He’s been around since the 4th Century when he was the Bishop Nikolaos of Myra, who became a Saint when several miracles were attributed to him. He was a kind, generous and well-loved man. You can read about his interesting story if you Google ‘Saint Nicholas’. Since then his reputation has lived on, and has been so meaningful to so many people that he has become real in people’s hearts for centuries. He’s also known as Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Sinteklaas, Santa Claus and the Holly King. (I love the Holly King. Yes, it is very European and I guess we could make him the Wattle King … but it doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? He’s the Spirit of the Earth, the male energy that connects us to our Mother Earth and gifts to us the wild and free spirit that we all feel this time of year. He gives me goosebumps).
It doesn’t matter to me any more that Father Christmas is all rugged up for cold weather. He may be a tradition imported from Europe but he is still real for us here in Australia because his spirit moves beyond locality and he gives us a glimpse of the other experience. There is always another side of things. At Christmas time the two hemispheres of the Earth are united in Christmas Spirit because of Santa Claus. He’s a pretty special guy.
Saint Nicholas’s name has changed over the years, but his deeds live on. What touches me about this is how long our acts of kindness and generosity can be remembered – long after our death – and how they can be shared and multiplied when everyone continues to recreate the memory … and this is where Santa Claus comes from. He is real because he showed enduring kindness and he is real because we make him so.
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
What about the idea that we are lying to our children by perpetuating the story of Santa Claus? There are many ‘fantasy’ characters in our culture that are real to children: Santa is one, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are others. Many families choose not to bring Santa into their Christmas celebrations, many choose to explain his presence in our popular culture, to expose the ‘myth’. This is of course a very personal choice, and one that each family is right to make for themselves.
Santa is real in our family, although I prefer to call him Father Christmas. In our family we also have elemental beings who visit: the cheeky gnomes and the fairies (who each have their own jobs), dragons, giants, unicorns Mother Earth and angels – to name a few. They form a part of our imaginative life together, they help us connect to the spirit of our environment, igniting wonder and respect and helping to explain nature (and therefore science) in a way children can relate to. They are important to us.
These things evolve and become deeper and richer and more detailed as children evolve and want to widen their experiences of the world, because at some point, we realise that these beings are not as tangible as they were in our childhood. At some point the magic of this experience starts to transform, or we may catch someone we know in the act of ‘deception’. We may still want to believe in the same way we do as a child – unquestioning – but at the same time we are learning to understand the world in a new way.
My son is standing at the cross-roads of this experience at the moment. Some of his friends at school have told him that Santa is really mum and dad and he’s been talking about that idea since the middle of the year, so he’s given it some thought! At the moment though, it appears that his desire to believe that Santa is a real magic man still outweighs the desire for the evidence of his existence. He knows there are people who dress up as Santa and they are not Santa himself, and yet every year he looks forward to seeing Santa go past in the Rural Fire Brigade truck, and not just for the lollies that Santa tosses to the children who come out to see him. Santa + fire truck = Hero. We’ve talked about this together. We’ve talked about the idea of Christmas Spirit (love, generosity, wonder, magic) and how the spirit of Christmas can take many forms: wishing stars, Christmas trees, the happy feeling you get when you hear a particularly beautiful Christmas carol, planning and making or shopping for gifts to make another person feel special and loved, Jesus and the Nativity … and Santa who embodies all of this and reminds us that it is easy to be generous, and that even small tokens of generosity can be very special indeed. We can all be Santa if we want to.
I don’t remember when Santa’s identity was revealed to me as a child. I feel like I have always known, but I have happy memories waiting for Santa – overcome with thrills of excitement at unexpected moments. Even when I knew ‘the truth’ about Santa I still remember waiting in excited anticipation … and pretending that I still believed. When the time comes to answer the question “Is Santa real?” we will keep talking about this Spirit of Christmas and how when we grow up we all become Santa so that we can show our generosity to others, and delight in making other people feel wonderful. Here is another idea to explain the idea of Santa – http://www.cozi.com/live-simply/truth-about-santa – this letter moved me deeply. It was very respectful of a child’s need to know ‘the truth’ and still maintain a connection to the wonder and Spirit of Christmas.
RECEIVING IS IMPORTANT TOO
I used to have a bit of a problem with Santa Claus, despite what I’ve written here. He is WAY overdressed for an Australian climate. For some reason Santa Claus and Saint Nick are clearly overweight, although pictures of Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas most often show him as tall and slim even with all his warm winter woollies on – mind you all the beer Australian families leave out for him probably doesn’t do him any good. He also has THAT book where all the naughty and nice children are recorded. He has leverage and bargaining power. He is in all the shops from October onwards endorsing this thing or that thing as presents. The commercial aspect of Santa can easily tip the balance between the joy of receiving and the sense of entitlement for a present – or lots of presents. I think the magic of Christmas in Santa is in his simplicity.
In our home Santa can nibble on a treat when he arrives (this year it will be raw gingerbread) brings one gift to unwrap, and places a few small special treats in the children’s stockings. It’s enough to delight our little ones. It is also unconditional. There is no book where good deeds and bad deeds are recorded. My children don’t need to be examining their conscience in the days leading to Christmas. There is no room for blame and guilt at this time of year, just love.
It was the same when I grew up although I remember Santa often sent presents to us through our grandparents too. The stockings were laid out on our beds overnight and in the morning they were full of wonderful little things to unwrap when we woke at the crack of dawn … busy little things to keep us entertained until breakfast. These memories bring back to me the idea that a child’s experience is different to an adult’s, and it is important to keep wonder and delight alive into our adulthood so that we can understand a child’s perspective.
Early on as a parent I had worries about my kids growing greedy about Christmas just so they can have presents and more presents and have all those wants and desires satiated, and I resented the big fat man for being the cause of that. Every time we went grocery shopping the kids looked at everything with longing and started chanting “I want, I want, I want …” – clearly he wasn’t in line with our family values! Well, the kids still do chant “I want” but the values we have in our family are strong enough for generosity and gratitude to win out in the end. Let them have their excitement, as I well remember my own. The moment I reached this understanding is when “Santa” transformed into “Father Christmas” for us – someone who loves us and knows what is important to our family. Someone who knows how to have fun, how to share a joke, knows what children love and keeps that sparkle alive in the twinkle in his eye.
My partner from Sacred Essence, Melissa Joss wrote me these delicious words: ” I just feel that the act of giving to one another is one of those highest forms of human functioning and that we need to do this at Christmas, because it feels right. And you know what, there’s something in receiving too….. it just fits. The more we can open our hearts to feel ready to give and receive love, the more Christ-like we become…..” Father Christmas has his place at Christmas time right there with baby Jesus: the very embodiment of love.