Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unpacking Christmas

Now that we've survived one winter holiday, it's time to start thinking about the next hurdle: Christmas.

It struck me today that Christmas is  like that big black pack that Santa brings down the chimney. But inside the pack are a lot of half-truths. Ok, let's call them what they are: lies.  "He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!"

First, there's the lie about the Man With All the Toys; that's an  obvious one. That's the first lie you find out about. Then there's the lie about the Virgin Birth, which you figure out later.  Then finally, there's the lie that you have to go out and spend $700, pronto. Let's unpack Santa's bag of tricks one at a time.

Why do people tell kids that there's a man that comes down their chimney (even if they don't have a chimney, which most new houses don't) and leaves toys for them that were made at the (melting) North Pole? And why do kids believe this patent nonsense? I figured it out this morning: it's a kind of initiation ceremony for kids. About the age of six or seven, you figure out that Santa is not real. Perhaps you discover a drawer in your mother's dresser that has presents in it that are clearly intended for children. Perhaps you find your presents in a closet. Perhaps you just think one day, "This is an improbable story that doesn't conform to the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it."

And what is your next thought?

 "They LIED to me!"

This is the most important part of the initiation. You discover that you can't trust The Man. You discover that every edict handed down by the authorities should be examined carefully for inconsistencies,  illogic, and scientific fraudulence.  It's especially important not to trust those in authority when they tell you that you will get some prize if you are good. Because you will NOT get a prize or reward if you are good.  Being good is its own reward. This is a hard, but important auxillary lesson.

It takes a little longer to shake that idea that The Man is watching you: "He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness's sake." (No, not for goodness's sake: in order to get the toys!)  I didn't fully shake this notion that somebody was watching not only my actions but my innermost thoughts until I was well into my thirties. I remember that I was driving down I-40, and I suddenly realized that it was not true that God or Santa was watching my every thought. Getting rid of that constant surveillance by The Man was really liberating, but I had to keep reminding myself for years that I was the only one who knew my thoughts, and that I could have any thought I wanted to, no matter how blasphemous, and nothing would happen.

I probably failed as a parent by not setting up this initiation ceremony for my son. I told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was not real, that he was a game that grown-ups like to play on kids at Christmas. It was interesting to find that he did not believe me at first, because all the other grown-ups and kids told him that Santa was real.  After one particularly bounteous Christmas with a lot of remote-control robots and cars, he told me that now he knew Santa was real, because I could never have gotten him all that stuff! I reminded him that he was the only person under thirty in our family, and people over thirty love to buy toys  that they wished they could have bought for themselves when they were six. This did not fly. He believed in Santa for a whole nother year. And there was never a satisfying "I told you so" moment. It just went unspoken that I was the only grown-up in the universe who had not lied about Santa to him. Well, maybe I reminded him a time or two when he was older.  In the end, though, it worked out ok, because he is reasonably cynical about people in power now.

On to the second lie: the Virgin Birth. This disturbed me a lot as a kid.  We were always told as girl children that after you get married, God puts a baby in your stomach, and that's how you get pregnant. But, for mysterious and scary reasons, there were some girls who got pregnant BEFORE they got married!  We learned this because my mother was a volunteer at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls. Apparently sometimes God got the sequence of things backwards, and when this happened, you had to leave your family and go live in this home until the baby was born, and then you had to give it away!  This thought was terribly frightening to me. I knew that somehow going to that home was shameful--you were "wayward"--but yet, God had done it, so...And then it happened to Jesus's mother too! For her, the whole thing worked out better:  Joseph took her back despite the fact that somehow she was at fault for being pregnant with Jesus. But the Bible clearly said that he had at first planned to "put her away quietly."  At age eight or so, I knew exactly what this meant: it meant she would go to the Florence Crittenton home. If it could happen to somebody as good as Mary, could it happen to me? Would everybody be so understanding? Or would I end up a wayward girl?

This lie clearly has to go.  The idea that you can get pregnant without having sex, or that a bodiless spirit can "overpower" you without your consent while you're asleep and get you pregnant, and that then you would be blamed and punished, is just pre-modern and unfair. There's nothing nice to say about it. The fact that Mary is idolized for the fact that this happened to her, while ordinary girls are punished for it, just makes it a more confusing, and thus pernicious, lie.

Growing out of this lie is a little different from growing out of the Santa Claus lie. First, you find out that ordinary girls don't get pregnant by the Holy Ghost; they get pregnant from sex with boys. But there's a kernel of truth to the old fears you had about impregnation by God: it turns out that you CAN be overpowered, and then blamed and punished! (And you can't necessarily "shut it down," as I hope everybody now understands.)  But the perp is always just an ordinary guy, not a god.  Apparently for this reason, you don't get a pass like Mary got, although it's not clear why there's a difference in culpability.

Finally, there's the lie I wrote about last year: the lie that $700 must be spent by every grown-up in America before December 25, or else. (Some people are clearly spending a lot more than that, because I'm spending a lot less.) I will link here to my previous analysis of this lie.  The only thing I will add is that this year Walmart employees decided that they did not want to be stampeded to death by Christmas shoppers on Thanksgiving night, and they took a stand against (among other things) the earlier and earlier encroachment of Christmas shopping onto everything that is sacred about Thanksgiving, namely food and a day off. I think this is great. I did not shop at Walmart on Thanksgiving or the day after, in order to support the  destruction of this lie about compulsory spending.

This is the lie that we need to work on outgrowing now. And like the others, outgrowing it is ultimately healthy, although embracing the reality around it can be hard. It may be true that some people will get mad if we stop spending so much money on them at Christmas. (Others might be relieved because then they can scale back as well.) It may be true that some retailers might not make as much money in December. But what is NOT true is that less shopping in the month of December will collapse the economy. What is bad for our economy is borrowing and borrowing from China, in order to buy their plastic gizmos.

Let's face it: Santa doesn't bring the toys, there are no Virgin Births, and we can't keep borrowing like this. A reality-based Christmas could be a perfectly wonderful winter holiday. Could we try it this year? A few used books, a photograph or two, a hand-made card, some cookies will be plenty. Maybe some real toys for the people who are still actually kids.  The rest of us could treat the holiday as another round of great food, music, and visiting.  The real magical miracle would be if everybody really got several days off to rest, eat too much, and just hang out.  It would be something you never have to outgrow.

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