Santa Claus, Baby Jesus, and Honoring ChildrenDecember 5th, 2009 at 12:26
My mom had a great love for everything that had to do with Christmas, and particularly the figure of Santa Claus and what he symbolized in terms of celebrating and honoring children. She believed in God (unlike me) but also felt that organized religion was one of the great scourges of human history. Given that, she still enjoyed even the Christian celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, and the bestowing on him of great gifts, seeing it as a metaphor as to how all people should greet and treat our children with an abundance of love.
Though they lived on a new college professor’s modest earnings, my parents made every effort to make Christmas time the most wonderful time of the year for me as a child. They perhaps more than most parents of the 1950s understood the value of play in the development of a young person and researched and bought me wonderful toys – like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, wooden trains, plastic soldiers and dinosaurs – that they wrapped and placed under our Christmas tree, sometimes as much as a week or two before the big day, fueling my anticipation of this yearly event. Add to this great anticipation, we would sometimes do our Christmas celebration back east at my mom’s folks house in Binghamton, a journey usually taken by train in a sleeping compartment, one of my young life’s most memorable adventures.
Though not Christians ourselves, we would invariably be at some sort of gathering of family or friends where Christmas carols would be sung, and my mom, dad, brother Peter and I would heartily sing “Silent Night”, “The Little Drummer Boy”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and other songs celebrating the birth and honoring of the wonderfully special baby Jesus. In my mom’s heart and mind, these songs were metaphorical about how all children should be treated in a world she saw as often very child unfriendly. It was truly “wise men” (and women) who bestowed gifts on children, tokens of their love and esteem for the newest generation of the human race. I learned to share this vision as well.
But the essence of the honoring of children in my mom’s thinking was the idea of Santa Claus. He was the icon, the avatar, of the relationship she felt all parents and other adults should strive for with the children and youth they were blessed to be in relationship with. There was nothing greater and nobler in the human spirit than the bestowing of gifts, blessings and love on the young. Some people might criticize this as “permissive” or “coddling”, but if they told that to my mom’s face, she would be hard pressed to restrain herself from punching them in the nose before dressing them down for their shortsighted ignorance.
She made every effort to imbue in my brother and I that Santa was real, and even as I figured out he was not, at some level I understood his metaphoric “reality”, particularly to my mom and her world view, and basically continued to go along with that “reality” she was creating.
And still as an older youth and a confirmed atheist, I loved the winter holiday season more than any other time of the year with each day building in anticipation to December 25. The snow and cold outside while the lit tree glowed in our living room and others could be seen through the windows of neighbors’ homes. The gathering of family and friends in a context of warmth, gratitude and love. The coming of Christmas Eve, with me so worked up with anticipation that I would barely sleep and by five or six in the morning start pestering my parents to get up so we could open those gifts under the tree. Finally tearing the wrapping paper off my presents and taking possession of the wonderful toys that my parents had researched long and hard to give me the most play value for the money.
Looking back on it now as an adult with a broader awareness of the context of my younger life, I must acknowledge the privilege that my parents did have, despite our limited funds, to muster the discretionary income to buy their kids gifts and take us over the metaphorical “meadow and through the woods”, by rail, to Grandmother’s house. As a youth I was not exposed to the reality of people with much less means than ours, and was never struck by the over-consumption associated with the holiday; realities that I would embrace many years later. Also it was later, that I met my partner Sally and heard of her very different experiences with the Christian holiday, including being harassed for her family not having a Christmas tree.
But also looking back, I feel I have benefited in so many ways from having parents who showered me with love, honored my existence and listened and responded when I told them what I needed. I feel blessed and thus empowered and inspired to bestow blessings on others that I am in relationship with, in my family, my circle of friends, co-workers and others I collaborate with in my circles within the larger community.
Many of my fellow Unitarian-Universalists and I see Jesus more in the context of great teacher, rabbi or guru, rather than a deity or particularly the “son of God”. Given that context for this famous individual, whether real or invented, but in either case strongly metaphorical, did not the gifts and other offerings of love and great hopes have contributed to Jesus’ flowering as a truly unique individual with such gifts to give to others as an adult. Would not a similar approach to every baby born in this world lead to the greatest flowering and evolution of the whole human race?
My mom would certainly think so. Though she ended this incarnation on Earth in 2006, I’m sure she is somewhere grinning as I write this and saying proudly, “That’s my kid!”
I love you mom… you did good by me and gave me the love and liberty to figure out who I could continue to become and pass on your blessing and my dad’s to others.