Santa and the Spirit of Christmas (Spoiler Alert!)

We began an elaborate hoax when our sons were toddlers. Santa lived with his elves in a toy shop at the North Pole. He drove a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. Somehow Santa brought presents for kids all over the world all in one night. Sometimes I wondered why I was perpetuating the myth, when I would just have to explain it away later.

As little guys, our sons couldn’t distinguish make believe from so-called reality. There was God, who they couldn’t see or understand, Power Rangers who got rid of bad guys, and Barney, a singing purple dinosaur. Why not Santa? Plus, the fiction was bolstered by family, at daycare, in stores, and by songs, movies, and books. The idea of Santa would have been hard to resist, especially since their friends and neighbors were also being indoctrinated. But when it came right down to it, we likedthe idea of magic and spreading joy.

So, we were committed. When the boys mentioned toys they liked, we took note and occasionally reset expectations (Santa brings presents to so many kids. He probably can’t give 160-piece Lego sets to everyone.) We hung stockings and filled them with never-seen-before candy on Christmas Eve after the guys were asleep. Along with the wrapped gifts from us, we set out unwrapped gifts from Santa. We encouraged the boys to leave cookies and milk for Santa. My husband and I enjoyed the cookies, but left one with a bite out of it along with a thank you note from Santa. Christmas felt magical.

Eventually, our sons grew older and began to wonder if Santa was real. Then I explained that Santa was make believe, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t. At Christmas, many people are more generous, more loving, and act better than they have to. Over the years, people have done incredible things in the name of Christmas, like the Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914. As part of my explanation, I also swore my guys to secrecy. They were under strict orders not to tell their friends what they had learned—they should let other kids’ parents explain it. Our sons understood the responsibility and wanted to help keep the magic alive.

I don’t know how our sons will handle the topic of Santa if they have children, but if they carry on the tradition, I’ll be a willing co-conspirator.

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Thinking About Good Friday

 

Tomorrow is Good Friday, an important day in the Christian Holy Week, which culminates in Easter Sunday, but I won’t be going to the services. Although I have spiritual beliefs, I am not an active participant in a formal religion. It’s odd to feel the pull of a religion I no longer practice.

As a Catholic grade-schooler, on Good Fridays, I spent the hours between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. in church in a vigil with Jesus while he suffered on the cross. Even if I summoned all of my imaginative powers, I could barely conceive of the pain. Was the crown of thorns like a skinned knee but a thousand times worse? Would having a spike through your hand be like the time my sister stabbed my hand with a meat fork while we were fighting about the dishes? (I don’t recall what I did to her, but I’m sure it was just as bad. Or worse.)

To better appreciate the sacrifice Jesus had made for us, I tried to imagine how miserable he was, but I had so little concept of real pain that torture was beyond my understanding. Instead, I squirmed in the oak pews, kneeling up straight, then slouching, then straightening up, trying to do better for Jesus. If he could be crucified, I could at least kneel up straight for a few hours.

At 3:00, the church bell tolled for Jesus’s death. Our teachers told us that in Jerusalem on the day Jesus was crucified, the earth quaked and the temple curtain was torn. That day, there might even have been an eclipse that darkened the earth for a while. Solemnly, I walked out of church into the sunny afternoon, relieved that the Stations of the Cross and vigil were over, but too respectful to say so.

After church, I was subdued and at loose ends at home. It didn’t seem like I should just play like I always did. Ride bikes, tag, Barbies. For a while I hung around the house. By suppertime—tuna noodle casserole, or fish sticks with tartar sauce, or maybe baked halibut steaks—life felt back to normal. The next day was Holy Saturday, a lighter day when my family would hard-boil and dye eggs. Maybe I’d try on my new Easter dress and shoes and look forward to wearing them to Mass.

More than fifty years later, Good Friday is a nearly normal day. Most businesses are open and people are shopping for their Easter meals, hoping to beat the Saturday-before-Easter crowds.

Despite my nonreligious ways, I often feel a twinge on Good Friday.  At 3:00, I might glance at the sky to see if the sun is darkened and think of Jesus.

 

Not a Grinch, But . . .

Christmas shopping used to be fun. When our sons were small, my husband and I took the afternoon off, went out to lunch, and shopped for toys, books, and art supplies. We had fun imagining how delighted the guys would be, and on a weekday, the stores weren’t crowded. By dinnertime we were done. We hid the loot before the guys got home, pleased with our covert operation. Now that our sons are adults, we still enjoy buying them gifts, but we can complete our shopping with a few online orders.

I’m not religious, but I dislike the way Christmas has become such an excessive retail event. Besides shopping, every service imaginable has jumped on the holiday bandwagon—you need to get your carpet cleaned, ponder exciting new holiday recipes, and manage your holiday stress with a spa treatment. I even heard an ad about having your furnace ducts cleaned for the holidays! Huh?

I recall that spending in the name of Christmas offended my father, too. He wanted to “Keep the Christ in Christmas.” Mom agreed with the religious sentiment, but she loved the gift-giving and special food associated with Christmas. As a girl, I wished Dad’s opinion hadn’t put a damper on our pleasure in the festivities. Like Mom, I enjoyed the party aspect of the holidays.

Now I’m more sympathetic to Dad’s views about gift giving. It isn’t about the money. I still like giving gifts to other people. But I’ve gotten increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of making a list of what I want. There’s so little I need. The process feels foolish and self-indulgent.

teapotThis year, my husband and I have made a pact to refocus our efforts. We’ll still give each other small gifts—it is fun to open something on Christmas morning. Whatever else we would have spent can be devoted to something else. For him, it may be donations to causes he cares about. For me, the focus will be emphasizing experiences more than things. I’m asking our sons to take the same approach with me. For example, since I like tea, I could have tea at a teashop with one of our sons, and maybe he’ll buy me half a pound of special tea.

I’m not prescribing this approach for anyone else—I vividly recall how Dad’s views affected me—but this simpler approach appeals to me. By refocusing our efforts, I hope to reclaim the joy of Christmas giving.

Ode to Sweet Corn

Truck farmers slowly drove pickups through the neighborhood where I grew up, sing-songing, “Tomatoes, peaches, peppers, melons, sweet corn.” Neighborhood moms stepped to the curb in white sleeveless blouses and faded Bermuda shorts, handing over a few dollars from their change purses.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 7.59.52 PMBefore dinner, we kids ripped and shucked off the corn’s cool stiff leaves, crumbled dry brown corn silk from the top of the ears, and pulled clingy translucent green silk from the cobs. Then we snapped ears from the stalks and leaves. Sometimes milky juice popped from nearby kernels. In the already-hot kitchen, water rolled and boiled in a deep pot, adding steam, more heat, and the cabbage-y stink of boiling corn to the room.

At the table, we guided melting pats of butter with a knife across the bumpy kernels. Salted the ears. Bit into crispy yellow and white sweetness. Kernels crammed in my teeth but I didn’t stop. I just kept going around and around till the cob was bare.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, in the midst of Jeep, spark plug and glass factories, sweet corn was simple and wholesome, something we Midwesterners took pride in. There was so much sweet corn that we could eat it every day for six weeks if we wanted. Then it was done. The truck farmers disappeared. We never froze it or canned sweet corn. For my family, sweet corn was a summer-only feast.