After my post last week, some of you may be wondering why an atheist is fretting over celebrating Christmas with his kid. But Jesus isn’t the problem for atheists over Christmas. Jesus is easy.
Now, Santa. Santa is hard.
There’s nothing unusual about non-Christians having some kind of celebration on Christmas Day. When I was a Christian, I was acutely aware, as are all Christians, that there are really two “Christmases” celebrated in North America and much of the rest of the world. There is a secular holiday, and there is a sacred one. You have on the one hand, a religious observance of the birth of Jesus. On the other, you have Santa Claus, NBA games, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Christians usually deal with this in one of two ways: by attacking secular celebrations, bemoaning the entire season the loss of Christ in Christmas. Or, by accepting that there are two holidays that bear little relation to each other, and celebrating either or both as they see fit.
I was in the latter category. Kids are smart; they usually figure this stuff out.
So I had no problem with exchanging gifts with my knucklehead when we had our little celebration. For us, it was a time to be grateful to and for each other, a chance to exchange physical tokens of our mutual affection. And to have special food, and generally enjoy a day just for ourselves without other obligations. A secular holiday.
And then that bastard Santa Claus had to come along and ruin it.
If you refuse to acknowledge what you consider to be an imaginary deity looking down on you, acknowledging an imaginary fat man that circumnavigates the globe in 8 hours via ruminant-driven propulsion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean come on. If you’re going to ditch one, you have to ditch the other, right?
But Santa doesn’t play fair. To deny my knucklehead stockings hung by the chimney with care* was to deny him a ton of swag all his other little friends were getting in on. If I didn’t go along with the Santa Claus mythology, it was practical stealing from him. How fair would it be to make my sweet boy suffer because of my own beliefs? Not to mention the fact that in the wings was his mom’s side of the family, including his only living grandparents, who had no problem with Santa Claus. As I wrote last week, Christmas is not a competition. Having said that, The Knucklehead’s mom was poised to kick my ass at Christmas.
And then there was this:
Two weeks ago I wrote of the miserable memories I had of Christmas growing up. But the memories weren’t all bad. There was one thing my mother did that I looked forward to every year. The woman put together the best Santa stockings you’ve ever seen. Her Christmas morning stockings were spectacular. If there was one Christmas tradition of my mother’s I wanted to continue, this was it.
There were two very good reasons we looked forward to stockings on Christmas morning.
First, you may recall that my father was a pastor. He’d officiate over the Christmas morning service – the least-attended service of the season. Following the service, he had parishioners to attend to. He’d make the rounds of hospitals and nursing homes, stopping by to visit those stuck there for the holidays. Which was awfully nice of him. But it meant my mother was left home with four kids staring at presents under the tree they weren’t allowed to open until dad got home, which was usually mid-afternoon.
We were, however, allowed to open our stockings as soon as we got up. And my mother, not being an idiot, made damned sure there was enough in those stockings to keep us busy until dad got home. There was loot in those stockings. Not a ton of candy; the last thing she needed on Christmas morning was four terrors in the throes of sugar rush. But plenty of toys, games, art supplies, etc. My mother actually spent most of the year on the lookout for small knickknacks she would save for Christmas stockings. My stocking always included a paperback peeking out the top. Always. And not just some crappy educational book, either. Something I wanted, which usually meant science fiction or the latest Robert Ludlum. Many’s the Christmas morning I burned sprawled on the couch in my jammies, lost in a real page-turner.
Which brings me to the second reason my mother’s Santa stockings were so memorable. Gifts were the way my mother most eloquently said, “I love you.”
I spent a lot of my childhood frustrated that my mother didn’t seem to want to hear what I had to say, and looking back, I think a lot of that frustration was justified. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t paying attention to me, or to my siblings. Come Christmas, or birthdays, each of us kids would find something from my mother that was absolutely unique to us. Something that only someone who was really paying attention would know we’d want. Sure, there would be the school supplies ordered in bulk, or the value pack of Lifesavers or mittens split four ways. But there would also be something totally unique to each of us; a book, a record, a toy. When we finally did open our presents, we’d take turns, one at a time, and it was a lesson to me. What did my mother see in my brother that made him different than me? What might I have seen in my brother that she didn’t miss? Even knowing that her attention was zeroed in on another sibling made it somehow surer that that attention was coming around to me.
The stockings were personalized in the same way.
There were gifts my mother gave me that she could have given to no one else. She too often tripped over her words, trapped in her own parents’ sermons when speaking to me. But when she silently handed me a gift, a smile of expectation crossed her face that I never saw at any other time. Amid the uproar of a family Christmas, it was a private exchange between the two of us. It made me careful in choosing gifts for her. For my Bride. For my Knucklehead.
Christmas stockings were my best memories of holidays, of my mother. They were how I could bring some of her to the grandson she never got to meet. How could I not hang stockings with my knucklehead?
To Santa, or not to Santa. That was the question. To answer it, I turned to a tool parents have turned to for generations. Hypocrisy.
I caved. I folded like a cheap suit. Imaginary Santa and his very real blackmail won the day.
Look, I wasn’t proud of myself. I’m still not. But I saw no other way around it. I eased my guilt by never actively talking about Santa Claus. We never wrote letters to Santa, we never visited the guy at the mall. Had the Elf on the Shelf been around when Knucks was young, the little fink never would have made it inside the house (or if he had, we would have at least blindfolded him). But a lie of omission is still a lie, and I told one every time we put the stockings up, and filled them after he went to bed. I was knowingly perpetuating something I knew not to be true. I was lying to my boy, and I didn’t like that.
I told myself that kids are smart, and they are. The Knucklehead saw my hypocrisy for what it was, and over time, I’m sure he was grateful for it. I’m sure he was grateful that I didn’t let my own ideology spoil all his fun. As he got older, I told him about my mother and the stockings, and I think he saw it as a way of sharing from my past. He saw the bind I was in. He appreciated the extra love that went into the Christmas stocking. Even as a little kid, I like to think he saw the wink I was giving.
Does the whole Santa thing make me a bad atheist? Absolutely. Guilty as charged. But it didn’t do my boy any long-term damage, just as you and I most likely survived the Santa mythology with our own reason intact. But it was the key to salvaging some joy out of my own past and sharing it with my boy. And as I’d gather my treasures for his stocking I’d picked up through the year, I felt an immense pleasure at the delight he’d take in finding just the right present, the little toy or game or keepsake that would be perfect for him and for no one else, and I’d suddenly realize the delight of anticipation my mother must have felt at exactly the same moment in her parenthood. I’d realize that maybe Christmas wasn’t without joy for her, either, not completely, and that I had been responsible in some small way of giving her something to look forward to in the marathon of work and stress that was Christmas in my house. Maybe that was a gift I gave her without realizing it. Just as I was receiving it now from my own child. It was a connection. Her to me. Her to my son.
Knucks is 19 now, soon to go off to his sophomore year at college. We’ll do stockings this Christmas, just like we did last year, and every year since he was little. We’ll fill stockings for as long as we can. These days, I’m responsible for my Bride’s and my Knucklehead’s stockings, and they for mine. It’s fun that way. I get to see the look on his face when I open the stocking he gives me, that he’s seen on my face all his life. The look I saw on my mother’s face.
That’s worth a little hypocrisy.
*Or windowsill. My crappy apartment didn’t have a chimney. Santa was going to have to come through the window, like they do on COPS.