Today I received a Facebook share instructing me to “Keep the CHRIST in Christmas.” I instinctively deleted it, as I do all slacktivist share requests (keep your recipes on Pinterest people, your political slogans on bumper stickers, and for god’s sake, keep your religious rhetoric on your own damn wall). I’m curmudgeonly like that.
Nonetheless, it made me reflect on how my parents handled Christmas, and how Christmas will play out for my family. Despite a lifetime without religion, I was surprised to realize that I have always “kept Christ in Christmas,” though I’ve also kept the Persephone in Fall, the Thor in thunder, and the Hog in Hogmanay (ok, so there’s not actually a hog in Hogmanay, but you get the idea).
My parents were atheists/areligious people whose families, with a few notable exceptions (hey there, AuntiE!), remained devout. Furthermore, they were thoughtful, curious, and passionate about research, learning and exploration. They made choices in childrearing deliberately, based on reading, research, and discussion.
They saw value in make-believe, and in exploring reality. They encouraged us to avidly examine the real world and to read fiction and mythology, but understand these works in the context of the time in which they were written.
It seems likely that this penchant for carefully planned childrearing and focus on raising freethinking children meant that our holiday celebrations were not put together willy nilly. Yet, the Christ story and Santa Claus both played central roles in our Christmas. Santa brought gifts and filled stockings, and we sang Christmas carols and learned the stories of the nativity and Christmas.
Santa and the nativity also played key roles in developing our critical thinking skills. For example, I recall that the response to my question about whether Santa exists was the same as the response for the Christmas story: “well, let’s think about that. . .” followed by a child-led examination of the evidence for and against Santa’s existence.
I have become the adult who is the logical outcome of such an upbringing. I find stories fascinating enough that I majored in English, and prefer historical interpretation to any other. I have never understood why enjoying a good moment of make-believe had to ruin a perfectly good grip on reality. I respect my relatives and friends who are devoutly religious, but see their belief in its historical context. Perhaps most importantly, I tend to view religions and the culture they create from an outsider’s perspective, permanently looking through the church windows without ever feeling comfortable in the pews.
And this brings me to the reasons I fully expect to share the Christ story with my children: it is a hope-filled story with a fairly universal moral. Further, because it is a major part of the holiday season, knowing the story of the nativity will help them understand the beliefs of our cultural majority, and will help them as they grow and learn about the strongly-held beliefs of those around them.
For similar reasons, their holidays will (and do) include Santa Claus and his gifts. Santa is an important part of our culture, has a great story, and can be a fun way to introduce older children to the concept of giving anonymously. Though Santa is often demonized as a representative of crass consumerism, belief in Santa can be a useful part of child development. Santa is fun, interesting, allows young kids to enjoy make-believe, and can help older children see the effect of belief in a myth on the world around them.
Those are some pretty big claims for a fat guy in a red suit with a penchant for sneaking around in the cold, so let’s break it down.
That Santa is an important part of western culture is clear in his ubiquitous presence this time of year. His story is a fun way to illustrate for children the power of giving without expectation of anything in return (since our modern Santa essentially forgives all naughtiness come Christmas eve). Like many stories the evolution of this one is fascinating, as explained in this National Geographic article.
Santa is a fun way to incorporate imaginative play in children’s lives for one, all encompassing month. Make-believe play is essential to the growing child brain, helping the development of cognitive and social skills. Psychology Today neatly summarizes the myriad of benefits of pretend play for children from toddlerhood to early elementary school:
- Increased use of complex language forms
- Divergent thinking
- Expression of feelings in an appropriate manner
- Integrating emotion with cognition
- Development of social skills
- Enhanced creativity (which sort of seems obvious, when you think about it)
Sure, kids garner these benefits by playing “let’s pretend,” but why not incorporate Santa Claus into that game of pretend and instantly expand the game significantly? How often can you engage in make believe on such a massive level, with buy-in from everyone from your mother in law to your mail carrier? Google, for example gets into the Santa game in a big way with a calendar, tracker, and games.
Older children can benefit by being brought into the deliberate creation of make believe for others. Allowing them to participate in purchasing or making gifts from Santa for others, helps children experience the fun of giving gifts without receiving recognition. Altruism can be difficult, and this is a fun way to encourage it. Further, helping perpetuate a myth can help them see that understanding the fiction of a tradition does not diminish it–which one would hope would encourage them to look critically at other stories and traditions that are treated as true by the majority, but are clearly fictional.
So, yes despite my position well outside of the church, I plan to keep Christ in Christmas, but I plan to keep Santa there too. I imagine that the version of the story my children will learn will start a bit differently than the version their religious peers will hear:
“Once upon a time long, long ago, the world started changing. It grew cold and the darkness lasted longer each night. The animals left and the plants died. The people had to find a way to understand the cold, and to bring back the light, the warmth and the life of the land. So, they told themselves stories that brought them hope and pushed away the dark. . .”