It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Counter-Cultural Me, or, our Santa-Free Christmas

When my oldest was very little, I noticed something. It happened in the weeks coming up to Christmas. It happened All.The.Time. It seemed delightful the first time, innocuous the tenth time, even the twentieth time, but by the hundredth time, I was beginning to have serious concerns.

I am out in a mall, first week of December. A neighbour, a friend, a little old lady approaches, smile at my adorable tot with her nimbus of blond curls and the grey eyes big enough to swim in, and said…

“And what’s Santa bringing you this year?”

You know what? Even at less than two, I wanted my child to know that Christmas is about giving, not getting. And she was understanding this! We were making presents for family. We were baking treats to give to neighbours and unexpected friends dropping by. The whole while we did this, we chatted about how happy gramma would be, or Mrs. Goodman across the street would be, to receive our gift. How much fun it was going to be to see her smile and be excited.

This was what Christmas was about, for my child. And then every single time we went out in public, ten times an outing, people would loom into her space and ask, “What are you GETTING? What do you WANT?”

This was NOT on my agenda for my child. This was counter to my values, counter to what I wanted for her.

At that time in my life, I was also a more conventionally devout Christian than I am now. I didn’t like the way that Santa had totally upstaged the Baby Jesus. How could he not? Jesus was an unassuming presence, a baby wrapped in strips of worn cloth in a dingy cowshed. The angels offered a bit of glitz and glitter, but nothing like Santa, with his promise of unleashed, unrepentent acquisitiveness, greed and ME,ME,ME, GET,GET,GET.

My solution?

We would not “do” Santa.

Not in the North American sense, anyway. Instead, we talked about St. Nicholas, “a bishop from Myra in Asia Minor (the greater part of modern-day Turkey), who used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering”. We looked at different ways Santa (St.Nick, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas) was portrayed in other cultures.

When we saw him in the malls, they could, if they wished, go sit on his lap, even though they knew The Truth. They knew these men were just nice people being kind to little children. (Not such a bad thing to know, hmm?) I even paid for the odd picture.

Not believing gave us freedom to play with the norms. Haley decided, when she was seven or so, that it made much more sense in our snow-bound country were Santa’s sleigh to be pulled by fire-breathing dragons. Her Christmas artwork that year included a few renditions of this idea. Lyrical, creative, imaginative – and shockingly untraditional!

The kids were carefully coached in not spilling the beans to friends – nor even to those well-meaning adults. It would be unkind. We don’t want to make people sad at Christmas!

So, when those well-meaning people approached with their “And what is Santa bringing YOU?” questions, the conversation would go as follows.
Child: I don’t know what I’m getting. It’s a surprise!
Me: Why don’t you tell Mrs. Sweet about the present you’re making for gramma?
Child, face lighting up in a most gratifying way, launches into enthusiastic description.

Time and again, people would respond with a wave of warmth and admiration for these kids who really did enjoy the giving. (Ironic, when you consider it was these same people who had highlighted the problem of teaching greed so clearly to me, but of course, that was not their intention.)

Now, when I greet a child before Christmas, I ask if they’re excited about it. I ask what they’re looking forward to most. (Happily, it isn’t always the gifts they anticipate!) I ask if they are doing anything special with mommy and daddy, if they will see gramma and grampa, if they have their tree up. I ask about their school Holiday Concert and/or their church Christmas concert. In short, I ask about anything and everything but presents – because Christmas is about much more than presents!

Although I’m not intending to suggest that anyone else follow my example re: Santa, I do think it’s good practice to step outside cultural norms once in a while. Think them through. Determine whether they apply to you and your family, and act accordingly. Sometimes “It’s traditional!!” isn’t justification enough.

© 2006, Mary P

December 13, 2006 - Posted by | Christmas, individuality, parenting


  1. Most of us don’t think through our cultural practices and what it teaches our children. I like your viewpoint on looking at traditions and using them as a teaching tool, especially about the idea of giving.

    Comment by Mamacita Tina | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  2. I 2nd what mamacita tina said.

    I’ve been having a problem with Ben & Santa this year. He’s 4 now, and is smart enough to question if Santa is “real”. Especially all of the different kinds of Santas we see at the mall, on TV, in books, movies, etc.

    I always told myself that I would be honest with the kids. This is the one thing that I’ve been less than honest about and I can’t seem to marry my need for honesty and the fun of the season.

    Thank you for this post. I have a lot to think about.

    Comment by Andie D. | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  3. Thank you very much for a very thoughtful post. Our 3 year old is just beginning to “get it” this year (last year when people asked about Santa, he had no idea what they were talking about)…but I also want the holidays to be more about giving then getting. I appreciate the ideas you gave to focus on giving for the young ones.

    Comment by tina | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  4. Beautiful post.

    This year, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’m agnostic — I’ll be posting/coming out of the closet about it on my blog at the new year. As such, Christmas has had a bit of surrealism associated with it this year; every. little. thing. about it seems different to me!

    What you describe (especially the questions you ask kids) is exactly how I want Maya to feel about the holidays…it’s about family, not the gifts. Honestly, I’ve always loved Thanksgiving simply because it WAS all the togetherness, without the materialism. I’m looking forward to trying to make Christmas a similar holiday in our home.

    Comment by Allison | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  5. See, and I had always thought the story of Saint Nicholos was traditional while the flashy Santa Claus was new kid on the block.

    St. Nick doesn’t bring presents to my children. Poor kids, they only get a stocking or wooden shoe full of stuff. That’s traditional. As they get older, they probably won’t think it’s a good enough excuse either.

    Comment by Ki | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  6. As a kid, my family never celebrated Christmas because we are Jewish. I, too, was coached on how not to spill the beans about Santa and how to politely answer questions about what Santa is getting me or whether we have our tree up yet.

    As a “grown up” (I’m 22) I now celebrate Christmas with my boyfriend’s family, and I love it! I agree that the best part is choosing and making gifts for people. Even though it is not a religious holiday for me, I still want to include Christmas as a family tradition (when I have a family), for exactly this reason. Thanks for your insight! Great post.

    Comment by tali | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  7. K this year has decided to go to the “odder cassroom” when Santa comes to school for their holiday party, because she “no like him.” Yep, a child who doesn’t care. At their house, Santa is fun like Scooby-doo and Batman, but I’m not sure that ANYTHING comes from him Christmas morning. The kids are beginning to understand the value of giving, even if K makes the occassional comment about wanting her presents now. She’s three, and we’re working on it!

    Comment by Angela | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  8. We do both: Santa and the true meaning (for us, it isn’t Jesus [we’re not Christians]; it’s giving to others and being with family). Every year the kids do some sort of “What The Holidays Mean To Me” project in school, and every year they come back with things like, “family” and “peace” and “love and togetherness”. Never once are presents mentioned.

    Christopher deduced on his own this year that Santa isn’t a real person who brings gifts. We talked about St. Nicholas and he thought it was so wonderful that we wanted to carry on that magic for him and for his sister. Of course, “Santa” only ever brings them one small-ish gift each, so our holiday never was about the “getting.”

    It’s so interesting, how other families deal with different things! And for what it’s worth, that “What’s Santa bringing you this year?” thing has ALWAYS got on my last nerve!

    Comment by Candace | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  9. We have done a poor job with focusing on the giving– every year we try, but I am not satisfied with what the kids have learned.

    But it’s never too late to keep gently turning them in that direction!

    I need to get on top of my baking.

    Comment by Jenorama | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  10. Like Jenorama, we have tried to pass on the ideals, we talk about it, we respond in ways we think are appropriate and “right,” but I have grave concerns that I haven’t done a good enough job of this. They are very much about presents and getting. It leaves a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I know there are things I can do to change it, and that they’re young enough that we can still turn it around. It’s very easy to get sucked into the trap of cultural expectations and “traditions”, though. I loved your approach with your kids, talking all about what gifts to give to others, etc.

    Comment by Kristen | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  11. Imagine how it feels to be a Jewish parent when someone leans in and asks your child what they are getting for Christmas!
    Telling them that we celebrate Channukah always ends the conversation pretty fast.
    That said, wonderful post!

    Comment by rose | December 13, 2006 | Reply

  12. Beautiful!

    I love coming up with just the perfect idea for someone’s gift. Our list is long, but I managed to remind myself that we are blessed to have so many people to love (and not just shop for).

    Comment by Lady M | December 14, 2006 | Reply

  13. Call me sad, but, it p*&^%es me off that xmas (not christmas) has been reduced to another commercial event that greedy corporations can use to extract yet more money out of parents for what is, in most cases, tat!

    rant over 🙂

    Comment by Si | December 14, 2006 | Reply

  14. I hate when people ask about Santa also. We’ve never mentioned him one way or the other around here, and my three year old is just starting to ask if he’s coming because she hears it so often. I’m not really against him, just don’t want him to be the focus, like you said. Good post.

    Comment by Kelli in the Mirror | December 14, 2006 | Reply

  15. We do Santa up to a point but our Christmases are so low key as far as “getting”, it’s never been a big deal.

    We do some giving in the community each year which helps balance it out.

    Of course the girls are past believing I think.

    Comment by Granny | December 15, 2006 | Reply

  16. This is a hot topic for me. I don’t have anything against Santa per se, but I was raised in a household where Christmas was a lot more about the activities (caroling, pageants, church) and less on the gifts. I think us kids used to get four or five small gifts each.

    My husband’s family goes overboard on gifts. I literally have seen a room piled waist-high with gifts (granted this is for extended family but it’s ridiculous). I’m going to try to emphasize giving gifts, but I feel like I’ll be fighting a whole clan.

    Comment by the weirdgirl | December 15, 2006 | Reply

  17. Thanks for this… Our girl is definitely getting her Christmas legs now at 27 months. I feel I can really make good use of this in helping her sort it out

    Comment by mo-wo | December 15, 2006 | Reply

  18. […] us of the joy of the season. At all. In fact, I’ve argued before that shifting the emphasis may even have improved it. (Not, of course, that you can’t shift the emphasis and still have […]

    Pingback by Santa Claus, Enforcer « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | December 3, 2013 | Reply

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