Now the presents are unwrapped, and in some cases returned, I won’t be ruining Virginia’s Christmas or anyone else’s by confessing:
I love Christmas, but you can keep Santa. I wrote off the jolly old elf once and for all after hearing one sentence from the mouth of my oldest child last year.
In the mid-morning lull after pancakes and bacon and presents, when all in the house were quietly reading or amusing themselves with new treasures, the five-year-old said:
“I must not have been good this year.”
Stunned, I asked, “Why do you think that, honey?”
“Santa didn’t bring me what I wished for,” she said. “If you’re good, Santa brings you presents. If you’re bad, Santa doesn’t bring them.” Her requests had been modest. “I wished for a jack-in-the-box, and Santa didn’t bring it.”
My daughter didn’t learn about Santa from me. But you can’t escape him in North America at Christmastime. Every single adult in my children’s life will at some point ask whether they’ve written to Santa, whether they’ve set out cookies for Santa, or what Santa brought them on the big day. We don’t want ourselves or our little ones to be rude, so we tell our kids that “Santa” is a game some people play. Even though we don’t play the Santa game, they don’t need to spoil it for their friends by telling them Santa isn’t real. (Also, for parental consistency, Tooth Fairies like me shouldn’t be throwing stones at North Pole houses.)
But the conviction in her face that Christmas morning — that she must not have been good — cut me. Coal-in-my-stocking-be-damned, I would have punched Santa right then, if he’d been near.
“Oh, honey,” I said. “That’s why we don’t play the Santa game. Lots of children today won’t get what they wished for. And plenty of children will get everything they could possibly want, and more than they need. But it won’t be because they were good or bad.”
I tried to refrain from giving her a mini-Christmas sermon. But I had to set the record straight. When we celebrate Christmas, I explained, we tell the story of Jesus who came to give us God’s love whether we are bad or good. (And all of us do bad things sometimes. None of us is always 100 percent good.) We aren’t good so God will love us and give us good things. God loves us and gives us good things already — the beautiful world, other people, life. We try to be good because we’re grateful for those gifts of love and want to share them with other people, to live as God wants us to live, to always be “Children of God.”
“God is more like mama or daddy that way,” I said. “We don’t give you good things only when you’re good. We give you good gifts because we love you, always.”
She seemed to listen. I stopped talking. After a pause, she said, “Maybe Santa figured we already had one jack-in-the-box, so he didn’t need to bring another one.”
Parenting a 5-year-old is a re-education in human nature.
I didn’t pursue it, but what I really wanted to say was, No, honey. There are fewer presents this year because Mama’s contract gig got eliminated. It’s not that you weren’t good this year. Frankly, you were often a howling banshee terror this year. But I’m your mother, and I love you anyway. That’s why I give you the presents I can.
This explanation lacks the magic of that Central Park scene in the movie Elf, but the only redeeming thing I find about Santa is his tenuous family resemblance to Saint Nicholas. The Saint Nicholas of Christian legend, a 4th-century Greek Christian saint and Bishop of Myra (part of the map we label Turkey today), is said to have tossed three bags of gold through a window to save the poor family within from having to sell their daughters as slaves. Rumor has it the actual Saint Nick punched heretics, too. So maybe he was kind of a jerk.
Compassionate and critical.
Generous and judgmental.
Good and bad, while exhibiting a slight tendency toward violence.
You know, like most of us. Normal. A human being.
My problem with Santa is that so many adults are still playing the Santa game. But they call their Santa “God.” If you’re good, God will bring you presents. If you’re bad, God won’t. It’s easy to slip from there to believing that if I have nice things, God must think I’ve been good. I deserve all the nice presents I have. My kids do, too. If I don’t have nice things, well, what’s wrong with me? Worse, many adults begin applying their “Santa-vision” to others: That family next door foreclosed on by the bank? Should have managed their money better. The mom spending her first Christmas as a single parent? She should have learned by now to choose her lovers more wisely and/or been a better spouse. That young black man shot and killed by police even though he was unarmed? Must have been justified.
I didn’t get what I wished for last Christmas: to be debt-free and able to replace my spouse’s breaking car, which we unloaded for $950 cash in hand just before the tags expired. And that person who is in debt/rehab/divorce court or who can’t scrape together their mortgage payment this month isn’t getting what they wished for, either. We each have a million small choices, but there are a million other realities we don’t get to choose. We aren’t where we are because we were bad this year.
Wherever you find yourself this Christmas — whether buoyed by the glow of candlelight in singing faces, or aching in the dark quiet of an undecorated, empty living room or trying not to drink too much in a loud, packed party where you feel like the loneliest person to ever wear reindeer ears — you are not getting what you get because you were naughty or nice.
From my life’s experience so far, having met God as love, with skin on, in the people around me and voices from the past, I can tell you this: God’s not Santa. And Santa makes a lousy god.