December 23, 2013

In which I destroy the sacred grounds of childhood

We do not believe in Santa, or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy at our house. We never have. Before K was born, Jim and I decided that we were not going to "do" the mythical figures as a reality for our kids.

This is not a popular position to take. My family was confused and (I think) a little upset when we informed them of our decision. I think they get it now, but it was not an easy thing to throw into the mix.

Jim did not grow up with holiday figures, but in a more extreme way than what we ultimately decided to do. His parents felt that Santa and the Easter Bunny took away from the truth of what those holidays were about from a Christian perspective. They also didn't usually have a Christmas Tree, do Easter Egg hunts or anything more "secular". He and his siblings were not allowed to dress up for Halloween, go to school Halloween parties, trick-or-treat or do anything for what was considered a pagan holiday. I'm not sure what the reasoning was for no Tooth Fairy, but I think it might have been similar to what we decided on. Jim and his siblings were given strict instructions to NEVER ruin the holidays or beliefs of other kids. And they never did.

For me, my parents did the whole shebang. We went to visit Santa, we left out cookies and made lists of what we wanted. Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets were part of our celebrations. The Tooth Fairy stuck money under our pillows. We decorated our house for Halloween, dressed up, went trick-or-treating, etc. But there were limits for Halloween: nothing evil/scary, no witches or devils. And for the religious holidays we always included church, prayer and discussions of what those days meant in conjunction with our faith. And while I was fine with our traditions, I don't think I ever had a real need for any of it.

So, Jim and I had quite the discussion before we had kids about what we would be doing. We were both fine with how our parents did things, but not so adamant either way that it had to be the same, so we had to really think about what we wanted from holidays and the meaning behind it all.

I am a very practical person. I honestly am not sure I ever believed in the "magic" of things. My parents tell me that when I was four and they took me to see Santa at the mall I declared that it wasn't Santa, just a man in a suit. And when I was seven I was totally sure that Santa and the Easter Bunny were actually my parents, that I devised a way to make them tell me. (I casually mentioned after church that I kinda wasn't sure Santa existed the way I kinda wasn't sure Jesus existed. I was such a little conniver!) They confirmed everything that night and I wasn't a bit surprised.

Our decision for our kids was that since we believe in the meanings behind Christmas and Easter, we wanted to emphasis those things and not confuse it all with the make believe. So, no Santa or Easter Bunny. We do presents and a Christmas tree and Advent calendars and cookies, but the kids know that it is from us and we do what we can to discuss deeper meanings and the elements we really do believe to be true (Jesus's birth, resurrection). For Easter, all egg dying and Easter Egg hunts happen before Easter so that that Sunday is set apart for rejoicing in what we consider to be one of the most exciting events in history!

For Halloween, we do dress up and trick-or-treat, but we don't decorate the house specifically for Halloween. Instead we have a more autumn decorating esthetic (pumpkins, gourds, leaves, fall colors, happy jack-o-lanterns). We consider it a fun tradition, but de-emphasize/avoid anything that does not fit with our greater beliefs about good and evil and what we should focus on in life.

The Tooth Fairy fits in along with the rest because we have a general desire to build up our children's trust. The idea of lying to our kids, even if it is for "fun", is not a part of us. We want to have trusting relationships with our kids, show them that we are honest to the best of our abilities so that they can cultivate that in themselves. We are happy to give them things like presents and traditions as their parents, because we love them. But not to pretend it is something different.

I, like many others, am quite frankly disgusted with what so many holidays have become lately. It's half guilt trip/behavior modifying tool and half parental nostalgia/over indulgence. Every year in the late fall, every fourth person you meet gives kids a guilt trip about Santa. If they cry or misbehave in the store, I've had so many workers/people passing by tell my kids (in a sugary sweet voice) to be good so Santa will be happy with them. Every adult asks the kids whether they've been good for Santa, whether they are excited for Santa, whether Santa will bring them something good this year. We usually just smile and ignore it. The nice thing for my kids is that they don't have to internalize other people's attempts to define them by their momentary behavior. But what about other kids?

And kids' Christmas movies are just plain ridiculous. So much heaping guilt about Christmas spirit and believe going away and how it hurts Santa and might ruin Christmas. It's so heavy handed that I think I could draw some other cultural conclusions about our relationship to religion and faith just based on our treatment of Santa in Christmas movies and books!

The newest thing I've seen is the "Elf on the shelf". If you aren't aware, it is a little elf figurine that parents can buy and it "moves" around the house and purportedly spies on your kids for months and reports to Santa whether or not they've been bad. I want to be careful with this one because I know a lot of people close to me who love having the elf for their kids. And I do understand that other people have a greater desire to make things whimsical and fun in that way than I do.

However, I feel it often puts a huge, unnecessary burden on kids and parents. It can make the kids nervous and adds ANOTHER requirement on the parents (since the parent has to move it around or explain why the elf didn't move if they forgot to do it). And it reinforces the idea that the only reason to be good is so you get presents.Some people do put more into the fun aspect and less on the be good aspect, but for every family that does, there are 20 who use it as a primary disciplining tool.

I think a lot of adults try so hard to maintain the "magic" of holidays and youth and fantasy that the holidays become more about the adults than the kids. Parents kill themselves to decorate, buy, and do all the right things so that childhood will be perfect and holidays will be special. Kids are told to behave so they get stuff and people spend way more than they should to spoil kids and give them "everything they deserve". I personally see a major contradiction there. Not to mention that the majority of people end up really unhappy at the holidays because it isn't going the way it "should".

It isn't helpful to tell other people how to live their lives, especially if we are bashing each other over the heads with "true meanings" as a weapon to say, "I'm doing this right and you aren't". So I don't mean that here. And I have plenty of my own missteps with special days and times. I still end up overwhelmed with some of the traditions that we've adopted that suck the joy and energy right out of me. I still have ended up focusing too much on making the season feel right and therefore losing sight of more important issues. Still working on all of that.

For the first time this year K has expressed some disappointment with not having things the same as other kids he knows. But in many ways I can see that it's directly related to his kid desires for more and more, rather than better, that we as parents are helping him work through. He is mostly fine with the way things are, though, and we hope and pray that the decisions we've made will have a lasting impact on who he is as a person. And S as well.