The other day one of my twin four year olds asked me “Mama, is there only one Santa Claus?” Having seen Santa just that week at the mall, the zoo and a local tea house, he was understandably confused. After congratulating myself on having a brilliant kid, I did, what many parents do, I lied, or shall we say, I continued the lie I had begun telling him several years earlier. “Of course there’s only one Santa. Why do you ask?” “Well,” said Quinn, “his beard was different.” “He probably got a haircut, I mean a beard trim, you know like your Papa does sometimes?” I thought myself rather clever. “No Mama, it was longer,” he replied. I proceeded to make up some an absurd story about how Santa’s beard tended to grow faster than most because of it being so cold in the North Pole. In the last few weeks I’ve told my boys that Santa’s reindeer live at the zoo and the Academy of Science while they rest up for their big flight. I’ve recounted how elves make toys—but only eco-friendly toys, because Santa would never allow the lead and phalates in plastic to harm little children, and that the bad toys are sometimes accidentally purchased by parents who don’t know better. All this has been done while being sure to explain that vampires are not real, that witches and monsters are all make-believe (except for The Switch Witch) and that heaven is something some people believe in and some people don’t. While I remember cherishing the myth of Santa Claus (despite my atheistic upbringing and my 1/8 Jewish blood) I question the moral logic of teaching my children that lying is a high moral crime, even as I lie to them. My second dilemma remains: Why am I teaching my kids to wait in anticipation for a day when a mythical person will bring them lots of stuff?
Quinn and Aidan are at an age where their curiosity about the world is palatable. Every question they ask me is an opportunity to teach them an essential value. Each time my boys throw a piece of trash onto the floor, we pick it up and discuss which bin it goes in, why trash harms the planet and the importance of re-use, saving, composting or recycling. The excitement about the holidays offers a similar opportunity for positive teaching and yet I find myself in a quandary, having them open up advent calendars in anticipation of one day in which they will receive a bevy of material objects: toys! Am I simply buying into the societal pressures of consumerism and eradicating the hard won lessons I’ve spent the rest of the year teaching?
The lessons of Santa Claus:
1. If I’m good I’ll get more stuff!
2. Spending money is life’s greatest goal!
4. The shinier, more plastic, lead filled, phalate-bisphenol laden plastic stuff that my friends have up, lights up, makes noise and is way more fun than the boring eco-crap my Mom buys (or makes) for me.
5. Sugar is the third most important thing in life after money and stuff. (Look—every window has a gingerbread house in it covered with the kind of candy you don’t allow me to eat!)
What would Buddha say?
Then I wonder what would the Buddha say? Like many students of yoga I aspire to live a life that is more mindful, more present, more centered. But how can I do this, while encouraging my kids to believe in Santa Claus? Here I am battling the downtown shopping crowds, spending money on kitschy elf boots, just because they’re on the counter and Look! They’re on sale! Shouldn’t our advent calender be the 25 days before the arrival of The Dharma? Shouldn’t I be teaching morning meditation, rather than delighting in the cutting down of a live tree which will then sit in our living room for a few weeks before we throw it away or send it to the wood chipper or landfill? Wouldn’t it be great if on Christmas day we all did the downward facing dog and chanted for world peace? Of course we could do all these things, but I confess, I like opening presents. I like seeing the looks of delight on my children’s faces when they wake up to discover treasures awaiting them. Perhaps it’s simply a facet of tradition that I’m reluctant to let go of, and so I’ve made peace with my compromise: We get presents, but rather than the absurd number of presents that my mother showered upon me (many of which bore emotional price tags later on) I limit my children to 3-4 toys each and a few small stocking stuffers. I assuage my eco guilt in a few ways: I only buy green/sweatshop free toys/clothes and we must give as well as get.
Write a Letter to Santa
When we wrote our Santa letters this year I asked my boys to write down three things:
1. Four wishes for themselves
2. One wish for someone they love.
3. One wish for the planet or for those who have less than us.
On Thanksgiving, in addition to filling up the donation bin at Whole Foods, the boys helped me give fruit to the homeless woman on the side of the freeway. Afterward, Quinn said, “Mama, she smiled.” While I had hoped to find time to do something more grandiose, I realized that because this was what I was capable of this year, it was enough.
I might not get my name on a plaque for donating thousands of dollars to a cause, but there are a million different ways to give and no one way is the right way; You decide what you are capable of this year.
When my sons grow up, I trust that they will forgive me for lying to them, and they will remember not the lie, but the spirit that rested beneath the lie: the desire to create magic in a world full of so much chaos and discord.