In what might be our most controversial parenting decision yet, we told our four-year-old the truth about Father Christmas. Ie, that he does not exist. Wait. You knew that, right?
Last Christmas was the first one my son was aware of, and it was one that will be hard to top: our first Christmas in New Zealand with our families for ten years. Through us, his cousins, grandparents, and mainstream culture, L. picked up a few bits and pieces about Santa Claus. Santa Claus was a magical being who entered homes through chimneys or doors, read the letters of welcome and petition, ate the small treats left out by small hands, and distributed carrots amongst his reindeer.
I am unsure what my son thought this Santa character was doing squeezing into my in-law’s home on this singular night of the year, because, strangely, the crucial part about gifts was not included in L.’s narrative. The other crucial part that we neglected to tell him is that no one ever sees Santa Claus. Oops. Cue the pre-dawn Christmas Day meltdown.
One year on, and it was all about the gifts. With every well-meaning man on the street asking what L. wants Santa to bring, the emphasis increasingly became about what Santa might give him. And that it had better be big. And lots. And green+pink. In short, Santa was no longer the man of mystery, but rather the one of shopping malls and demanding expectation. Ergh. Worst of all, pressure built up in my own mind to uphold this myth through the making of stockings and finding the right fillers. The deciding of which gifts Santa Claus could take credit for and which we would. And the frustration of buying things that I inevitably knew I would want to declutter our small home of next month.
Recently though, I had a circuit-breaking conversation with a Jewish friend of mine. She said that even though she didn’t observe Christmas growing up, she loved celebrating with her daughter now because she liked the spirit of goodwill that it seemed to be about. If you have read my blog from the beginning, you will know that I am a Christian, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that for me Christmas is a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ (and L., the donkey in the nursery nativity play, gets that too… to a certain degree), but I also love that many people who are of other religions or none celebrate this season for its spirit of goodwill.
And from whom, in part, does this spirit of goodwill come from?
Santa Claus a.k.a St Nicholas. (check out this link for some beautiful illustrations and a detailed explanation of who St Nick was).
So this was the beginning of the dismantling of the Santa Claus story for our four-year-old. We explained that Santa was not real, but is a story based on that of St Nicholas’. We said St Nicholas was kind and joyful man who protected children and looked out for people living in poverty. So today we try to live by his example in the days leading up to Christmas and we do kind things for others. Gift-giving is a part of that. But so is helping to rake leaves for a poorly neighbour, or singing carols at a hospital, or sharing toys with your baby brother.
And with that, the focus of our thoughts and actions suddenly diverted from an anxious “what will I get?”/”what will I get for him/her/everyone in my whole freaking life and how can I make Christmas a good time with beautiful food and decorations and pinterest-worthy traditions?” to a genuine spirit of relaxation and joy. I had a deeper realisation that gift-giving and our presence at events, for example, are not obligatory, but something that are a natural outworking of practising (and receiving) kindness. Also, I found that when I was more conscious of being kind, I noticed it happening around me–kindnesses directed at others as well as myself. Perhaps it is just perception, or projection, but the world around me just became kinder this month.
You might be wondering just how cheesey and platitudinous my month has been, because the whole topic really is, let’s be honest, cheesey and platitudinous. To be sure, there have been some fun experiences of kindnesses (like leaving biscuits on a doorstep for a friend and running away in peals of laughter). And these have been offset by regular four-year-old activities (stuffing Duplo down the back of baby brother’s t-shirt, completely overlooked by his desperate mother who tried to get him to sleep for the next hour). In the hope of maintaining a bit of the Christmas spirit of magic and not appear to be total Christmas grinches*, we observed St Nicholas Day on the 6th of December by putting out our shoes the evening before in the hope of a chocolate coin. “St Nick” came, and it was simple and magical. And easily replicable year after year without having to reinvent the wheel or top in some way.
Four-year-olds certainly keep things real; in the defiant way a fundamentalist Christian child might talk about God to his devoutly atheist parents, L. has said to me two or three times with a glint in his eye, “Mum, I believe in Santa Claus, but I don’t think he will bring me gifts on Christmas Day”.
We may have come full circle, folks.
And I am still confused about what exactly Santa will be doing in my home on Christmas Eve…
*As an aside, L. heard about the grinch a couple of days after our St Nick project began, and suggested as an act of kindness we could invite him for Christmas dinner so he wouldn’t be lonely over the festive period. I wonder when we should break the news about the grinch not being real?