There’s an annual routine that many non-Christian parents go through: They walk into a daycare centre or school at the beginning of the year and inquire about how it handles religious holidays. The staff usually try to size you up and figure out why exactly you’re asking. In the end, they usually say: “We celebrate the holidays in a non-denominational way. We invite kids to share stories about the holidays that they recognize at home.” It’s a good answer, especially when it ends up being true—but that’s not always the case.
Fast-forward to December and suddenly your tiny non-Christian (in my case, Jewish) kid appears onstage in a Santa hat in her dance class' holiday recital. When my now-five-year-old daughter, Anna, was still in daycare, her classroom holiday party featured a visit from Santa, complete with lap sitting and loot bags filled with—you guessed it—Christmas stickers and candy canes.
I don’t prevent Anna from participating in Christmas activities—I know it’s all around her and that other kids are excited about it. I’m used to her being asked what she would like from Santa. The other day, a stranger on the bus asked her if she would be attending the Toronto Santa Claus Parade—something she'd never heard of until now.
I’ve written before about how I’ve chosen not to pretend that there is a tooth fairy, and I haven’t fed her the Santa story either. But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t get excited about him because he is everywhere: at Canadian Tire in giant inflatable form, at Loblaws (since when is there a live Santa at a grocery store chain?), at our neighbourhood’s Christmas festival and at her dad’s family’s Christmas banquet (where at least the person in the Santa suit isn’t a complete stranger).
I’ve also written about how we celebrate Hanukkah. But even when I go all out, it’s still relatively quiet—Hanukkah just doesn’t have the same flash as Christmas. In some ways, this makes sense, as it really isn’t one of the more important Jewish celebrations, but the whole situation lends itself to having one very confused kid every year.
This coming weekend, Anna’s school has its annual craft-fair fundraiser. It’s a fun event—I like to support it and I especially like to buy hand-knit items from one particular vendor. It’s not meant to be particularly festive, but every year there are photos with Santa on a little stage—and every year, Anna wants one. Is it out of genuine interest on her part, or is it because she wants a candy cane and wants to do what all the other kids are doing? I don’t mind donating $5 to the school, but I’d much rather put it in a donation jar or take a picture with a snowman since that’s more about being winter festive.
Of course, it’s not mandatory to sit with Santa, but there’s no other photo opportunity for Anna. The fact that it's meant to be a fundraiser acknowledges that it’s enticing to kids. I’ve never brought the Christmasness of the concert up with the school, and I haven’t addressed my frustration over the Santa visit with the parent council that puts on the craft fair. Given how upset some people are about the all-red Starbucks holiday cup design, I think my hesitance is probably founded. But it doesn’t change how much pressure there is to celebrate Christmas every year, regardless of one’s beliefs.
And it doesn’t make it any easier to explain to a five-year-old.