry out what we believe is right and best for our family, rather than follow the crowd and crumble under the pressure that media and society places on the shoulders of parents at Christmas-time.
Why we chose to diverge
When my daughter was an infant, my husband and I sat down and discussed US winter holiday traditions and decided how we wanted to celebrate them in our own little family. I personally felt no affinity to upholding the pretense of Santa Claus for my children and desired to break away from the excessive materialism and lack of gratitude associated with it. My Honduran husband, Chepe, was also completely uninterested in pretending Santa Claus for many other reasons.
As background, in Honduras, the holiday tradition is to celebrate on the 24th of December. This I did not realize my first year in the Peace Corps, and didn’t get until Christmas day when I took my holiday sugar cookies around to my friends and, exhausted from the previous night’s party or cleaning said party up, they all asked me where I had been the day before. Those Hondurans, they party from afternoon until midnight on the 24th, eat tamales, probably drink some chicha, and exchange their gifts when the clock tolls twelve. The Catholics in Honduras also participate in Las Posadas, in which, each of eight days, they carry a nativity scene between houses, calling out at doors to let them in until they are finally allowed passage into whichever is determined to be the final destination. I was present in Chepe’s house one time when the nativity went to their house; it was pretty cool.
Poverty is widespread in rural Honduras though the North American winter-time is actually a time of plenty in the area I lived in, which is dominated by coffee plantations; winter is the coffee picking season. But for many people, it is a time to buy the things you need as well as a few wants, and maybe to put some money into the bank for the rest of the year if you are lucky enough to have a bank account. But purchasing hundreds of dollars, or even hundreds of Lempira (the Honduran currency which is worth a lot less than US currency), of gifts from Santa is not an option when you don’t have enough money to put food on your table for part of the year. Actually, when you struggle to have enough money to purchase a bag of beans or a bar of soap, the idea of pretending that there is a fat man who brings a sack full of gifts to children is ludicrous. The extremity of the materialistic Santa tradition here in the US must seem so hugely wasteful, in the gentlest terms possible, to someone who fought hunger pains growing up and who had no toys, let alone a room full of sparkly boxes in bright wrapping paper with pretty bows and matching name-tags on Christmas morning. This probably just grazes Chepe’s feelings of why he prefers to not celebrate with Santa, although he is pretty private and would also not want to offend. He probably would have gone along with doing Santa if I had pushed it, though without the enthusiasm or understanding that someone raised with it would.
We decided that here in our own little family, partly because of the materialism of it and partly the unimportance of Santa to Chepe, that we would decline the Santa façade and make our own traditions. “What if we were to go to Honduras for Christmas and Santa didn’t go?” I asked. Or, how could Santa go and deliver presents to my children and no one else’s, particularly when their children are probably in much greater need of a Christmas filled with gifts than my privileged own? To keep Chepe’s traditions important in our present life so far from his home country, we decided to celebrate Christmas as the Hondurans do on December 24th, exchanging gifts before bed, which also leaves Christmas day completely open to celebrate with my family, something I absolutely love because it makes it much less stressful. We also do not fill stockings, though I had considered it this year, and have a limit of about $100 per child for gifts. I feel comfortable with this, it is much less than what I grew up with, yet allows the kids to receive some presents. I think for Chepe, it is still excessive (though, he does save his loose bills during the year specifically for Christmas and last year we paid for all our gifts in cash).
When Elizabeth was a little older, my younger sister gave me the great idea of celebrating Christmas Around The World, which I loved, so that is what we have done so far. When Elizabeth turned three, we learned about different celebrations around the world with The Lights of Winter: Winter Celebrations Around The World by Heather Conrad. When she turned four, we read El Milagro de la Primera Flor de Nochebuena: un Cuento Mexicano Sobre la Navidad by Joanne Oppenheim and I got a poinsettia to explore it with. Last year I decided that since it’s a little difficult to find books about different world winter-time traditions for young children, that we would study the Christian Christmas story, particularly because it has such a local sweep and an obvious part in our family traditions.
Standing behind our decision
It sounds like I have it all figured out, doesn’t it? It’s definitely not as easy as it seems, and even family members have a hard time accepting our decision. I hear a lot that doing Santa is “so much fun” in a tone that implies that I ought to reconsider it. In one sense, it is hard to deny my child the magic and wonder of that jolly old St. Nicolas who will be flying through the sky on Christmas morning with his eight reindeer to slip down her chimney somehow and leave her presents under her lit Christmas tree and take a sip of the milk and a bite of the cookie she leaves out. Besides the fact that I’m lactose intolerant, I just feel like there is just as much wonder and magic in real life, and it’s real. Nature is full of amazing things that happen every day, from the transformation of a tadpole to a frog, to the northern temperate seasons that change throughout the year here where we live. I also wish to de-emphasize the materialism of the holiday and emphasize instead the history of world holiday celebrations, and the reason we celebrate in the way we choose to.
I am coming to feel that beyond being able to find magic in everyday life, it is seeming more and more important to me to tease out the messages of love, joy, peace, gratitude, being neighborly, and giving with a happy heart that are threaded through the holiday spirit, and explore them in context to not only the holidays, but all year long. The story of Santa does contain these messages, but seem to me to be almost completely lost in the anticipation of getting stuff. I’m not saying that if one chooses to carry on the façade of Santa Claus in their own home that they can not impart these values to their children, not at all, but I do think that it is probably harder, particularly because Santa is a no-strings-attached gift giver – as in children receive their presents and then are not expected to thank him because he has flown away to hide out in the North Pole until next year.
Which brings me to the next issue that I have with the Santa pretense: lying to my child. I very rarely lie (out-right or sugar coat) to Elizabeth, even if it makes things harder to not. I strongly believe that it solves little by lying to your child, but rather sets you up for more struggles over the long run. I also strongly believe that by being open and honest with her that she is better able to learn to deal with the hard stuff in life, even if it seems trying for me now, and even if at times it doesn’t seem that she is learning because of the quality of her responses. I think it’s much better to learn to cope with, say, disappointment, as a child than as an adult. The effect of treating her this way is multi-fold. It can be trying as I said, but I can see in my daughter’s actions and hear in her words that she is not devious at all, actually when I spoke with her about how she ought to respond to other children who say they do believe in Santa, she felt uncomfortable with lying and saying that she did believe if she knew he did not exist, and preferred to just say that she did not know. In addition, not lying to my child allows her to trust me more, to trust my words and my actions to be the best truth that I have to offer, which also extends to trusting other adults, as well as herself. My question would be, for those who do pretend that Santa goes to your house, how do you work through that mixed message that sometimes it is ok to lie and sometimes not? How do you choose? I think the line is too blurry to be able to define, myself.
I was told about a friend of a friend who does not celebrate with Santa Claus at their house, but since their children attend public school, they had not negated the idea of Santa, and so their children believed in him though he did not stop at their house. This seemed like a good idea, and I tried it for a few weeks this year, but finally decided that it was essentially lying by omission, and did not illuminate the things we find important, nor de-illuminate the aspects that we wanted to avoid. Ultimately, during a tantrum of Elizabeth’s, which have been brought on by the holiday anticipation, we had The Talk. Funny thing is that at the onset of the season, she was aware that Santa didn’t come to our house – perhaps we could have avoided some stress if I had not wavered? You never know.
It is quite complicated to stand behind our decision when turning on the tv or radio, or leaving the house. The Santa façade is everywhere – he is inescapable at the holiday season. All of the cartoons Elizabeth watches on Nickelodeon have had episodes of things like “Santa’s Little Helpers,” etc. The music on the radio is either Christian hymns or songs about Santa delivering his presents. And strangers feel it is necessary to ask my kids everywhere we go, “Is Santa coming to you house?” They don’t ask if they have behaved well so that Santa will want to come, but just if he is coming. And, nobody likes to hear our true answer, instead they act quite offended at our response as though it affects their own holiday happiness.
Moving beyond Santa
Secular or non-secular, the holiday season has so many deep meanings and messages and is a time of the year to reflect on them seriously: joy, peace, being merry, and spreading goodwill. Part of that reflection is remembering those you love and sharing with them through gifts. Unfortunately, the tradition of Santa Claus overpowers those serious messages with the anticipation of material possessions, and downplays the importance of love and sharing. Thus, here in my own little family, we have said “Adios” to Santa, and “Hola” to meaningful traditions that help to develop our kid’s (and our own) character through meaningful activities that connect us to our heritage and the world we live in.
Chime in because I’m curious: How do you teach the deeper meanings of the holiday season if you also pretend that Santa visits your home? How do you keep it a secret with the convenience of technology and the ease at finding things like what I just said in this post on the always accessible internet? If you don’t uphold the Santa tradition, what were your reasons? What traditions do you observe to make the holidays special?
Also, check out some more thoughts in the same vein that I posted on my homeschooling blog, Seed To Seedling: The Spirit of the Holidays. Reflections, Week 19.