You might find gift shopping, meal planning and organizing family get-togethers the most stressful parts of the holiday season. Me? I’d rather arrange a dozen fussy canapé trays than try to explain this multifaceted holiday in a kid-friendly (read non-traumatic) way.
No matter how you slice it, Christmas—a Christian holiday that’s stuffed with pagan traditions and gift-wrapped in secular glory—is tricky. It’s a complicated holiday, one with more layers than an onion. Naturally, my six-year-old son has a lot of questions about it. “Is Santa Claus really real? Are elves human? If not, what are they? How come the Elf on the Shelf visits my friend’s house and not ours?”
I really don’t know where to start. As someone who was raised in both United and Catholic churches, my first instinct is to lay down the biblical foundation for the holiday. It just seems weird to celebrate a religious holiday without explaining the religious aspects. After all, as the posters say, Jesus is the reason for the season, right? I figured that nine years of Catholic school would make this easy, but I often find myself fielding questions like “If God made Mary pregnant and Jesus is also God, then is God His own father?” Since I am a 21st-century lapsed Catholic feminist and not a member of the First Council of Nicaea, I’m not always able to provide the, er, church-approved answers to these questions. Sometimes I bluster and make things up. Sometimes I turn to Google. Sometimes I refer him to his father, a former altar boy. Sometimes I put “Jingle Bells” on repeat and hope that’s the end of the discussion.
Explaining a secular take on Christmas isn’t any simpler. Is encouraging a belief in Santa just harmless fun or is it tantamount to participating in a vast conspiracy that will eventually lead your children to never trust another thing you say? While ultimately paved with good intentions, will the road to Santa eventually lead to years of therapy in which my kid tries to figure out where his fear of old, bearded men comes from? It seems fundamentally wrong to tell your kid that something is real with the intention of, several years down the road, telling her that it was all just one big, fat, jolly lie.
In spite of all this, I find myself leaving out milk and cookies every Christmas Eve while winking broadly at my son and whispering “Let’s see if Santa eats these tonight!” The only excuse I have is that we started this tradition before I really started thinking critically about Santa, and I was never traumatized by the lie. But that’s also kind of like saying “When my parents were kids, car seats didn’t exist and they didn’t die.” It might be true, but it doesn’t exactly make it right.
And then there’s the whole dividing children into “good” and “bad” categories. I’m not saying I’ve never tried to get my child to brush his teeth by faking a phone call to Santa—the flesh is weak, after all—but the whole “naughty” list completely goes against my parenting beliefs. There is no such thing as a bad kid! And yet, Elf on the Shelf leans in hard on this part of the Santa mythology: The elf in question is a doll that children are told flies back to the North Pole every night to report on them to Santa. It’s a cute concept, I guess—if you think spying and tattling are cute. I might be a hypocrite who uses her imaginary relationship with an imaginary old man to leverage good behaviour from her kid, but at least I do my own legwork instead of relying on a toy.
I feel very conflicted over how I’ve managed Christmas so far (all that good ol’ Catholic guilt still runs in my veins). If I had to do it all again, I probably wouldn’t make the same choices again. On the other hand, if Santa is the worst thing I inflict on my kid, I’m probably not doing so badly. Seriously, though, does parenting ever stop being a series of cringing realizations that, in retrospect, you probably could have done better?
In spite of my endless worrying that I might be doing Christmas wrong, I have to admit that the holiday season is one of my favourite times of the year. I love decorating the house with pine boughs and branches of holly. I love singing Christmas carols—the more minor the key, the better. I even love shopping for Christmas presents—in person and at the mall. But most of all, I love sharing all of this with my kid. His joy in taking part in all the traditions I loved as a kid is so pure that it makes my cynical old heart burst wide open.
Joy and wonder—that’s what Christmas is all about, right? Maybe I’m getting a thing or two right after all.
This article was originally published online in December 2017.