Written by: Letty Muse Tomlinson, Special to CC2K
Maybe the jolly old elf isn't such a harmless myth after all.
The day after Christmas break ended, we kids at the kindergarten crafts table were bragging about all the booty we had acquired. Mom got me this. Grandpa got me that. Santa brought me this, that and the other. I’d like to think I kept my silence for a moment, but the truth is I probably didn’t. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” I informed my tablemates. The boys around the table instantly derided me. (I don’t remember any girls’ reactions.) When I insisted that Santa was really one’s parents playing pretend, they called the teacher over. She pulled me aside and scolded me. Her exact words escape me, but the message was clear: “Don’t rock the boat, kid!” I returned to my seat chastened, but confused.
Imagine growing up in a tiny house cooled by a window unit in the summer and a floor furnace in the winter. There is no fireplace, so Christmas stockings are hung from whatever piece of furniture houses your TV set. Your small house is not only the norm in your neighborhood, but with some allowances for size, the norm in your region. Fireplaces, like garden sundials, are more ornamental luxuries than functional necessities, and almost as rare. These were the ticky-tacky little boxes of my west Texas youth. Where is Santa Claus supposed to enter? Through the gas-pipes under the house? We all know he can’t enter through the front door! It was surprising, then, to discover in that no one else saw our architectural shortcomings as deal-breakers in the Santa Claus myth.
Beyond my own rationale, though, my parents never taught me to believe in Santa Claus or actively encouraged it. In fact, they made a conscious choice not to promote belief in Santa. More on that later. We celebrated Christmas both in a religious and secular fashion, but Santa was a holiday mascot, not a real person with magic abilities. Santa would no more bring me presents than Cookie Monster would bring me cookies. I was okay with that. Sometimes my parents would leave me gifts “from Santa,” and it was like a wink and a nudge. There were some years I wanted to believe, and my parents put up no barriers to that desire. But ultimately that want was only half-hearted. The notion of some polar-dwelling, white-haired stranger with a forced guffaw making deliveries never inspired me, anyway. Occasionally, we’d leave treats out, but the thank you note was always in Dad’s handwriting, and I kind of liked the idea of treating Dad for sneaking gifts out on Christmas Eve.
As I grew older, I realized, as evidenced by the Kindergarten episode, that not only was my disbelief in Santa odd, but my parent’s decision not to ask me to believe in Santa was generally, if quietly, frowned upon. To this day, when I tell people I never believed in Santa, most react in disbelief. Some are disappointed and tell me they feel sorry for me. Normally, though, this revelation is greeted with a look mixing pity with stifled shock and then quickly covered by a polite poker face. “Oh, I see,” they’ll offer in their best politically correct tone, trying their hardest to be nonchalant. When I tell them that my parents didn’t raise me to believe in Santa, their shock is bald and their pity, sincere. “What kind of people don’t teach their children to believe in Santa Claus?” is their subtext. Don’t worry: I was fed a mostly healthy diet and was tucked in every night with a kiss. I was no dour Miracle on 34th Street Natalie Wood. Christmas was every bit as joyful and magic as it was for kids who did believe in Santa Claus. I still ate up every minute of it.
I never begrudged anyone else his or her belief in Santa – at least not after Kindergarten. Other people seemed to like it while they had it and that was fine. He’s a character that people of various religious or areligious beliefs seem to be able to rally around during the season, so that’s good. Other people – my husband included – have fond memories of believing in Santa. Who am I to deny them their pleasure? But then, something in me began to change a few years ago. Santa began to take on a decidedly bitter flavor in my mouth.
Shopping malls at Christmas time are obnoxious gateways to hell and as an adult I quickly tired of them. Santa Claus is always perched right in the middle of these cacophonous monuments to commerce. My distaste for the culture’s crush to consume focused on the man in the red suit. Supposedly, Santa inventories the good and bad children and rewards or punishes them appropriately. (I’ll set aside that labeling a child as “good” or “bad” is irksome.) Most kids I’ve known are given gifts regardless of their behavior. Do any children in the United States truly believe that their stockpile from Santa will be affected at all by how kind they are to their peers? Doubtful. Santa is not a gentle old soul who brings toys, and joy, to good little girls and boys. He’s a goody-slave. We encourage our kids to sit in his lap and pour their desires into his ear and we ask them to expect those material demands. He just laughs and jiggles like a bowl full of jelly and implies that he will fill the request. He is our idol to whom we pray our purchases. He could not be a better emblem for a society driven more and more by unchecked greed and with little regard to consequence: he’s a glutton.
And he’s begun showing up in nativity scenes, lately. You may have seen them. There’s Santa Claus kneeling before the baby Jesus. Whaa? Where under the mounds and mounds of wrapping paper is the Jesus in this holiday? By no means must people be compelled to celebrate this season with a religious undercurrent. But Santa genuflecting to Jesus? That’s about as hollow as slapping a “Support the Troops” magnet on your Hummer without ever feeling the need to carpool, write a soldier, email a Congressperson or turn on C-Span.
My displeasure for Santa quickly grew beyond his being the mascot for consumerism. As I left the realm of the dependent and moved into the adult realm of provider, I discovered that some people actively promote Santa beyond just the promise of a benevolent Christmas Eve visitor. Riding in a car one day with my in-laws, my then seven-year-old nephew was being loud and squirmy. Then he mouthed off to his mother. “If you talk to me like that one more time, I’m going to tell Santa, and he’s not going to bring you any presents,” she threatened. He straightened up and flew right for the rest of the day, but I was astonished. People actually used Santa as a carrot? I thought that was just the stuff of bad holiday TV specials. It reminded me of the time my grandmother criticized the way I returned cleaned laundry to my drawers. I stuffed them in. “Do you know the first thing Jesus did when he was resurrected?” she asked, offended and exasperated at the poor housekeeping skills of an 11-year-old. “He folded his shroud.” Childhood lessons? Parental respect should only be paid because toys follow. Laundry is a vital moral concern.
Was Santa Claus really as benign as I always assumed him to be? Well … the first few words of one of the more popular songs heralding Santa tell us, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout,” because Santa Claus not only “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake,” but he also “knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Being good for goodness sake doesn’t really seem like the motivating factor behind that admonition. No: be good because an omniscient judge with an appetite for forced-enthusiasm is arriving at midnight to determine whether your character is of sound enough quality to be deserving of Guitar Hero World Tour. In addition, Santa Claus is a stranger who breaks into our houses. Any other time of year, if any other person were doing this, we’d call the cops and scurry the children to the panic room. Maybe Santa Claus is really more like Santa Bot from Futurama. Or maybe, he’s more like God.
God as rewarder and punisher, demander of false cheer, is an image that seems to be the sole agreed-upon image in American culture, by devotees and deniers alike. It lacks nuance and is easy to accept or reject, wholesale. That’s why we like it. As one who was raised in a religious household that encouraged doubt and questioning, I bought out of that binary image very early in life. Perhaps that explains part of my Santatheism. A recent article in Science Daily cites a Canadian study that found 80% of parents in 2000 promoted belief in Santa to their children. Assuming those numbers more or less correlate the US, that means more people ask their children to believe in a godlike rewarder/punisher than attend worship on a regular basis or probably believe in god themselves. It’s confounding that we’re okay with collectively promoting a supernatural wish-granting, capricious judge who breaks into our houses, when that’s the same kind of image that drives so many away from religion or belief in a deity of any kind. It’s almost a double deception.
This brings me to why my folks raised me not to believe in Santa Claus. They didn’t want my brother and me to distrust them. As a minister, Dad in particular didn’t want to put all “unbelievables” in the same basket, concerned that if we felt they were pulling the wool over our eyes about Santa, then God must not be far behind. Belief in Santa runs pretty deep, and they didn’t want to push us to believe in something they not only didn’t believe in, but also in something that the society at large agrees is false. Apparently, they wanted parental credibility. Go figure.
Minus the pressure to find the perfect gift, and those who choose to insist this is a completely Christ-centered holiday, as opposed to a cultural season, Christmas brings cheer to an otherwise cheerless time of year. Christmas is great. Behind Thanksgiving, it’s probably my second favorite holiday. I’m a sucker for the shiny decorations, the songs and as a native Texan, the faux nostalgia is right up my alley. Santa, it seems should be right down my chimney, then. Belief in something, for some time is good, right? And most people grow up to heal from the no-Santa revelation very well. It doesn’t seem to affect their theistic beliefs and this is where I feel like I should wrap this up with a Newsweek-style bow. (“There’s a little Santa in all of us!”) But I just can’t.
The man annoys me. My favorite Christmas songs about Santa are Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney,” and “Elf’s Lament,” from the Barenaked Ladies. Schadenfreude and revolution. I’d much prefer Clarence the Angel rustling beneath my tree than Santa Claus.
This is where I’ll have to remain a Scrooge. I’ve never told any of my friends’ or family’s children that there’s no Santa. And I never would. People have their own reasons for passing the tradition along. I respect that right, and trust that their motives are good. But unless unforeseen good blood passes between us, Santa will remain for me a surrogate of the worst aspects of God who inspires us all to grow up to be the greedy, gluttonous, facile baby-men from Wall-E. Give me the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny any day. Their generosity, at least, comes with no strings attached.
Merry M-effing Christmas!