Thursday, November 29, 2012

Saint Ho Ho Ho

Every year, it felt like an endless night.  I would lie awake in my bed and watch my clock slowly track the hours passing by.  Though I strained to hear a noise or creak, the house was always silent and still.  

Through the early morning hours, I didn't dare leave my bed or make a peep.  It was entirely possible that, silent as the house might seem, he was just down the hallway in the living room, going about his work.

And then the excitement as my brother and I ran down the hallway later that morning: the presents under the tree!  Santa had been there!  He had come to our house!

Now I am the parent and I find myself facing difficult decisions.  Last year it was easy: Mary was not yet one-year-old and was more preoccupied with eating ribbons and bows to bother about presents, let alone the gift-giver.

This year, it's quite different and I'm not sure quite what to do.

As vivid and fond as my memories may be of Christmas morning, there is another memory I have, just as vivid but certainly not fond.

My second grade class was sitting in our school's library.  The students were roaming about finding a book or two to take out and I was by the couch, flipping through a story.  Billy D. happened to abruptly announce then, "There is no Rudolph."  

Perturbed, I couldn't forget his declaration and, immediately upon arriving home, confronted my Mom. She and my Dad sat me down and confirmed my worst suspicions: no Rudolph, no Easter Bunny, and worst of all--no Santa Claus.

I was devastated and bewildered: my parents had lied to me?  How could they be so hurtful and deceitful?  I resolved that I would not do the same to my children one day.

But, as the years passed, while I never fully forgot the terrible feeling of disappointment, I gradually weakened in my resolution.  I observed that some children weren't so scarred.  My sister, for instance, thought it quite clever and somewhat humorous that my parents played Santa for all those years.

The dilemma is more complicated when I consider the nature of Christmas.

Easter is much simpler.  Yes, the Easter Bunny visits, but his gift is relatively small and simple.  He is a nice addition to the day, but he is easily not the focus.  The centerpiece is where it should be: Christ, risen from the dead!

Christmas, though, is another matter entirely.  

Speaking from my own experience, when I was a child, I must confess that in complete honesty, my primary focus on Christmas was presents and Santa Claus.  When I awoke Christmas morning (not that I really ever slept that night), my immediate thought wasn't that this was Christ's birthday.  It was, rather, on whether the Barbie motorhome lay under the tree for me.

It was only after the presents that the religious nature of the day became a factor when we all went to Mass, which was nice, but still somewhat of an unfortunate interruption from playing with one's new toys.

In my child's mind and in our society at large, Santa Claus rivaled Christ on Christmas Day.  

When we go to the store, it's Santa's image plastered everywhere, not Christ's.  At the library, 98% of the Christmas books lining the four book shelves are about Santa Claus.

Christ's (true!) story in Bethlehem with shepherds and angels is largely overshadowed by Santa's (false) story in the North Pole with elves and reindeer.  

Now, to be clear, I don't mean to demonize Santa.  Santa, on the contrary, is a saint.  Saint Nicholas was a real man, a very holy man, who is now in heaven and whom I hope to meet one day.  

However, the story of St. Nicholas has been gravely stripped of its historical truth and replaced with a secular mythos involving Rudolph, elves, and a flying sleigh.  Many people encourage the idea of Santa Claus, without ever realizing that Santa Claus was a holy bishop who helped the poor and desired all people to know and love God.  This mis-identification is, I think, somewhat demonic.

Even the words we use make it easy to betray the true nature of things.  In many cultures, people refer to December 25 as the "Nativity of Our Lord."  Here we call it Christmas.  Christ's name is certainly there, but how much easier it is to overlook.  Santa Claus the same--how many children know that those words actually mean "Saint Nicholas?" 

When the story of Santa Claus (not Saint Nicholas) looms large, the gift-giving and receiving become so central that the reality of God coming to earth in poverty is easily forgotten.

So I really struggle with what to do.  On the one hand, I want Mary to know the joy and excitement of Christmas.  But, here's the catch: what is going to give her joy?  

Presents--liable to be broken, lost, forgotten--are passing pleasures.  

The figure of Santa Claus may bring her happiness in her younger years, but how can I really rationalize that happiness bought with the price of lies?  Let's be honest: there is no man in a red suit coming down our chimney to deliver Mary toys made by the elves of the North Pole.  Not going to happen.  So, even with the best of intentions, I will be lying to her if I say this is what occurs.  

If she believes a man in a red coat delivers her presents on Christmas, only later to discover that he does not, why then should she not question other people in whom she believed?  What is to stop her from doubting her faith in God?  

So, that's not lasting joy.

The lasting joy we can give to Mary is helping her know and love the little baby born on Christmas Day.  So, it seems our job is to do what we can to ensure that this is the central focus, attention, and attraction on December 25. do we do that?

Let's take it item by item.

1. Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas.  
There is nothing wrong in believing in Saint Nicholas.  Quite the opposite: we should believe in him, because he does in fact exist! Actually, I have started praying to him and asking for his help in making the right decisions on these matters!  

We are going to do our best to stress the true identity and story of Santa Claus.  Chris and I refer to him exclusively as "Saint Nicholas."  Mary is catching on, though she prefers to call him "Saint Ho Ho Ho."  Close enough, for now. :)

As for what transpires Christmas Eve night...we are thinking that we will tell Mary that Saint Nicholas helped us get her presents.  We bought them, put them under the tree--but Saint Nicholas helped.  That is, after all, true!  I am sure we can count on his heavenly intercession.

With regard to a sleigh, coming down the chimney, putting the presents under the tree: I just have a real hard time telling Mary St. Nicholas does these things when, in fact, he does not.

2. Gifts
How does a parent strive to make Christ's birth the focus of Christmas, as opposed to the presents the child receives?

It seems the best way to confront this problem is to control the quantity of gifts.  Chris and I decided that we (with Saint Nicholas' help) would give Mary three presents on Christmas morning, in imitation of the three presents that Christ received from the Magi.  (And one of these presents would be something practical, like a dress to wear on Christmas Day.) Plus, we are going to ask our parents to only give her one present.  Chris and I plan to exchange one present each as well. 

After all, Christ spent His birthday in a rather impoverished setting.  I'm not saying presents are bad, but they must be carefully handled or they take over.  I speak from experience.

3. Emphasis
As parents (especially of a toddler), we have pretty good control over what our daughter reads, watches, hears, and learns.  We can decide to tell her about Rudolph or about the Annunciation.  We can read her a book about St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.  

So, Chris and I are going to do our best to put the emphasis where it should be this Advent and Christmas.  We already have a few traditions for Christmas morning I would like to continue.  For example, before anyone opens presents, we place the Christ child in the manger and all sing "Happy Birthday."

I have heard of other families baking a birthday cake and serving it as dessert after the Christmas meal.

Even now, when we see lights outside or spot a Christmas tree, I say to Mary, "Look!  Everyone is putting up decorations for Jesus on His birthday!"

I feel pressure this year to make the right decision on these matters.  It's a good pressure: I'm not stressed out about it, but I do see this as a critical sort of year.  Mary is old enough to comprehend what is going on and I want to put down a very good foundation on which she can build an understanding of "Christmas."  I want to build holy traditions.

But I am very unexperienced in these matters and would welcome your wise input!  

How do you handle Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas?
What do you do to keep your Christmas Christ-centered?

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