Christmas was easy before I had children. All Phil and I had to do was show up at family functions -- or host them -- and fail to mail out Christmas cards in a timely fashion.
Now, however, I have a child and the Santa question looms large.
I had a fairly troubled regard toward him as a child: If Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of our lord and savior (as I was taught by the nuns at St. Jerome's), then why was the fat man horning in on the action?
Why was Santa never mentioned in the gospels? Shouldn't Jesus be riding shotgun since it's His birthday? Why would Santa be watching us? Wasn't that God's job? Wouldn't things be easier if God and Jesus handled all the presents and let Santa rest? I asked. My parents tap-danced around the answer to those questions until I was deemed old enough to learn that the home-invading Santa Claus was a mythic figure.
And then my question was, Why did you let me believe something you knew was false?
To be fair, my mom had never pushed Santa and my dad had dropped plenty of hints:
ME: I hope Santa likes cookies and milk ...
DAD: (offstage) Try a glass of beer and slice of pie. Believe me, Santa would prefer that. Or whiskey. Two fingers, neat.
It was mostly my grandparents, who were sufficiently removed from childhood as to confuse "the magic of the season" with "introducing cognitive dissonance before either word was on the weekly vocabulary list," who brought up the Santa myth at every turn.
My parents did their best to distinguish between our religious observance and what was dubbed the "secular" holiday, so I remained a Santa dissident from childhood on. He complicated the picture, encouraged the embrace of a domestic surveillance state, and looked the other way as his ungulate underlings bullied minorities.
So. Not big on introducing my daughter to Santa. I realized I was giving up a valuable parenting tool -- "Your greed will not be slaked if the omnipresent surveillance elves file a report with the man in red. So behave!" -- but a few years of careful observation have taught me one thing about parenting: It does not take much to confuse a child.
My daughter is already under the impression that Jesus lives in her grandparents' dining room and that "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" ought to be known by its proper name, "The Charlie Brown song." There is no profit in adding to my daughter's perpetual state of outraged perplexity. (At least, not if it doesn't benefit me.)
The first three Christmases my daughter was alive, Santa wasn't an issue. She was two months, fourteen months, or twenty-six months old. The red guy didn't register. Moreover, we always open presents on Christmas Eve after services, so there's no "Santa will deliver presents after you're in bed" set-up. Mama delivers presents after naptime. We all know it.
Now it is complicated. I would resent someone else telling my kid that her Christmas is compromised because it has no Santa, so I am making sure we're not that family who ruins Santa for other children and their parents. We've been sticking to a party line, "Santa is another name for someone who's loving and giving without expecting anything in return. We can all be Santa."
This is working. I doubt it's because my daughter is a natural philanthropist. I think it's because she's three, and it's a control-freaky age, and what appeals to a control freak more than the ability to shape others' lives to their whims?
"I'm going to be Santa Claus!" she declares at least once a day. We nod and assure her that she is.
I've ridden my child's Santa Claus delusion on a shopping expedition to pick out presents for our church's giving tree, and on a trip to drop off children's games in the Toys for Tots barrel. I've given the daughter a hat so she can be properly accessorized whenever the Santa fever strikes. I've played grateful recipient to her random acts of Santa largesse -- a dried apricot here, a Weeble there. The greatest gift Santa has given me is the opportunity for imaginative role play with a little girl who loves pretending she's the characters in her favorite books.
We have two more days to get through, and then we can drop the Santa finessing for this year. I have no idea how we'll thread the Santa needle next year or beyond. I suspect we'll let the daughter come to us with what she thinks is going on. I also suspect we'll be playing defense once she's in school and what her classmates say carries more weight than anything we say.
It has occurred to me that choosing to buck the Santa doctrine is a lot like choosing to step outside the defined boundaries of a particular religious creed. It is not easy to discern things for yourself, to trust your judgment, to be prepared to defend your beliefs in right and wrong to the constant queries of your conscience. Unexamined belief and unconditional embrace of Santa -- I occasionally wonder why I've chosen to reject both.
On the other hand: There is a little girl who glows with pride when she can be Santa for her favorite people.
Christmas is complicated now, and how we celebrate it will change in response to the visible and invisible changes in the people we love. But I hope that this memory of my preschool Santa will remain steady through the years.