Years ago, when our children were very little, we decided we were not going to lie to them about the existence of Santa Claus. Though as I recall we did debate it a little, in the end it was not a difficult decision, and it is not one we have ever regretted. As far as possible, we always try to be honest with our children and didn’t like the idea of one day disillusioning them–not just about Santa, but about us (“Yes, Mommy and Daddy lied to you repeatedly, because we thought it was cute!”). Of course we understand that people who pretend Santa Claus is real do so in the cheerful spirit of fun, fantasy, and fairy tales, and overall it’s probably a harmless kind of thing, but we also have a general aversion to unreality when it comes to explaining how things work in the world. No astrology, no alchemy, no holistic medicine or faith healing, no supernatural beings, no Santa Claus.
The thing is, taking what might sound like a ‘hard line’ approach has not meant any diminution in our household’s appreciation of the wonders of the world we live in. We find it extremely uplifting and inspiring, for example, to contemplate the vastness of the universe: my husband has been reading Sizing Up the Universe and sharing all kinds of astonishing facts that expand the imagination beyond the utmost bounds of human thought. Who can watch Planet Earth and not be overwhelmed with the beauty and terror of nature in ways that could be described as spiritual? Richard Dawkins’s wonderful series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Growing Up in the Universe, is an eloquent and invigorating appreciation of our known place in time and space; his new book The Magic of Reality is wrapped and under the tree now, tagged “for the whole family.”
Yes, under the tree, because as I’ve written about before on this blog, I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in a family of atheists celebrating Christmas. The spirit we celebrate in is that expressed by George Eliot in a well-known line from one of her letters: “The idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.” Ours is a Christmas–and a Santa–that is “entirely human,” and known to be so. Our kids know that the presents under our tree come from their friends and family. Instead of being (putatively) supernaturally outsourced, our gift-giving is between us, the presents tangible reminders of and connections to our friends and family. I think it’s actually much nicer to think that someone thought of you particularly and wanted to bring some pleasure and interest into your life by giving you something they knew you would enjoy. “It’s nice to know presents come from people who love you,” Maddie said to me the other day as we looked at the cheerful array of packages, and I completely agree.
We have a somewhat unusual approach to Christmas presents in our household. Some years ago, reflecting on the effect Christmas morning was having on us all–cluttered and overwhelmed–we decided to spread out the present opening across Christmas break. Now the children open one gift each every morning starting the day after school ends (the parents take turns too, though a little less often). We put on a little festive music, the parents sit down with their tea and coffee, the kids take turns reading our daily installment from our Christmas Carol Advent Calendar, and then they pick something out and open it while everyone is relaxed, attentive, and cheerful. It’s much easier to appreciate a gift when it’s the only one you are opening that day! Also, because of the kinds of gifts we tend to give in our family–lots of books, but also puzzles, games, and cozy things to wear–this also makes the break more fun, because each day there’s something new to read or play or snuggle in. (We don’t take a particularly extravagant approach: I learned from my mother that Christmas and birthdays are good times to restock the basics. My kids always know they will have both new books and new socks by the end of the season!) Sizing Up the Universe was one of my husband’s gifts this year; Maddie has been enjoying the new Jacqueline Wilson novel she opened yesterday and snuggling in her new soft hoodie from Aeropostale; Owen has been reading avidly in Cliff Pickover’s The Math Book and having a lot of fun playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn with the rest of us; I’m looking forward to starting Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. There’s a box under the tree that sounds an awful lot like a new jigsaw puzzle, which will be nice to work on with some music playing, on one of the snowy afternoons I’m sure we’ll have. Each present we open (like each present we send–and we do a lot of sending, since all of our extended family lives far away) always feels to me like one end of an invisible thread connecting us to the other people in our lives. Santa Claus makes for some great stories, but the reality is every bit as nice to think about, and it has the added virtue of being true.
So, from me to you, Merry Christmas!