Tuesday, September 25, 2007

on magical beings

Hold on to your hat.

Our not quite 5 year old daughter knows there is no Santa Claus. Why? Because we told her.

Let me start at the beginning. When The May Queen was born, we wondered how to deal with the whole Santa Claus/Easter Bunny thing. We wanted the focus of these holidays to be the Christian celebration, not the imaginary characters that go with them. Also, we were really uncomfortable with the idea of telling our child that something was true, when we knew full well that it wasn't. In any other area of our lives we would call that lying. Nearly everybody I know has a story behind how they found out the truth about Santa Claus. It is often traumatic. Why would we do this to our child?

So we asked my parents how they handled it. I don't have a traumatic story, because I always knew that Santa Claus wasn't real. But I couldn't remember how I knew this. My mother explained that she had told my brother and I that Santa Claus wasn't real from the very beginning. She talked with us about how Santa is a character, like in a book, and we could enjoy his stories and talk about him and have fun with the idea of Santa without him being real. So this is the approach we have taken with The May Queen. And so far so good. MQ is still young enough that the line between fantasy and real is pretty blurry anyways. She knows that Santa is a character. She also knows that Cinderella is a character, and Dora and Curious George and... This does not keep her from talking about them, and being both excited and nervous when she sees a costumed character. She gets it, and yet she doesn't. And that's OK. That's a blurry line I'm comfortable. Believing is fun. I'm an actress, so I am all about the suspension of disbelief. But it's just that: the SUSPENSION of disbelief. I can enjoy the fun that comes with Santa without ever having to wrestle with the logistics of how he gets down chimneys, and why some kids get Wiis and other kids get hand me down clothes, while still others get nothing at all. We talk about how Santa represents generosity, and when she gets older we'll talk more about St. Nicholas and the various traditions that have led to our version of Santa.

At Easter, the whole Easter Bunny thing is fairly easy to avoid, frankly. But again, we have fun with it, even while she knows full well who hides her basket. It does not diminish her excitement about it a single bit.

When we first started down this road I worried that MQ would be the spoiler for other kids, and I still worry about that a bit. My husband is quite firm on the idea that that's not our problem. But I'm still careful about it. And very proud of how The May Queen handles herself in such situations. When someone asks her what Santa brought her for Christmas, she simply says "I don't get presents from Santa, but my parents got me...." and dives into her list of favorite gifts. So far her friends haven't asked for an explanation. And if they do... well, hopefully she'll handle that gracefully as well.

It's a hard road to take in a world that is so focused on these imaginary characters. That insists that the magic of Christmas is in a child's belief in something that is not real. Even at our church the first words out of nearly every adults mouth are "What did Santa bring you for Christmas?"

Our holidays are still magical. We lie under the Christmas tree and look up at the twinkling lights, and talk about how the lights represent Jesus, the light of the world. We play with our nativity scenes. Last year the May Queen regularly took the baby Jesus and gave him rides around the house on the back of a sheep. Instead of buying presents for The May Queen's grandparents we adopt a family in need, or give to a charity, and write a letter to them telling them what we've done in their name. We open the doors in our advent book and tell the story of Christmas. And yes, we have Santa Claus books and figures around our house. Because Santa isn't a bad thing. But he's a poor replacement for what the real magic of Christmas is, and the gifts that come with it.

(and yes, I am well aware that the Christians co-opted pagan holidays that celebrated the returning of the light, taking these festivals and adding their own Christian bent to them. I know. But I choose to celebrate this aspect of it)

31 comments:

thailandchani said...

Symbolism matters.. and it sounds to me like you are handling it perfectly.

In my tradition, there are several of these same kinds of things. Most of us recognize (and teach children) that the symbols represent something else.. but there's certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the symbol.

Sounds to me like you've struck the perfect balance. :)


Peace,

~Chani
http://thailandgal.blogspot.com

Amanda said...

You know, it's a tough issue and while I at first gasped at the thought of so cooly cutting out the ephemeral veil of belief, your head on approach seems to have freed you all to believe. A truly thoughtful post!

PunditMom said...

We didn't choose that approach, though we were conflicted. But the really interesting thing was that when PunditGirl came to the realization that Santa was a character and did not really come down the chimney, she was actually excited, saying, "So you and daddy are Santa? That's even better!" Guess we might have been better off all along with the truth!

b*babbler said...

The Peanut is only 11 months old, so we haven't had to confront this, but your thoughtful post has given me a whole other avenue to consider. I really like this approach, and am going to share it with Mr Babbler.

Thanks!

Chaotic Joy said...

With our first round of kids we did the Santa thing, and I really felt like it did distract from what we wanted to emphasise about Christmas. And I too, felt like it was wrong to tell our children a story that wasn't true, and would that then cause them to doubt other things they couldn't see...like Jesus.

So with Ben and Clara-kid wave 2, we have decided to take an approach almost identical to what you are doing with Mayqueen. Interestingly enough though, it's the older kids that are the most disappointed about this. They wanted their younger siblings to experience Santa as they did.

niobe said...

Because my family is Jewish, my parents made clear from the beginning that Santa Claus wasn't real. Otherwise, I suppose I'd have been upset that he didn't bring me toys.

Though I never gave away the secret to my friends, I always felt a little sorry for the kids who (as I saw it) had been tricked by their parents into believing in Santa Claus.

NotSoSage said...

Your point is so fascinating. I have always wondered why parents have to lie to their children about characters like Santa for exactly the reason you detail here. Kids believe in fantasy, even if they're fully aware that the characters aren't real.

I remember asking kids at a camp one year why they believed in God and one girl told me that first her parents told her about Santa and she believe in him and then her parents told her about God and so she believes that now. She was 15. I was appalled.

Sober Briquette said...

Oh, I just saw Sage's comment as I was thinking about mine, and it sounds like my situation! Even though we have downplayed Santa/ the EB, Fiona has really grasped onto that aspect of the holidays, to the point of being a bit annoying to me. I suspect she's just deep into fantasy, but it would be so rewarding to me to get a teensy glimpse that she understands the real reason we celebrate.

Beck said...

We have all sorts of imaginary beings - I think the love of Santa is a very gentle early introduction to the love of God, when they're old enough to understand. But I think you're handling this in a beautiful way for your family.

Tracey said...

To each his own. Seeing as how you were brought up knowing that he is fictional, I can understand that you would be passionate about not wanting Santa to be the focus of Christmas. I actually have handled the whole unfairness of who gets what by saying that Santa does have limits. One can only do so much. And that the rest of us have to help him out by donating etc.

I have considered myself a Christian in generally loose terms until recently when I really came clean to myself and came to the conclusion that all religions ARE real and right. I believe in Jesus, Buddha, reincarnation, magic, etc. I think anything is possible. And I love that at this ONE time in my children's lives, they can actually BELIEVE in something magical. I love that Justin has been begging me to buy a dragon to raise. (We have a "how to raise a dragon" book.) I love that Corinne and I built a fairy house in our front yard and that Evan and I look for fairies in the sunbeams.

I still believe that it's possible that SAnta might be flying in the sky. A tiny piece of me, anyway... And I would love to hold onto that tiny piece that believes in Santa, fairies, and dragons as long as I live.

Rimarama said...

I've always felt a bit uncomfortable with the whole Santa thing and I suspect that even last year at age 3, the little V-meister wasn't really buying it. I think it takes great integrity to take the approach that you are taking, and I admire you for it.

Emily said...

I love your approach. As a non-Christian, I am always so turned off by the commercialism and hoopla around Christmas. What I like about it is the whole Peace on Earth and Love your Fellow part. But Santa really waters that down if he's the big focus. You have your child focused on what matters.

Julie Pippert said...

Hey! Awesome! That's more or less what we decided too! We have one symbolic Santa gift (in stockings) but the real Santa in our family is playing Santa for the shelter's Christmas shop.

I have the best little book about the legend of Saint Nicholas.

We haven't said real or not real outright, but it's really cool to watch their thinking evolve from concrete to abstract in the concept.

I did worry about my kid being the spoiler, so we discussed respecting other beliefs. So far so good. (crossed fingers)

Julie
Using My Words

Amy York said...

My hubby and I have disagreed about how to approach the Santa issue. We are not Christians but choose to celebrate the holiday with the rest of our family, who are. But I did have a traumatic experience with the Santa outing... I argued with a kid in my class about having a video of him when that kid told me he wasn't real! Of course, it was my Grampy on the video but 8 year old me didn't know that. I haven't wanted to put my kids through that but my husband insists it's part of being a kid... believing in Santa. I LOVE your approach and am going to have a serious discussion with him about adopting a similar one for our family. You are such a rock star ~ thank you :)

Jennifer said...

Oh, I love the magic of Santa. I completely understand and appreciate your approach, and it sounds like you've worked it out perfectly for you...just keep MQ away from my kids at Christmastime!

*grin*. I'm completely kidding, of course!

But, honestly, while I understand why some parents choose not to participate in Santa, I never quite get the idea that Santa is a "lie". He was real once, and now his story lives on. We focus on the magic of the spirit of giving rather than the commercial aspect, at our house. And I simply love that my kids, while they are little, can believe in magic with their whole hearts. In a very real way, a very small part of me still believes, myself. :)

SusieJ said...

We didn't choose it this way either. However, I do understand your reasoning and thoughts behind this. For me, the problem is, I still believe in Santa. I do. I think there is a spirit that magically awakens inside of us, if we allow it, at Christmas, and creates magic. When my oldest son was told there was no Santa, this is how I explained it to him. And no, I would not trade anything for watching his face light up when he thought he heard Santa. But, your way, too, I see is full of magic too.

Jen said...

We did as you did. And we explained to my DS that some children didn't understand that Santa was a character and to them Santa was real and it was up to their parents, not DS to let them know that. He really had fun "keeping the secret" with us. He was extremely good about it. Most kids at that young age are so altruistic (when they understand how to be)

soccer mom in denial said...

Oh how you rock! We bought into the whole tooth fairy - Santa - Easter Bunny - Great Magic Pumpkin (just kidding on the last one). I don't have a traumatic "finding out" story but witnesses my younger brother's incredulous realization. Ooooo it was painful even for an 8 year old to witness.

I admire your stance though. I wish more parents followed their principles and did what was right for them and their families rather than following the herd.

Johanna said...

My mom always told us that Santa Claus was based on Saint Nicholas, but that we exchanged gifts in remembrance of the gift God gave us through Jesus birth.Of course I told every kid who would listen, and I remember one girl who said "but our parents couldn't afford all this stuff!".I have always told my children the same thing for those 2 reasons.I don't want to take away from the significance of the holiday, and I can't afford to fulfill their wildest dreams(trip to Japan) but don't want them to think they don't receive these things because they have been bad(although I do admire the bribery /threat aspect of Santa).My mom gave us baskets on the first day of spring rather than Easter.I don't do this but I understand. As for the toothfairy,we have too many "I'm scared of monsters/robbers/misc./won't the dog bite her? issues to perpetuate this myth.Glad I found your blog-wonderful.God bless.

crazymumma said...

And that is what matters I think. The fact that we have choice to celebrate and believe in the manner we choose.

ps. I just had some fun over my way with your rejection letter idea.

slouching mom said...

I am envious of your thoughtfulness here. Our kids still believe in Santa, but we have not thought much about the ins and outs of them maintaining that belief system.

ewe are here said...

This sounds like a really good approach to handling the 'Santa' issue. I think I'm going to try to do something similar with my boys...

blooming desertpea said...

Once thing we promised ourself as parents is that we would never lie to our kids. If they want to know something, they get the truth, in an age apropriate way. I don't remember if it was us or if they suspected by themselves that santa claus and the easter bunny weren't real but we never told any stories about them in the first place. The important thing for us was that they were ready for the truth and they certainly were whenever they came asking for it.

Furrow said...

Oh,no! Another issue I haven't really thought about! As a reluctant agnostic, I don't know which way to go. I seriously dislike the commercialism of Christmas, but without a strong belief in the religious aspects, what do you focus on? Tough one.

WorksForMom said...

Wow, you handles this perfectly. I've even bookmarked this post to come back to when it's time to tell at our house.

Aliki2006 said...

I completely understand and respect your approach--it seems like you handled this wonderfully. I must say we throw ourselves in full gear with the magic of Santa, but it is tough, sometimes, to keep the magic and the honesty and combine them both.

aimee / greeblemonkey said...

I loved this post.

And while I am not religious, I appreciate your reasons and how you are approaching things.

We are actually feeling the same pressure from the other side, what line to take in the celebration of Christmas since we are technically agnostic... in that we have faith in a higher being just not a *specific* higher being - i.e., how do we explain the fact that we celebrate Christmas? We wrestle with it a bit. But we have come down to the fact that we celebrate the spirit of the season and the things that Jesus stood for, even if we don't specifically follow any religion.

(I hope all this does not offend you, or anyone else.)

As for Santa specifically, I honestly think Declan is close to figuring it out. He keeps asking if characters in TV are "real" and we keep explaining that they are not, it's the fun and magic of TV, etc... and I can't imagine us lying if he asked the same question about Santa Claus.

So, I will probably come back to this post when the time comes and steal a few "lines" and Santa and how we celebrate his character. ;)

Alpha DogMa said...

Ditto what Aimee said about the agnostic take. Because I have issues with conveniently co-opting Christian beliefs but not the belief system to which they are attached. I think it disrespectful.

For us, Christmas -- because the boys are only 3 and 5 -- is a celebration of family and friendship and celebrating our good fortune while sharing our luck with those who've a tougher road.

I've never told my boys anything about Santa. But thanks to friends and pop culture they know the myth. And when they ask a question about him, I ask "What do you think?" But honestly I do feel like an ass lying to my kid about Santa.

I have no passion for the Easter Bunny. Not even the smallest compunction to begin the myth of an egg hiding bunny.

carrie said...

I totally appreciate and respect your view on this. It is so interesting to see how each other handles different issues, as our individuality is what makes this world a more fascinating place!

And I wanted to clarify that to me, the idea of Santa is not one of over-indulgence or commercialism. It's about tradition, and making cookies for the special plate to set out for "him". It's about sprinkling glitter and otameal out for the reindeer (along with a few carrots) and getting the kids to bed before he comes. And it's a reminder to be good, because someone is always watching - whoever it is, we'll never know! :)

Thanks again for sharing your traditions, as they are lovely.

Snafu Suz said...

My sister-in-law decided not to do Santa with her kids because she and her husband wanted the focus of Christmas to be Jesus. Well they didn't do a very good job of it. The kids always knew there was no Santa, but the focus of Christmas still ended up being the presents. The problem in her situation is that she omitted Santa, talked about Jesus, but didn't instill in her kids a spirit of giving (only recieving). It was too bad, really. My whole point being that you have to be careful about how you go about it, otherwise your kids still miss the point. You sound like you've got a good plan so this is more a note to the other mom's out there.

To the agnostics who commented, I think it's absolutely appropriate for your family to celebrate Christmas if you want to. Christmas is a cultural holiday as much - or more - than a religious holiday. As the author mentioned at the end of her post, Christmas is a conglomeration of cultural winter festivals with Christianity being added later. Teach your children the history of Christmas and there should be no confusion why you are participating in this modern day "winter festival".

As for whether I will do Santa with my kids or not, I probably will. I respect that we all have choice in this matter and I don't think any choice is right or wrong. I think the key is HOW you handle the choice. If you handle it well there's no need for the Santa kids to feel lied to or traumatized, or the non-Santa kids to feel gypped out of the magic of Christmas. (For another mom's take on how to handle Santa, visit http://www.seattlemomblogs.com/2007/11/30/keeping-it-real-what-to-tell-kids-about-santa/#comments.)

Anonymous said...

I can't help but find the irony in the fact that you are teaching your children that Santa is simply a character in a book, and that the real magic of Christmas lies with Jesus...arguably another character in a different book. I support my own children believing in the magic of many characters from many books.