It’s Not All Mary Poppins

When the traditions aren’t your values: Re-working traditions

(I first posted this in 2006. It seemed worth re-visiting.)

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, unrepentant 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.

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December 14, 2010 - Posted by | Christmas | , , , , , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. Hear hear.

    Comment by wendy | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. LOVE it.

    Comment by daycare girl | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  3. you have simply written exactly how the holidays are in our home – thanks for putting to words, far more eloquent than I could have, why we don’t “do” the commercial Christmas.
    Last night as we dropped off home-made ornaments as part of an ornament swap, my daughter glowed as she described how she made each one of them, so carefully and lovingly, for another family to enjoy on their tree. And, at four, how her eyes sparkle when we make the list for delivering our tins filled with lovingly made cookies – THAT’S what this seasons is all about. Well, that and how excited she is to perform in the Church Pageant 🙂

    Comment by meggies_mum | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thank you for such a timely reminder! The ironic thing for me is that it’s actually easier to just buy stuff for the kids rather than guide them in making/buying/giving to others.

    Comment by Lisa | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  5. Ha. I have tried to emphasize the St Nick was a good guy history, and my children think I’m daft. Of course there’s a Santa – everyone says so. But they know that the gifts come from people who love them. Somehow, they never match up the inconsistancies

    Comment by ktjrdn | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  6. We’re trying to do this, too.

    Comment by Emily | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  7. I keep trying to convince my partner that this is how we should handle Christmas, but she wants very much to get into the whole Santa-presents thing. We’ve got another year at least to work on a compromise, though.

    Comment by Becka | December 14, 2010 | Reply


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