A mindful take on (non)tradition

Two years ago I blogged about why I don’t do Santa with my kids, and what I wrote still stands. So far there have been no issues; we simply don’t make Santa a part of our Christmas traditions, and AJ hasn’t noticed anything lacking. AJ is in preschool now so she hears a lot about Santa, and she talks about him sometimes. Sometimes I’m not sure whether she really knows that Santa is make-believe or whether she thinks he’s real, but the same could be said about her relationship to many other fictional characters.

Most parents who do Santa with their kids try to reverse-engineer the myth to teach good values and give greater meaning to holiday traditions. They reframe Santa as being symbolic of the spirit of giving, an example of generosity, a lesson on how to have childlike wonder and imagination, etc. Obviously I don’t think any of these explanations really work as a justification. I think they are all afterthoughts to a longstanding tradition that most people follow simply because it is a longstanding tradition.

I read this article, The holiday lies we tell our children, encouraging mindfulness in parents who do Santa. The article encourages parents to keep up the Santa lie for as long as possible in order to keep these reverse-engineered values alive and to test their kids’ ability to figure it out for themselves. For me it further shed light on how ridiculous today’s iteration of the Santa tradition is, and it saddens me to see the level at which some parents undermine their children’s intellect by telling lie after lie to keep the charade going. However, the end of the article has a series of tips for parents on how to be mindful about holiday traditions, and I found them thought-provoking. Below are excerpts from the four tips in the article and my thoughts on how they apply to my family:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s inner experience

What does Santa mean to your child?  You can ask, “When you imagine Santa, what do you feel/think/experience?”  A child needs a sense of mystery, of wonder (actually, we all do).  Learn to sense the world though your child’s imagination.

  1. Be aware of your own inner experience

To me, a mindful parent is one who is aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing what they are doing.  A mindful parent is also tracking the impact what they do has on their child.  So in regard to our cultural myths, why are you retelling the myth?  What does Santa, or whatever myths you tell, mean to you?

The two points above made me realize that I have my own reasons for being anti-Santa, and my reasons may not resonate with my children. They have their own inner experience of the way we celebrate holidays that’s different from mine. So it’s important that I not only be mindful of my own reasons for not doing Santa, but also consider it from my children’s perspectives and try to reframe our Santa-free Christmas in ways that are meaningful for them.

Granted, my kids are only 1 and 4, so they have no way of really understanding what holiday traditions mean yet. But I already know a lot about their personalities, and one thing I know is that they are both Feelers. I am a Thinker, and most of my reasons for not doing Santa are Thinking-based. Objective truth is more important to me than personal feelings. Not lying to my kids or undermining their rationality is more important to me than giving them a feely, magical, mysterious experience. But as Feelers, they would probably value the magic, mystery, and camaraderie of being Santa-believers more than the rationality. So I need to give them other holiday traditions that emphasize a feeling of wonder, mystery, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. And when they’re old enough for me to explain why I didn’t do the Santa rigamarole with them, I will emphasize those reasons that tap into their sense of empathy and justice rather than the reasons having to do with objective truth and skepticism.

  1. Convey your family and community history

What are the traditions and rites that your family or community celebrate?  If they come from some established tradition, then many of the values and norms you pass along are long-standing and steeped in history.

My husband and I don’t really follow any long-standing traditions and norms, and that’s one of the things I love about our family. As skeptics, we carefully consider each value, belief, tradition, and ritual that we adopt and pass on to our children, so there are no family or religious traditions that are not of our own making. However, our values have their own bases, and one of them is that my husband and I are both Rationals (intuitive thinkers, or NTs). We need to be mindful of that because as our children are Feelers, we will need to explain our values to them in ways that they can connect with and find personal meaning in, as well as help them understand who we are.

  1. Define your rites of passage

What are our rites, our transitions?  How do we move from one stage to the next?  A mindful parent is having two conversations at once with a child.  The one related to the thing we’re talking about, and the one related to what that thing actually is spokesperson for.  Our culture is losing many rites of passage, of passage from one stage to the next.  As we are a symbolic species, we relate to allegory, myth, story, narrative, archetypes, character and so on.  Symbolism allows us to relate a learning from one circumstance to another.  It’s how we generalize our learning, and one of the ways we pass down information from one generation to the next.

I don’t think of my children’s growth as being in discrete stages with thresholds through which they pass from one to the next, and I don’t view any aspect of our holiday traditions as being “only for kids” or “only for adults”. In my own experience, rites of passage have never been defined by traditions or ritual but have always been organic, derived from lived experiences as I make my own meaning continuously through life. That said, I understand that many people do derive meaning from traditions and rituals as rites of passage, especially children. That is a topic for another discussion, and something I will have to think a lot more about. Symbolism, narrative, and myth can be helpful ways to define and interpret life experiences, and I want to honor that for my kids in ways that also honor reason.

Why I don’t do Santa

This Christmas my daughter is two years old, so she’s able to understand everything that’s going on around her. Last Christmas she was too young to grasp much about the holiday, but I thought hard about whether or not we were going to be a Santa-believing family. (My husband didn’t feel too strongly about it either way.) I decided against it. Here’s why I do not like Santa Claus:

I hate lying. I really hate lying, even little white lies, and I also think about everything way too seriously and have to follow my principles for everything. I just don’t see a good reason to present Santa as truth. I enjoy Santa as a fictional character, along with the myriad fictional characters of childhood. I don’t see why Santa Claus should be elevated above all the others (along with the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, who will also remain purely fictional in our house).

Gifts should not be the focus of Christmas. This may sound strange coming from an atheist, but I really want to teach my daughter to appreciate the deeper meaning of Christmas. Even though my husband and I don’t believe in God, Christmas is still a meaningful and special holiday for us. For us it’s a celebration of family and traditions, a time to have fun together and be cozy in the darkness of winter, a time for special music and food, a time to be thankful for everything we have and remember those who are less fortunate. I want the Christmas season to be a time of enjoyment and celebration in itself, and not just a buildup of anticipation towards the opening of gifts.

Christmas lists teach bad values. I know Christmas lists aren’t solely the domain of Santa Claus, but it seems like every kid who believes in Santa writes him with a list of things they want. I think this practice teaches gluttony and selfishness. It causes kids to expect the things they asked for, and sets them up for disappointment if they don’t get it. Parents should have a dialogue with their kids about not only what the kids want for Christmas, but also what is reasonable and in line with their family’s values and ability– instead of making up excuses for why Santa might not fulfill their desires.

Santa is not fair. The above reasons alone might not have put me in the anti-Santa camp, but this one does. I don’t know why people want children to believe that everyone’s Christmas gifts come from the same person, or that they depend on how good they’ve been. What a child receives for Christmas depends on her family’s economic situation and her parents’ values regarding gift-giving, among other things. Kids ALWAYS compare their Christmas haul, and the Santa myth drastically underestimates their sense of equality. I would never want my daughter to think that she was better than someone whose parents couldn’t afford presents, or that she was not as good as someone who got better presents than she did. Jealousy is a normal childhood emotion, but I think it belittles that emotion to ignore or try to explain away the obvious inequality in the Santa myth.

When I was a young child, my parents were very poor. They couldn’t afford to buy me any real toys, and I only got one small gift for Christmas each year. (One year, it was a pencil box.) But they still pushed Santa on me, and I resented it. I never believed it, because I knew that Santa was supposed to bring awesome fun toys for good little boys and girls, and I had to beg and beg my parents and maybe Santa would get me a pencil box. I had an inherent sense of justice and I knew it wasn’t right when my friends got Lego sets and new dolls. I think I would have felt much better about the situation if my parents had just been honest with me about the fact that Santa wasn’t real and we were poor (both of which I knew anyway).

When my daughter is a little bit older, I want to talk to her about the reality that Christmas gifts are not fair, that some kids get fewer gifts than she does and some receive more. I want to talk to her about why this is, and about our family’s values when it comes to money and gifts. And for that matter, that life is not fair, and some people have more or less through no fault or effort of their own. These conversations would not be possible if I taught her to believe in Santa.