Growing up attending an Episcopalian church, I learned to know December as Advent, a season of waiting, for the coming of Jesus, the Light of the world. The candles, special carols, the church decked in red and white with fresh firs, the Christmas Eve service ending with the singing of Silent Night all added to this expecting. As an adult, for many years even after years attending Quaker Meeting, I continued to light a candle in my window on Christmas Eve.
Food was a part of the waiting also. My mother and grandmother made more than a dozen types of Christmas cookies in the German tradition, and there were at least five kinds of stollen Christmas morning. My mom made Beef Wellington one year for Christmas, and we never let her stop.
In my family, Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve. As young children, this meant my parents and grandparents stayed up very late putting up the tree after my brother and I went to bed.
In later years, all of we went out and bought the tree on Christmas Eve, put it up and decorated it, each with our respective tasks. As my brother and I got older, Christmas presents were set out without names in mid-December, with much shaking of packages and wondering how my mother knew to whom to distribute them on Christmas morning.
All was not perfect – we had the traditional tinsel-stringing wars, and we always seemed to have a fight on the way home from church on Christmas Eve – I still haven’t figured out what that was all about.
Christmas night it seemed impossible to go to sleep in anticipation, and Christmas morning came early. The early morning tradition continued when my brother had children – I have a great photo of him sitting in his bathrobe with a cup of coffee surrounded by torn off wrapping paper and behind him a clock on the wall reading 6:10. My husband and I convinced our daughter that, since we lived in Florida, it took Santa awhile to get there (often around 9 AM), so she could sleep late play outside while waiting. Nice while it lasted!
My daughter and I had a number of conversations about God and Santa Claus when she was young. From a young age she wanted to know who Santa was, and if he was real. I would answer her somewhat vaguely – “Who do you think Santa is?” “Do you think he is real?”
I would not lie to her. I also did not want to put her at odds with the larger culture at this age. When she grew more persistent, I told her that Santa is the spirit of giving. As far as she was concerned, Santa was the spirit of getting – getting all those gifts on Christmas morning! I actually think she knew even before she asked the questions that the adults in her life were responsible for the gifts.
The Santa that came down our street on the fire engine on Christmas Eve was confusing, however, since he said he would be back during the night. I eventually came to see Santa as also a parent’s out from the persistent adding to the Christmas list all season – one could always say “put it on the list and see what Santa brings.” Santa is a far cry from St. Nicolas who brought dried fruit and nut treats to hungry children in the depth of winter.
My daughter and I also had conversations about God. I told her that “God is love,” the same and only answer the minister I knew during my youth gave me as a teen. I did point out that God is Spirit.
At one point, she told me very clearly that if Santa is a spirit, and God is a Spirit, Santa is obviously a much larger and more important spirit, since he could bring all those presents. I knew I was in trouble then! I tried to explain that without love, nothing else was possible, and hoped we could work all this out as she grew older.
To add to the mix, my husband’s background is Jewish, and we also celebrate Chanukah, complete with the evening lighting of candles, Hebrew prayers—such as “Baruch atah Adonai, elohaynu melech ha’olam,” which he loosely translated as “Blessed is the Source of Life in the universe”—and a discussion of faithfulness and not giving up on what you believe in the face of hardship.
Of course, the celebration of Chanukah meant wrapping lots of other presents, and trying to make all things equal during the two holidays. The hardest part was when Chanukah and Christmas overlapped, and we celebrated both, like Seinfeld’s “Christmukah” or “Festivah.”
And gifts always came at the winter solstice, from my dear friend, Aunt Ann, and her husband, Walt.
My neighbor across the street once asked me about celebrating both Christian and Jewish traditions, and if this was confusing for my daughter. I started laughing, and asked if children could be any more confused than linking the birth of Jesus to evergreens pagan in origin, getting many gifts with no spiritual significance whatsoever, neighborhood holiday lights contests, and singing “Frosty the Snowman” in the Florida heat.
In my view, the season is pretty much a cultural free-for-all in the United States, with fun but also commercialism at its core.
So where is Quaker simplicity in all of this? I am still asking that question.
As my daughter gets older, our celebrations become simpler, both in form and in content. She understands my feelings about who and what God is for me, and enjoys the spirit of giving. Her list of desires grows shorter, and lesser in importance.
I have never answered the questions about raising children in such an insanely materialistic culture, particularly in a multicultural family. Living in an affluent Boston suburb now, we are still working on that one – my daughter’s friends have up to $200 per month in spending money after all clothes and such are bought. She does not.
I am very interested in hearing responses from others on simplicity and celebrating with children or as children.
How has this been for you? What are your struggles, joys and successes?
The image credits for this post are as follows: