Okay, Christmas is over – to the relief of parents and guardians everywhere. That is unless you are standing on long lines making returns today, then I am with you thankfully only in spirit. The holiday week is still upon us and, as the famous song reminds everyone, moms and dads can’t wait for school to start again. In the meantime, presents vie for space in living rooms and all over the rest of the house, and my recycling bin’s cup runneth over.
In the meantime, I am still hearing something that I encounter annually – the debate over whether Santa Claus ruins the spirit of Christmas. Because of the juggernaut combination of shopping, trying to get the kids to “visit” Santa in the mall, and preparing for entertaining friends and loved ones, the story of Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago does seem to be placed on the back burner. However, we have no one to blame in this matter except ourselves.
If you are Christians (in my case Catholic), you have to make sure that your children know both stories, and that there is in fact a connection between Santa Claus and Jesus – an intimate one that actually makes sense to kids if you explain it to them.
In my house during the time known as Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas), we go about preparing for Jesus. Each Sunday we light another candle on our Advent Wreath, and we talk about Christmas as being the birthday of a little baby in Bethlehem so long ago. My children come to understand that we are still celebrating that birthday to this day. I also explain that because the Baby Jesus received the first Christmas gifts – from the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi – someone named St. Nicholas became inspired to do something similar.
My kids do go to Catholic school; therefore, they are getting the same story twice at home and in the classroom. In my house we reinforce the idea by quietly celebrating St. Nicholas Day (December 6), and talking about how St. Nicholas lived in what is now known as Turkey a long time ago. They learn that St. Nicholas showed love for poor people, especially children, by leaving small bags of gold at their houses.
After his time in Turkey, stories can diverge depending on parents’ personal preferences. My father always said that Nicholas decided that he had to work from a place where he could reach more people, so he started a journey north in a wagon with two horses to get to the top of the world. When Nicholas got to Scandinavia and encountered snow, his horses could not pull the wagon, so he sold them to a family for reindeer and a sleigh. This family had a lovely young daughter, with whom Nicholas fell in love. She, of Claus – I mean of course, became his bride and eventually would be known as Mrs. Claus.
The story can go on and on, but eventually he settles in the North Pole, builds a workshop, and hires the local magical little people – who become his elves. An alternate story is that the elves are the children of Nicholas and his wife. Decide on telling the kids whatever sounds better to you.
When he gets the name Santa Claus – shortened version of Saint Nicholas – and starts getting plump from cookies is usually what my kids like to hear most. He decides on bringing toys to all the children of the world on one night, and he chooses Christmas Eve not to overwhelm Baby Jesus on his birthday but to honor him. This is connected to the first Christmas and the gifts of the men from the east, and Santa is blessed with immortality because he serves the Lord as he goes about his annual routine.
All of this is great story telling, but I also use the handy “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” that is printed every year in the New York Daily News to remind them that, even though they may hear Santa is not real from their friends, there is a higher authority to confirm his identity.
This year my son has been so involved and in love with the Santa story, but he is equally engaged in the Baby Jesus one too. He has a small Fisher Price manger set that he plays with as much as his Santa set. He also got to play a donkey in the school Christmas play, so we are still hearing his only line of dialogue “hee-haw; hee-haw!” from time to time. When we are on the street or in the mall and he sees the “Santa” ringing a bell or talking to children, he asks, “That’s not the real one, right, Dad?” I always respond, “No, but he is a helper.”
The bottom line is that it is adults who allow Santa to overtake the holiday, and there is no need for that. Baby Jesus is not only the reason for the season, but he is the motivation behind everything the jolly old elf does. When we realize that and make sure to share it with our children, Christmas can be meaningful spiritually even as the kids listen for those sleigh bells with anticipation.
photo credits: santa & jesus-reapteam.org; st.nicholas-stnicholas.org; sidewalk santa-crrectionhistory.org