This was a question my preschooler asked from the backseat after we’d volunteered decorating Christmas baskets to hold donations.
He wasn’t asking for himself, even though he would get one present from his parents and another few from his grandparents. As a non-churchgoing family we chose to limit presents from the beginning and focus on the spiritual parts of the winter season that, to me, are magical and grounding even though we don’t belong to a church.
When he was very young, it was obvious my kiddo was quite literal in his interpretation of how the world worked (he is now an engineering student so our instincts were right!). If we visited the mall he turned away from people dressed as cartoon characters; they weren’t real and he didn’t like their giant heads.
I can’t remember exactly how we landed on the idea of not introducing Santa as a gift-giver, but it definitely made sense to us. I grew up with Santa, and have delightful memories of ripping off paper to see what he brought. As new parents, however, we didn’t want the holiday to be about Stuff. We included Santa in our Christmas stories, but he was just that, a story of one way that Christmas is celebrated in our wonderful diverse world.
We chose to live in the middle of a city that is both racially and economically diverse, and took advantage of our location to explore different cultures whenever possible. We didn’t have a lot of money but helping those in our community has always been important to our family, so we volunteered for organizations that allowed young children to participate.
One of the earliest volunteering opportunities we had was decorating holiday baskets to hold donated items that would be delivered to clients. After a couple of years we started adopting a basket, which was especially fun as we could “match” with someone who had a cat and a child, just like us. We shopped from a list of hoped for items, most of which were necessities but the organization always requested people list items just for fun as well.
The first year we adopted a basket, my son was delighted to get our list assignment, and he had many questions over the following days.
“Are we going to Target? I think we should go to Target. Do you think this boy would like Hot Wheel cars? Is it ok to give him a Hot Wheel car that I really like? What if we get more presents that what it says, will he have to give one to someone else?”
“What’s a crock pot?”
“What if our presents don’t fit in the holiday box?”
“Do you think his cat likes crinkly balls too? Will his cat be sad that he doesn’t get very many presents?”
“Mom…. I think it’s more funner to get presents for my boy because I know he will be happy.”
“Mom? If my boy’s family doesn’t have money to buy him presents, because the dad is sick, what if they don’t have money for the doctor?”
“A boy at my school said he is getting a lot of presents from Santa. If Santa is real, how come he brings presents to kids with money? If I believe in Santa will he bring me presents, and I can give them to kids with no money?”
“Do you think my boy believes in Santa? I hope he likes Hot Wheel cars.”
Now, as an adult, my son has admitted that he’s glad we never lied to him about Santa (he definitely wasn’t gonna buy into the Easter Bunny!), and he and his friends are still the most empathetic, grounded, generous group of young adults I’ve ever known.
I truly believe that children are born connected to the wider world, the soul of humanity, and the spirit of the Earth, regardless of their spiritual/religious traditions. Once they’re old enough to recognize differences, they are naturally incredibly generous. It’s our parenting and our culture that slowly retrain the ability to identify with someone that isn’t like us in some way. Gift-giving should be about making a connection with a fellow human. Sometimes this means you see a coffee cup on vacation in the tropics that you know your friend will love (because there’s a very real looking ceramic roach in the bottom and she is terrified of bugs but will still think it’s hilarious) (ok so I was the recipient and I didn’t think it was funny at first but it’s pretty dang funny); sometimes this means you spend hours reading every birthday card in the store to find just the right words (my mom does this and we absolutely treasure the cards); sometimes this means you buy every kitchen item on a gift-basket list and then also the CD and sweater even though it’s more than you spend on the rest of your family; sometimes it means you give a boy a Hot Wheel car he didn’t ask for because cars are your favorite, most loved thing in the world and you want to share.
Santa, therefore, has no place in my giving traditions. He’s too busy running a toy-building empire, flinging toys from the list into his sleigh, and eating a bazillion cookies to offset the caloric requirement of climbing in and out of chimneys all night across the world to know anything more than whether someone is Naughty or Nice.
I do acknowledge the pure magic of Santa. I remember most of my presents from Santa better than those from my parents in my younger years. But even more than gift-delivering, I find the usage of Santa as a behavioral bribe utterly abhorrent, for many reasons. It’s bad enough that we tend to overindulge our consumerist cravings, but now in a season that is full of anxious, stressed adults; loads of sugar; and a lot more driving to and fro than usual, we make exclamations like, “If you keep fighting with your sister, Santa won’t bring you any presents!” And even worse, to my mind, is using the recent Elf on a Shelf to make the threat and remove ourselves even further from empathy (as a coworker recently showed a group of us; I was appalled but everyone else thought it was genius. It did cleverly rhyme, I’ll give her that).
To me, these actions not only fly in the face of my anti-consumerist leanings, but miss the point of celebrating at all. Gift-giving should make you pause to reflect on the things you see are important to another person, and given in love. During the winter holidays, gift-giving should be from the heart of your spiritual tradition while being respectful of the recipient’s. Gift-giving should never be a contest and should never be about the Gift — but about the act of Giving. Of thinking about what matters. Of thinking about the people, because the connection in our mere humanity matters.
Santa hats on pets, however, I wholeheartedly support. And Elf is required viewing in my home at minimum once per Christmas break!