"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and God-with-us

I mentioned in an earlier post that this was Maia's first Advent where she really seemed to understand some of what was going on. Well, the same is true for Christmas... if we haven't managed to confuse her. See, Jeff and I had a few conversations about how we were going to handle Christmas, particularly the Santa Claus stuff. I mentioned before that since Jeff is a convert, he doesn't really have any Christmas traditions, so we can just do my family's traditions. But in our discussions, we had decided to modify some of those; for example, we didn't light up our Christmas tree (which we had been calling an "Advent" tree) until Christmas Eve.

Anyway, despite those conversations that Jeff and I had, there was a little confusion surrounding Christmas. If I had to pick a date that it started, I'd probably say it started on the Feast of St. Nicholas, that is, December 6th. St. Nicholas is one of my favorite bishops (right up there with St. Patrick), and his feast is important in German-speaking countries, among others. Well, in an attempt to re-claim my German heritage (mind you, my family never celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas), I thought it would be fun to have Maia leave her shoes out. We gave Maia a St. Nicholas Day gift of play dough. Initially she was excited, but then she said, "Awww, I wanted a swimming baby doll." And I said, "Well, maybe you'll get one for Christmas." And she responded, "You mean this isn't Christmas?" "No," I answered, "This is the Feast of St. Nicholas." "But I thought St. Nicholas comes on Christmas." "Umm," I stammered, "well, on Christmas we exchange gifts out of joy for the great gift of baby Jesus." "But doesn't St. Nicholas bring the gifts, like in all the books and songs?"

I definitely felt like I was in a sticky spot, as I tried frantically to remember how Jeff and I had decided to explain all this to Maia. I knew that, whatever we had decided, I was doing a very bad job of explaining it! I knew we had decided against promoting the commercialized Santa Claus that you believe in for a few years and then find out isn't real. But I also knew that we wanted Maia to understand that St. Nicholas was a real person who is now a saint that can intercede for us. The problem surfaced again just a few days ago when Maia and I were eating breakfast on the morning of Christmas Eve. What happened was another awkward conversation, and this time I called to Jeff to come in the kitchen and straighten out the situation. I think he did a pretty good job.

Jeff explained that St. Nicholas is like St. Mary or St. Anthony (of Padua) who are always with us and can pray for us and help us out. St. Nicholas is associated with Christmas gifts because he is known for his generosity. But some things are fantasy, he explained, like the idea of flying reindeer and coming down a chimney. "It's like in the Hobbit," he told her (yes, he's reading the Hobbit to our two-year old), "there aren't really dwarves and elves and hobbits, but they are fun to imagine about. It's fun to imagine that St. Nicholas has reindeer and a sleigh, but the real St. Nicholas is even better. We give each other gifts on Christmas because we want to be generous like St. Nicholas, and, more importantly, we want to be generous like God, who loves us so much that he sends his only Son, born of Mary in Bethlehem.

So on Christmas morning, when Maia was opening gifts, we didn't pretend that they were from Santa. We told her the name of her gift-givers. Jeff's point was that it's dangerous to teach your kids to believe in something that you plan on disillusioning them from later. If Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are imagination and we teach our kids to believe in them, what will they think of St. Nicholas, St. Mary, and even Jesus? Are they just imagination too? Jeff thinks somehow this is all tied to the Enlightenment and radical skepticism. The attitude is that sure, kids can believe in imaginary things, but when you grow up you become rational and realize that all of this is make-believe. It's easy for "religion" to slide into this category of imagination. But we'd like our children to grow into adults that maintain their sense of the real supernatural; we'd like them to know that prayer is something active, something that actually does something, not just something to make us feel better. We'd like them to be aware of the communion of saints, the presence of angels, and the person of Jesus, among other things.

Fr. Satish gave an excellent homily, available as a podcast and in written form, on Christmas morning. He started by strapping on his guitar and singing Bette Midler's "From a Distance." (Maia responded in surprise, "But, Mom, Fathers don't play guitar!!!" Meanwhile, I whispered to Jeff, "Either he's going to debunk the song or this is going to be a rotten homily!" Of course it was the first.) Fr. Satish proceded to talk about how Christmas reminds us that God is not at a distance, but close-up. Jesus is God-with-us, God who makes his dwelling place among us. He comes to close the distance between God and humankind, as well as to close the distance among all of humankind, such that magi and shepherds worship the same babe.

This homily seemed poignantly related to the issue of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. Santa Claus seems to create a kind of distance when he's this commercialized figure who is something made-up, something that only kids believe, something that you eventually realize you were mistaken about. But when Santa Claus as understood as St. Nicholas, who, like the entire communion of saints is always with us, who can pray for us, who is a model but not simply a model, we realize that people can be present with us even if we can't necessarily sense them. God's presence, the saints' presence, the angels' presence, then, are all a part of reality. And that means it's something we can't lose, even if we stop believing. My mom used to tell my older brother (in an attempt to prevent his ruining our Christmas), "If you don't believe in him, Santa doesn't come." This is certainly not true when it comes to God-with-us. The truth is much richer than fantasy. Jesus came, and we celebrate his coming each Christmas.

To quote Strega Nona (in Tomie de Paolo's "Merry Christmas, Strega Nona"), "Christmas has a magic of its own!" The fantasy can be fun, but the reality is its own kind of magic, or as C.S. Lewis said, we have with the Incarnation the grand miracle from which all other miracles stem. And, unlike the commercialized, fictionalized Santa Claus, the mystery of the Incarnation doesn't go away when you get older. This is the real excitement of Christmas!


Jana Bennett said...

Great way to think about all this, thanks for sharing! Joel nand I will probably be having this same conversation next year.

Here's a tougher question though - how to avoid Maia "spoling things" when her little friends insist there is a Santa Claus? Other parents may well be your biggest problem!

Theologian Mom said...

Well, that is the tricky part, isn't it? On the one hand, Maia won't be the one saying, "There's no Santa Claus!" but, on the other hand, she'll clearly have a different understanding as to what's "real" about St. Nick.

What could or should we do about that? Any ideas?

Dr. N said...

We had to deal with this issue this year also. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Is Strawberry Shortcake pretend or real?

X: Pretend.

Me: Is Barack Obama pretend or real?

X: Real.

Me: Is Santa Claus pretend or real?

X: [long pause, crinkles nose] Pretend?

Me: That's right, Santa is pretend.

The whole "spoiling it" for other kids was also difficult. We explained to her that other kids think Santa is real and its not her job to explain otherwise. But at pre-K she got mad at another girl that was annoying her and told her that Santa isn't real. It was the other girl's "consequence" for misbehaving. We had another talk with her. Hopefully, she understands now.

Clara said...

I believed in Santa as a young child, but I don't think I was ever very traumatized by the truth. Actually I don't really remember a distinct time when I definitively realized that Santa wasn't real. My parents always just treated it like a game. It was the Santa game. As a young child I wasn't subtle enough to pick up on the "we're not serious, wink wink smile smile" cues. Then I got older and it all became pretty clear. But it was still a fun game even after I knew it wasn't real. It never gave me a crisis of faith, because it was pretty obvious that my parents were NOT teasing when they told us about Jesus.

I suppose skipping the Santa game entirely, as you seem to favor, does eliminate all risk of fuelling skepticism through disappointment over Santa. Still, I guess the sentimental part of me finds it a little sad. Santa is a happy memory for me, and while I follow perfectly Jeff's train of thought about radical skepticism, it doesn't seem to me like that's the main explanation for why we play the Santa game, nor is it a necessary consequence. Adults in many cultures have little fantasies with which they amuse the kids. Handled rightly, it seems to me that this can instill in kids, not that the supernatural is just a fantasy (or, to put it less kindly, a lie), but rather that the line between natural and supernatural are a little blurry, and that there is a place for mystery in everyday life. Which is, it seems to me, a thoroughly Catholic way to approach things.