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Figuring out the world at Age 9 – Part 692

By Brian | December 23, 2009 | Share on Facebook

My older son, Avery, asked me two interesting questions about Christmas the other day. I’ll remind you that we’re Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas religiously, although he does have a lot of Christian friends.

Q1) Daddy, what does Santa Claus bringing presents to kids have to do with the birth of Jesus?

My answer: Nothing at all, Avery. Nothing at all. They are two completely separate parts of the Christmas holiday. And oh, by the way – excellent question.

Q2) Daddy, do YOU think Santa Claus is real?

My answer: first, I made him read this world-famous New York Sun editorial from 1897. In it, editor Francis Pharcellus Church writes:

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.


You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.


Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

The language is a little esoteric for a 9-year old, but it led to an interesting discussion. I asked him if he thought feelings like love and happiness were real. He said yes, of course, so I asked him how he knew, given that he’d never seen either of them. He essentially said, “I just know.” And so, I explained, that billions of people all over the world give presents to their friends and families at Christmas time, and have done so for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And the feeling that makes all of those people do this is Santa Claus.

Interestingly, he asked me if parents bought their kids gifts at Christmas time during The Great Depression. I pointed him to the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, which he has seen lit several times. The first tree in Rockefeller Center was erected in 1931, during the heart of the Great Depression. It was decorated with cranberries, paper garland and tin cans – all items that could be found readily at hand without spending much money. Avery concluded that Santa Claus made the workers put up the tree, so people would feel good during the holidays, even during the Depression.

I realize this is not the high-pressure question that it would be for a Christian family, but I feel pretty good about the conversation, and I think that Avery (and his younger brother, Brandon, who was listening to the whole thing) understand it pretty well now.

Topics: Family Matters | 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Figuring out the world at Age 9 – Part 692”

  1. Jeff Porten says at December 23rd, 2009 at 2:14 am :
    Huh. Very interesting. Thoughts:

    1) pop me an email warning if either kid has a literal belief in Santa, so Jeff doesn’t stick his foot in it.

    2) good call on the “thousands of years” bit — it wasn’t exactly a gift holiday, but it’s been celebrated by pagans since long before Christ.

    3) what I find fascinating: the timing of Christmas, and the promotion of Hanukah from the extreme minor leagues of Jewish observance, were both anthropological competition to avoid losing religious membership to the people next door who were partying. Again, if this is a verboten subject for your offspring, let me know, because that sounds like an interesting talk if it came up.

    4) question: why give the credit to Santa for 1931 et al? I’d rather say it was the *spirit* of Christmas, but the *effort* of the people involved.

  2. Janet says at December 23rd, 2009 at 9:45 am :
    Lovely, Brian – and we’ve had similar conversations in this “Christian family” – and I have to say I reacted a bit negatively to that term, because it’s been so co-opted by the evangelical right. (Facebook recently had a poll about whether we should have a “Christian president.” I pointed out to my friend who had posted it that we’ve had 43, at least in name. But that wasn’t what the poll meant, as we both knew.)

    None of that, however, gives me any problems with any of your answers, nor do I think my church would have any problems with them (but then, we’re wacky Episcopalians, about to be ejected from the World Anglican Communion for all our crazy convictions). My (female) priest talks of “gospel writers” because there’s a clear sense of the history of all this – of why, for example, early Christians might have curried favor with the Romans in power by blaming everything on the Jews who weren’t in power then, which doesn’t tell us anything about what any Jewish people did or didn’t do to anyone. And she’d certainly acknowledge that Christmas is celebrated when it is because of (quite successful) efforts to co-opt Solstice; if there’s one thing we know about what might have happened thousands of years ago, it’s that the Romans conducted their censuses in the summer time. And yes, Jeff, I agree about the elevation of Hanukkah, too – Brian and I had a similar conversation recently about that in relation to the dearth of quality Hanukkah music. I mean, why should there be any? When’s the last time you heard a good Purim song?

    As for Santa, the kids understand the disconnect between him and the historical St Nicholas, who may or may not have done various things in what is now Turkey a very long time ago. They also understand, as Brian and Avery do (but maybe not Jeff?) that Santa is a state of mind more than anything else. They like to go see the big man in the red suit at the mall, but they’ve always known that was a “Helper Santa.” I don’t know how literal their belief ever was, but my goal was to make sure there was no big moment of disillusionment. So we talked about the North Pole when they were little, but we also always talked about how when we give to others, at Christmastime or other times, we are all Santa. And that Santa needs an awful lot of help to get things done. And that we are all responsible to all our fellow human beings. So I know that they know much more about the arctic than to think that there’s an elf-run factory up there, but it also gives them pleasure to continue to “believe.” Magic can be really reassuring, especially in the name of good. Fundamentally, it’s about believing in humanity, and community, and something greater than our own narrow worlds and needs. Magic that people can make happen.

    This year, Ben (who is 13) asked Santa for a donation in his name to the Heifer Project. Our teacher presents are handwritten personal cards and a donation in honor of the teachers and staffs of the two schools to the local No Freeze Shelter. I’m certainly not saying that Santa is the only way to teach and live the principles we want to teach and live, but he is an effective, fun, even joyful one.

  3. Michael says at December 23rd, 2009 at 11:57 am :
    Jeff – Tim, we think, still believes literally in Santa. I won’t be upset if he figures it out; he already knows that some of his friends don’t believe.

  4. Brian says at December 23rd, 2009 at 2:17 pm :
    @Jeff – I was going to direct you to Jen & Michael, so see Michael’s comment above. Avery & Brandon don’t believe in the literal Santa Claus, but as I said above, maybe understand the story a little better now. As for Timmy, I wouldn’t bring it up to him myself (too much of a chance to “eat foot” as you put it), but as per Michael’s comments, I won’t specifically tell Avery & Brandon to avoid the topic either (Michael – let me know if I’ve got that wrong). We’ll see what happens…

    As for 1931, I think I got your point across pretty well. The kids understand that the workers put the tree up themselves, but that the “spirit” (I went with “feeling”) of Santa Claus is what made them think to do it.


    re: “Christian family” – all I meant by the term was “family who is Christian.” Agreed that others have co-opted the term. Not me, though…

    re: Jews/Romans/Christians – I think you may have misread my original post. Avery was asking about the birth of Christ, which he has learned is what Christians celebrate during Christmas, not the death of Christ. My interest in those events has always stopped at the Mel Gibson level, principally because I’ve always been reluctant to get my history from churches (or synagogues, for that matter). I will pick one nit with your comment, though: the Christians you referred to as currying favor with the Romans were actually Jews at the time, since Christianity was only just beginning then. I bring this up not to be argumentative, but merely to point out the intricacies in that particular series of historic events.

    re: the guy in the red suit: our current vision of Santa Claus began with Thomas Nast, illustrating for Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800′s, and cemented itself into our popular culture due to advertisements by the Coca-Cola company, beginning in the early 1930′s. I don’t know a lot about St. Nicholas himself, but am I correct in assuming that he is no more important in Christian lore than St. Patrick, for example? Interesting how no one seems to balk at the secularism of that Saint, huh? Maybe they’re all too sloshed to bother? ;-)

  5. Ilya says at December 23rd, 2009 at 2:25 pm :
    I never had to deal with this question directly with my kids. They naturally moved from believing in Santa at the early age to considering him just a nice attribute of the holidays by the time they were 7-8. Possibly, our cultural tradition of celebrating New Year played the big role in that. “Grandfather Frost” (??? ?????) comes with gifts on the night of January 1st, rather than December 25th. The first time each kid required an explanation of why there was a week’s delay in getting gifts, while all other kids were already getting theirs, we had to come up with a “different cultures have different holidays” spiel. I may be giving my kids too much credit for being able to think critically, but I suspect that the on-going dichotomy blunted their need to believe in either Santa or Frost.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure that I’d have started answering that Q2 with a firm “No, I do not”. Followed, most likely, by an explanation similar to yours as to why people need to believe in myths.

    I’m suddenly questioning how my “establish where you stand first” approach to parenting compares to your definitely not so blunt one. Which even prompted me to write a comment…

  6. Brian says at December 23rd, 2009 at 2:45 pm :
    Thanks for the comment, Ilya. Insightful as always…

    If it helps any, this isn’t just the story I told my kids. I actually do believe that there’s an over-arching feeling/spirit that comes with the holiday season (across religions and cultures). How else do you explain the remarkable consistency of traditions throughout the centuries, particularly from back in the day when different cultures had no real way of communicating with, or comparing traditions with, others?

    Pigeon-holing that feeling into the construct of “Santa Claus” is, I’ll grant you, a very convenient way to explain such a concept to a modern-day child. But if I had to give a yes or no answer, then I’d go with Mr. Chruch and say, “Yes, there IS a Santa Claus.”

  7. Janet says at December 23rd, 2009 at 5:06 pm :
    Brian, I neither meant to nor thought that you were conflating the birth and death of Jesus (though I am parenthetically intrigued by these references to Christ, which is the title that means “saviour” rather than a given name). I was merely expanding on the Episcopal church’s stand on literal meanings of the Bible more broadly. Consider it a tangent, if a closely related one. Given what I do for a living, I’d have a hard time spending any time in an institution that couldn’t treat its documents as historically situated; I still have difficulty listening to the Passion on Palm Sunday, however, especially Mark’s version, but I’m usually stuck in church because of the choir. Easter is fun, but I’m not much of a fan of Holy Week. And Christmas is better all around.

    I’m going to quibble with your nit-picking: absolutely, in the time of Jesus, the folks we’re talking about (including Jesus) were Jewish. When the Gospels were written, mostly about a century later, however, they were written by Christians (admittedly very very early Christians, but Christians nonetheless) who were trying to spread their new religion and thought currying favor with the Romans was a good way to go. They seem to have been right about that.

    And I wasn’t suggesting that you in particular meant that Christian=right-wing evangelical, just that that’s what it has overwhelmingly come to mean. My family and I go to a church that certainly considers itself Christian (and has since Henry VIII) wanted to get divorced and the Pope played politics). Have I “accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior”? Well, no. Am I sure about any concept of divinity? Well, no, not that either. Which fortunately is OK with the Episcopalians, as long as I’m not trying to become a priest or something like that (and I’m definitely not). But it’s a community of tradition I’m comfortable with, of a morality that equates with a common humanity that I want to teach my children, and some great music that I’m attached to. But it makes labels pretty awkward. I’m quite unlikely to describe myself as “Christian,” though I’m pretty much fine with “Episcopalian.”

    None of that about the church has much of anything to do with what I get from the idea of Santa (and yes, I know quite a bit about the construction of our current image in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries – did you really think I wouldn’t? Some other time, I’ll tell you my favorite story about the marketing of Old Sturbridge Village). My guess is that most Americans don’t know that St. Nicholas is anything other than another name for Santa, rather than thinking about the calendar of saints. He’s a bigger deal in Europe than in the US. I know a little about him, but not a lot; saints aren’t really my thing.

    Ho ho ho, and God Bless Us All, Every One (and we read that out loud every year, too – a tradition that my Jewish dad started when my sister and I were kids). And actually, Dickens is pretty much all about the spirit of giving, and our collective responsibilities toward humanity; there are only quite brief and superficial references to babies and such.

  8. Janet says at December 23rd, 2009 at 5:30 pm :
    And if there was any doubt that we aren’t the only ones talking about this at the moment:

  9. Steve Walsh says at December 23rd, 2009 at 8:58 pm :
    Santa’s just a spirit?!? Woo-hoo! I can eat the cookies!

    BTW, do Avery and Brandon think Elijah drinks the wine? (Passover tradition? I’m a little rusty!)

  10. Janet says at December 23rd, 2009 at 10:47 pm :
    Hi, Steve!

  11. Brian says at December 24th, 2009 at 12:31 am :
    Yes, Steve, you can eat the cookies. But if their they’re “spirit cookies,” better not drive or operate heavy machinery for a while….

    As for Elijah – I’m impressed that you pulled that name out of deep storage. To be honest, our family typically reads the first part of the seder, then eats dinner, then retires to the TV/playroom/etc.. The second half of the seder (the part that’s supposed to be read after dinner) is the part that contains Elijah, so the kids never really get to hear it. My father-in-law, in particular, still reads the second half of the seder, but he tends to do it quickly & quietly (since few others in the group are doing it with him) and he tends to do it in Hebrew.

    Bottom line: I think the kids know the story of Elijah, but it doesn’t get reinforced every year. Also, my guess is they probably know that he’s not really a ghost who comes in & drinks wine, but they occasionally play along to make Grandpa happy. ;-)

  12. Janet says at December 24th, 2009 at 8:35 am :
    If they’re spirit cookies, Brian – “they’re.”
    This is why you like having me back in your life – my top-notch editorial skills.
    I have to say that Passover is one of my least favorite Jewish holidays, but that’s probably because I’ve only been to seders that last forever. A long long time before there’s any food while kids get more and more wriggly and anxious, and then a long time after, too. And hunting the afikomen (I have no idea how to spell that) is all well and good, but on Easter you get to find more than one thing – lots of things, indeed.
    Which of course brings us back to appropriated pagan rituals that were added to “Christian” celebrations because the neighbors’ parties looked more fun. Let’s think, shall we think about death and resurrection, or hunt eggs, talk about bunnies, and eat chocolate? Wait, you mean I can do both?
    Happy Christmas Eve, everybody -

  13. Brian says at December 24th, 2009 at 10:29 am :
    Oh, crap. I hate when I do that. Thanks, Janet.

    And yes – if Avery wants to know how Santa relates to Jesus, I’m sure the realization that bunnies don’t lay eggs cannot be more than a few months behind…

  14. Janet says at December 27th, 2009 at 10:44 am :
    Unless they’re Cadbury . . . .


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