What does Santa Claus teach children in our society? Really, the whole ethos of christmas in modern times is effected by this legendary character and his eight diminutive ruminants (or nine if you add in Gene Autry’s favorite). As we inch along in our cars, in traffic jams that seem to last for a month–don’t go anywhere near the mall!–many of us get nauseated from the obvious commercial ramifications brought on by this creation of Macy’s and Coca Cola. Those with children who are subject to the stalker persona from the cold north–the tune to I’ll Be Watching You by The Police comes to mind–say that its wonderful for their children. They say that it, “encourages a belief in the supernatural,” or that it, “teaches them the beauty of giving.” Is such a figure really necessary for all that? Is it really the healthiest way to raise children toward these goals?
I had some returns to make at Lowes a couple of weeks ago. As the woman was scanning the items, she asked (without looking up), “are you all ready for christmas?” I smirked to myself a little bit and replied, “about as ready as I can get.” She looked up, saw the kippah on my head and said, “oh! happy haunukkah.” She didn’t seem disappointed or anything, it was just a departure from what she expected. I told her thank you, then asked her if she was ready for christmas. “Oh no,” she said, “not hardly.” Friends and family have also expressed this circumstance. Regardless of who I’m talking to, my response is usually the same, “wouldn’t it be so nice if all you had to worry about was making and eating a nice meal, and relaxing with loved ones?”
Isn’t that really what the holiday should be about? Easter is more like this for most christians that I know. Jewish holidays are pretty much all centered around this. In fact, it is commonly said that every jewish holiday can be summarized with the phrase, “they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!” The most important and frequent holiday in judaism is shabbat (the sabbath), during which we are enjoined to eat three full meals, and to not perform any work. I’ll not get into the particulars of what “work” means in the context of torah (If you would like to read more about that, http://www.aish.com, and similar websites have many articles on what that means), but it is most likely not what you think. Basically, shabbat observance consists of not exerting our will upon the physical world, attempting to live in a more spiritual plane of existence similar to “paradise” or “heaven;” similar to the elemental existence in the garden of eden. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of people in the world, if they ever fully experienced a properly kept shabbat, would look forward to doing such a thing at any opportunity.
But even with the understanding of the stress that people let themselves feel–immediately and for a long time thanks to the gift of credit–in relation to the obligatory materialism of such “traditions,” year after year they flock back for more punishment. Even in judaism (in america) there isn’t much relief from such experiences, as Hanukkah has become “jewish christmas” for many who buy presents for all eight nights. I even ended up doing this this year. Usually, I am pretty steadfastly against presents on Hanukkah, as I don’t want to confuse the holiday to myself or my kids. This year though, I really wanted to buy them stuff! Now granted, I bought them mostly stuff they needed or could really use anyway– gloves, scarves, slippers, art sets, and books–but I did buy a few frivolous things that I knew they’d get a kick out of. It did make it a bit more special for all of us.
I wonder if it was a mistake to do this. Will they expect it next year as well? As their mother and they are still celebrating christmas–albeit in a completely secular way–there was talk this evening about Santa Claus. This was interesting to me, because they all have known that Santa isn’t real for the last four years. I guess they still enjoy the mystique, the character, and the spirit of this style of gift giving. I can’t blame them! Perhaps it would be better if we, in this society, just taught through example that everyone is “santa claus” if they choose to be. Instead of attributing these things to a make-believe character, wouldn’t it be more wonderful if the children were shown that real people sometimes just want to be nice to others and give them presents? For years I have been trying to convince people that I would much rather just get a letter or a gift out of the blue, just because they saw something they knew I’d love. So far, despite my best efforts to do this, it has not met with success.
I think the reason is that without obligation, many of us just won’t do it, even if we know that its the right thing to do. As I touched on in my post, “Assimilation, Death of the ‘Modern’ Jew,” without obligation to keep the torah, Jews just don’t. Perhaps the obligation by the “torah” of peer pressure and advertising is just plain a better motivator than making somebody smile. How sad is that!?
How about getting rid of the idea of Santa all together, and instead just place random gifts around the house, with no idea who gave them? Actually, it just dawned on me that perhaps the reason that Santa is a better fit is the same reason that for most, christianity is a better fit than Judaism. In christianity, there is a form given to G-d. With the Santa tradition, there is form given to the spirit of giving. Without this form, even if it is indistinct and changes in the mind of each person conceiving it, perhaps it is just too much to grasp and so automatically makes minds and emotions reject the very concept.
Well, there is a little food for thought at least. Whether you are celebrating christmas with or without santa, I hope you have a merry christmas. If you are celebrating a different holiday, I hope that it is very special for you. If you, like me, will be eating chinese food and going to see a movie–as is the custom of my people on the winter solstice–then may your egg rolls be vegetarian, your Kung Pao be spicy, and may you be able to make it to a matinee–or don’t forget to ask for your student discount–because hey, “yo mama pays retail!”