Pagan holidays?

It’s 44 degrees outside today, and because of the glorious drop in temperature, I excitedly anticipate the coming holidays. I adore fall weather and everything it brings. I love walking into a craft store just to explore the rows of fall decor I will never buy. I love the spicy smell of cinnamon candles. I am not creative enough to deck out our condo with fall flourishes, but I sure appreciate a good pumpkin candle and a couple potted mums. Once Labor Day weekend has passed, I begin anticipating the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cool weather is a relief after a long, annoying summer of sweltering 100 degree days.

For whatever reason, this year and last, the approaching holiday season has brought up discussions about the proper ways for Christians to celebrate. I’m not certain why, but I think it has to do with the fact that Brandon and I are closer to starting our own family, so I think about it more. Oh, and the fact that our friends are pretty opinionated people. Last night, at home group, the girls and I randomly got into a conversation about Christmas, specifically Santa. I had recently read this post and this article and loved the idea that Santa could be redeemed, that he didn’t have to be abandoned completely. Last year about this time, we had virtually the same discussion, though perhaps a bit more heated. I began thinking again about the coming holiday and what Brandon and I will teach our children.

Full disclosure: we don’t necessarily agree on the subject of Santa, so we haven’t really decided on what our approach will be. I think the actual occurrence is about five years down the line because I know we aren’t ready for kids. But, because the subject came up with my friends yesterday and because I’m thinking about it, I thought I’d flesh out my thoughts a bit here on the ol’ blog. Brandon can be surprised about it later. Ha! Please note this is just me talking to myself as I work out what I believe about secular influences upon Christian traditions.

So, Santa. Also, Halloween. How should we celebrate? Let’s start with Halloween.

Growing up, my parents approved of Halloween until they didn’t. I remember my mother sewing elaborate Halloween costumes for my sister and me. One year, she sewed a beautiful clown costume complete with suspenders and a pointy hat attached carefully to a glittery yellow wig. The next year, she created a beautiful bright pink and turquoise satin court jester’s outfit, complete with dozens of jingle bells at the cuffs and collar. She even stuffed the two pointy ends of the jester’s hat with tissue paper and attached a jingle bell to each one. The year of the jester’s outfit, my sister donned the clown costume stuffed with pillows. There never were such adorable clowns.

My parents also indulged us in the tradition of Santa at Christmastime. The majority of our presents came from mom and dad, but we left cookies out for Santa. Santa left each of us a rather nice gift, sometimes our “main” gift. And he always filled our stockings. We didn’t really do the photo ops with a mall Santa, probably because of the long lines and high cost of the photo packages, but I do recall visiting him a couple times and feel rather silly explaining what I’d like for Christmas. Somehow, I never really had a huge Christmas wish, so it seemed awkward to just proclaim to this person who ought to know what kids like already. But, like I said, mall Santa wasn’t a big deal. He was just a dude who sat in a rather elaborate little hut covered with fake snow outside of Sears. I knew he couldn’t be the real deal.

One year, a new family moved in across the street from us. They moved to Texas from California. They had three children, and the kids quickly joined the neighborhood crew. But, there was something a bit off about this family. The parents wouldn’t allow their daughter to wear pants or shorts. The boys were restricted to long pants, the girl to dresses, skirts and culottes. They attended a strict private school. They weren’t allowed to swim in public pools, only allowed at the lake. They adhered to a different set of rules than the rest of the neighborhood kids. And they sure as heck didn’t go trick-or-treating.

I’m not sure how it happened, nor if my assumptions are correct. But one year, our family decided not to go trick-or-treating anymore. I don’t recall a fight with my parents, only a conversation with the neighbor kids about how Halloween was the devil’s holiday. I don’t think my parents restricted Halloween. I think, actually, that somehow I had a conversation with these neighbors who told me that Satan had a role in Halloween celebrations. Somehow, my parents must have learned about the conversation or had a similar one with the parents of our friends across the street. Suddenly, my sister and I quit trick-or-treating. For several years. We attended fall festivals at local churches complete with haunted hallways meant to “scare the Hell out of us,” or we stayed home and kept the porch light off.

Over time, my sister and I became a little annoyed that we could no longer participate in the traditions of our peers. And then one year, we miraculously got the chance to trick-or-treat at the mall. I don’t know how that happened either, but I think it had something to do with the fact that my dad worked at Sears at the time and found out about the festivities that way. And just like that, Halloween was reintegrated into our lives. I think we might have skipped three years at most. And there was really no rhyme or reason to it.

From then on, my mother took us out trick-or-treating as soon as the sun went down. She helped us locate the largest possible bags for our loot and kept us out long after most children had gone home. She loved Halloween, and we reaped the benefits.

Christmas was a slightly different story. There was never a question that we would leave cookies out on the hearth for Santa, nor that Santa left us a nice gift and a stocking full of candy. He didn’t play any role other than that. My parents never used Santa’s existence as a threat to force good behavior. We never worried that he wouldn’t bring us a gift. We knew he was a kind and benevolent person who liked to make children happy. And that seemed pretty simple.

One of my dad’s favorite stories of our childhood is the day my sister and I learned the secret to Santa. That year, my father made the critical mistake: leaving out the stocking candy on the kitchen counter. After presents had been opened and stockings rummaged, I wandered into the kitchen and discovered the incriminating evidence. Shocked, I snatched up the bag and marched back into the living room demanding the truth. (This is where no one should be surprised I became a journalist.) I held up the bag and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” My dad grinned sheepishly. I remember him kneeling or sitting on the ground or somehow coming down to my eye level as he explained that HE was Santa rather than some invisible force from the North Pole.

After he broke the news, I paused and looked up at him. I knew there was no reason not to still trust him. With a half smile, I said, “You know, it was fun believing in Santa, but I’d rather believe in Dad.” (I know…you’re probably throwing up at the cuteness right now.) I think he might have cried. My dad still keeps that little one-liner written on a sticky note in his planner.

I didn’t cry. I don’t even remember feeling all that disappointed or upset. Somehow, it made perfect sense that my daddy was Santa. Still does. After all, he was the person who rented a Confederate soldier costume and dressed up as Private Davenport (my great-great grandfather) and came to teach my second grade class about the Civil War, waxing lyrical about the benefits of eating sweet potatoes. He taught me to ride a bike. He tossed my sister up into the air as she screamed with joy each day when he got home from work. He played air guitar in the mall. He was the most fun person I knew. So, why shouldn’t HE be Santa?

I’m not sure my parents chose the path we took to discover the secret of Santa, but I don’t think any of us would have had it any differently. In fact, if I could choose the unfolding for my own children, I would hope for the same thing. So, that’s how I’ve come to my own conclusions about the best way to include secular traditions in my future children’s lives.

Here’s what I picture:

For Halloween and Christmas alike, I hope to inspire my children to pretend and to imagine. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, the person who got in trouble for reading my favorite books in the middle of the night as a child, but I want my children to have active imaginations. I’m not saying that their imaginations will be squelched if we don’t introduce costumes, trick-or-treating and Santa Claus, but I don’t see the harm in participating in childhood traditions so long as Brandon and I manage those traditions within the context of our Christian faith. What I mean by that is that both traditions will hopefully reflect our family rather than the culture around us.

Halloween costumes will be creative and enjoyable, not dark and frightening. We will encourage our children to dress up as a favorite character if they like, perhaps asking our children about the admirable qualities of their favorite superheroes or literary characters. We’ll encourage them to think about why they would want to dress up as someone like Batman or Cinderella and if such characters should be admired and emulated. If they choose a costume that doesn’t involve a favorite character–perhaps a favorite animal–we can talk about the fact that God made those things and that they are good and meant for our joy, the same way that our favorite colors and favorite foods were created because God loves his children.

I also see Halloween as an opportunity to interact with our future neighbors. Our church home at Providence actually encourages this by setting aside money each year to pay for members to rent bounce houses to provide a means of engaging in community with their neighbors. Our church even sells full-sized candy bars at a very cheap price complete with stickers inviting people to visit on Sunday. What great ways to reach our neighbors with Christ’s love!

As for Santa, I think we can take our lessons on what Santa is like from the true meaning of Christmas. Our celebrations will be focused on observing the miracle of Christ’s birth and what that means for us as Christian. Furthermore, by leading with Jesus, Santa can fall in line as one small part of the holiday–a human expression of generosity who we can learn from. I think by speaking with our children about the historical Saint Nicholas, we can explain that he is one person who modeled the generosity Christ demonstrated, and we can take lessons from that to teach them how to be generous to others, especially at Christmas.

And what a perfect segue into the Christmas story itself! Recall the three wise men who visited the Christ child and gave generously in worship. What a great lesson for children to see–that Christmas is about the most perfect One who deserves our worship and models selfless giving for us.  Santa doesn’t have to be someone who gives because children deserve gifts or who punishes for bad behavior. Instead, he can be someone who, like their parents and (most importantly) like Christ, gives generously and loves unconditionally.

1 thought on “Pagan holidays?”

  1. I’m so glad you wrote about this and linked to those articles! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I didn’t want to totally buy into the Santa thing with our kids, but I didn’t know how on earth I could get them to enjoy it and not spill the secret. My husband actually did feel very betrayed when he found out his parents had been “lying” to him when he was a kid. But I love the idea of telling the kids that there is a secret to Santa.

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