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Saturday, December 19, 2015

What I Do About Christmas, Presents, and the Santa Lie

I have been getting a lot of emails about Christmas and specifically about how to deal with two things: presents and the Santa story.

Naturally, I cannot tell you what will enrich your life the most, but I can tell you what I do and why.

Before I buy into any tradition, I like to know what I am buying into. And though I don't recall the details of my research into the Christmas holiday, (I read four or five books on this about ten years ago), I do remember--

Our farming ancestors, in the north where it mattered, celebrated the winter solstice because it was the end of darkness and the return of the light. There are many lovely myths about this, but my favorite is the one in which the solstice celebration is a wedding--the marriage of Easter, the goddess of light and brith, to the god of darkness and death. (The holiday we still celebrate around the spring equinox, Easter, is of course her birthday celebration.)

When agricultural religions were supplanted by war religions (religions that generate Us vs Them myths) the Solstice festival of light turned into Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan are ancient solstice celebrations reappropriated--for the Christians, Easter became Mary, the light became Jesus, and the myth of the reason for celebration creates an us and them.

Because all three of these religions, though they have many wise and wonderful things to teach about life, are war-making religions, I am not all that into any of the above holidays. (If this subject interests you read anything by Joseph Campbell.)

So, I celebrate the solstice. But--

The solstice is a lovely holiday to celebrate if you live in the far north where the whole dark/light thing feels real. In Northern California where I grew up, it always felt rather silly. In Los Angeles where I lived for the last ten years, it felt even sillier. And in Nicaragua, well, I can't even bring myself to pretend.

In Nicaragua I want a rain festival, a firefly festival, a mango festival, maybe even a mosquito-hating festival, or a jungle festival, but a festival celebrating the end of darkness when it's eighty degrees all year and the sun sets at 7pm all year... it just doesn't work.

And I don't mind. Traditions are easy to invent and easy to let go of for me. I see culture as something that is ever evolving and the more in touch with reality I can be, the more fluid, the quicker I can change in accordance to what I am truly needing. I think this way because--

What we think of as ancient traditions are never very ancient. Every time I research a holiday (or birthday celebrations or marriage celebrations) I marvel at how new these things that we do are. Santa, Christmas presents for everyone--we are led to believe that these are ancient, that our ancestors have done these things for a thousand years. This is not the case.

The Victorians invented Santa and the whole lie-to-kids thing. 4 generations of parents who lie. That's it! The Victorians also invented the kids getting presents thing! Before then, the only people who got presents at Christmas were the poor!

The "original" present given at Christmas was actually food so, back to agricultural people living in Northern Europe: The harvest was in and had been in for months. Now it was the darkest time of the year; everything was frozen; little work could be done outside; it was time to slaughter the cows and other animals that would not survive the winter or that the family could not afford to feed all winter, and so--a feast! A feast for days and days before the lean times set in. A feast because it was freezing, and it was dark all day anyway, so everyone may as well stay inside and sing and dance. A feast because they weren't getting enough sun and needed some cheering up!

In the middle ages the Christmas feasts were funded by the wealthy and the poor benefitted, but the arrangement was very friendly. Kind of like in the television show Entourage. One rich dude lives in a big house with all of his servants, and those servants were largely his best friends. They weren't the "lowly" servants of later years. And they weren't servants as we imagine them. It wasn't "go fetch me a glass of water!" It was more like: whoever had the best social skills, whoever knew the most people, whoever could keep the peace on the farm, whoever could keep the peace with the neighbors, that dude was considered the MVP of the house. He was the "big man." He was often a skilled warrior, but most often he had great social skills and farming smarts. "Big men" of the middle ages would not live very long if they were jerks. The "big men" of the middle ages had successful farms because they were smart and responsible--they were natural leaders. Less smart, responsible, and capable people looked to them for advice and leadership and were happy to work for them. If the big man started to suck, he lost his entourage. So there was a household with 30 people in it--farmers, cooks, a lawyer, a blacksmith, a boat maker, and the owner of the house, the big man, who, worked all year long with his servants, but was considered the leader and traveled to law-making meetings in nearby large cities when they took place. These big men later became "lords" and "kings." But the first lords and kings were not much wealthier than those who served them. (See the history section of my bibliography page for where I am getting this from.)

As time went on the wealthy started to see themselves as superior to those they bossed around. They didn't want to hang out with their entourage anymore and especially they didn't want to breed with them. Or, worse, have their children hang out with them and end up breeding with them. Thus the upstairs/downstairs arrangements began. Many of the entourage were told to stay in their own tiny shacks out on the farm instead of moving into the big house. Now there were lords and peasants more similar to the stories we have heard. The feasts of Christmas continued, but not really. Now they were forced. A day the rich lord was forced to hang out with and pretend he respected his peasants. The feasts were more like a show, a show of "goodwill" between the rich and poor.

Years went by and the rich started to dislike the poor so much, that they didn't even want to pretend to party with them. Solution: the wealthy started giving cash presents. "No feast this year guys. Why don't all of you take a few pence and go have your own party?!"

Odin, who flies through the air in a sleigh (or was it cart?), was the god of hospitality who could be celebrated by inviting everyone over for a party. Now he was Saint Nick, Santa--the man who gave presents (food and money) to the poor instead.

And so on Christmas, the rich played the role of the benevolent benefactor who "enjoyed" providing for their "grateful" poor. Perhaps for some this honestly reflected what was going on, but for many of the rich, the poor were never quite grateful enough, and for many of the poor, the rich were never quite generous enough.

The poor who had accepted their station and had come to see themselves as destined to be poor, as incapable, felt a little grateful, but mostly they hid their shame from themselves with feelings of entitlement. They told themselves they deserved the gifts, that they were entitled to be taken care of, that the social custom of "noblesse oblige" is right. (Noblesse oblige is the ritual act in which the wealthy and capable admit their guilt for being wealthy and capable.)

Christmas presents, for many of the poor, were about justice, about taxing the rich, about power. Similar to Halloween candy, behind all the games of pretend joyful giving and receiving was the threat: "Give us a treat or we will do a trick on you." The rich gave the gifts (food and money), recognizing the power of the poor (their servants) to rob and murder them if they weren't benevolent enough. They played their role--joyfully giving, happy to be robbed, so that for one more year they would be left alone.

As the wealth gap between the rich and poor grew, the rich learned that by playing the role of the kind, generous benefactor they could buy the right to be treated differently than others, to be treated with more reverence, more respect... like royalty. The problems of the rich back then were similar to those of movie stars. They "love" their fans, and want to be kind to them and please them so that their fans continue to love and support them, but they don't actually want to hang out. And after years of special treatment, they may actually think they are better than their fans. It certainly seems that way since they can do things and get away with things that regular people never could.

In the 1600's a new kind of poor person took over the scene--the poor person who didn't want to be poor, who had self-esteem, and knew the rich were no better than he was. These poor people largely moved to America. In early America many people didn't accept gifts. They were proud of their ability to survive on their own. "Ha! You thought I was a peasant and needed your leadership! Actually, I can do it on my own just fine, thank you very much!" They were almost obsessed with not "owing" anything to anyone.

By refusing gifts they were refusing enslavement. Many early American rejected Noblesse Oblige, and instead demanded self-responsibility and equal treatment. As soon as someone gave them a present, they gave one right back; the American custom was an immediate obligation to reciprocate. And if they couldn't reciprocate, because of large wealth differences, they refused the present. "No thank you. I cannot accept it," meant "I refuse to owe you, to be owned by you" and "We will be treated the same." This is what Ma teaches Laura in the Little House books. (Also, it should be noted that this custom wasn't limited to America, and plenty of Americans at the time did accept gifts as well, and I am sure this type of poor person existed all along, see the note at the bottom.)

Then came the Victorians and a new kind of poor person came into existence: children. Previously rich children gave gifts to poor children on Christmas; they did not receive. But now these children were removed from life and meaningful work and trapped in their houses or at school and placated with toys and gifts constantly. Christmas was just one more way to distract them from their new enslavement.

Pretty soon all the adults in America were benevolent benefactors on Christmas giving to their enslaved children and threatening them with coal if they weren't good little slaves. (It wasn't a clean cut, of course. The Victorians didn't invent random things out of thin air. These new traditions had been developing for quite some time before they went mainstream in Victorian times.)

Children weren't the only recipients of the new family Christmas of course, just the focus, the excuse. First the rich wanted the poor out of their houses for the Christmas parties, now they wanted them out of the town square as well. "Stay home, hang out with your family," was the message. "Your children need you! Go home!" Holidays before the Victorians were about adults having fun with their friends and children watched or joined. Now holidays are about how adults can provide fun for captive children. Slaves require slave-masters.

The best myth (it seems) for enslaving Americans is the myth of the benevolent, kind, loving authority, much more insidious and harder to catch than the more brutal, clear power that existed in Europe. Santa isn't that scary. Like a policeman from the 50's. But the truth is, if you think the person in power isn't scary, you're not paying attention. (Discipline and Punish by Foucault is a great book on this.) In many places in Europe Christmas still (kind of) knows what it is--it's more like Halloween or a Carnival. Scary creatures roam the streets threatening to do harm to those not "being good." This is about power. Trick or treat. All year it's the rich who are in power. On Halloween or Christmas or Carnival--the power shifts to those who have nothing to lose. Now it's time for the rich to be afraid.

Which brings us to Christmas as we know it in today: gorgeous decorations, tasty food, family, presents for children from a mysterious magical authority, and generosity with everyone, especially the poor. And beauty. In America Christmas is about beautiful, benevolent power. In Europe Christmas is a lot uglier. But in either place, no one is really thinking about why. It's just the tradition.

I am all in favor of the decor and the food. I am in favor of the family if you are giddy with excitement at the thought of spending a fortune in time and money to spend a few days with them, because I am not in favor of the family aspect if it is experienced as a "duty." I am not in favor of lying to children or gifts from magical authority figures. I am also not in favor of a celebration of "generosity" since it's a big lie. A holiday in favor of human capacity to have compassion for one another, yes. A holiday about NVC, sure. But "generosity" is just noblesse oblige, trick or treat, so well-packaged that we don't even realize it.

Presents.

Before I get to presents from Santa, let's talk Christmas presents at all: giving on a prescribed day instead of according to authentic desire, pretending to be grateful for things we didn't actually want, white lies, re-gifting, wearing sweaters to Grandma's we don't actually like, entitlement to them if x really loves us, sadness that x doesn't know us as well as we thought, wishing people who can't afford it would stop spending their money on us and save it instead, wanting to "win" at presents, the stress of the shopping, the stress of the spending, the stress of the wrapping, wondering if x really liked it, patting ourselves on the back for being such good, benevolent, generous givers, never feeling appreciated enough, spending more than we meant to, January bills, wondering if the charity money is helping or hurting the beggars...

Presents are lovely looking under the tree--but trees are lovely looking without the presents under them too. And for me, the positives just don't outweigh the negatives.

When I was a poor kid desperate for presents, I was incapable of creating an authentic relationship with those who gave me the nicest gifts. I just wanted to please them, so they would keep giving me nice presents! I was bought and paid for. Gifts taught me how to think like a beggar or a slave, to be owned, to be inauthentic. Was I a special case or do gifts teach children to have controlling, manipulative relationships instead of respectful ones?

The public indoctrination school system killed the entrepreneurial American, so today we are almost all the poor who feel entitled to our holiday bonuses, especially from those we perceive as rich. It would never occur to us that all the holiday bonuses are a hardship on the rich, that they are often not giving to us because they want to.  We tell ourselves they can afford it, so that we can continue on in our entitlement. We forget that the richer you are, the more people you employ, and the bigger the cost of December. Perhaps December is not a strain for say, Oprah, but... really? I bet her December bill is in the millions. 

Even if December is not a strain for Oprah, it's still inauthentic. Giving a holiday bonus to your employee who really knocked your socks off this year and added real value to your life feels good. Giving a bonus to everyone you happen to employ, even those you simply don't have time to fire because training a new person is such a time-drain, doesn't. Giving a bonus because if you don't you are a jerk... is just the same old threat.

The middle class (who cannot afford it) tries so hard to be like the upper class that they tax themselves on Christmas. Once upon a time only the very wealthy had hairdressers. Now we all do (except the very poor). Now middle class people who can barely afford to get nice haircuts are supposed to get presents for their hairdresser, who makes the same amount of money that they do. They are supposed to tip their postman who makes more than they do! Simply because he is in a "service" position. This is blind tradition following.

Was Christmas morning really fun? Or do we think it was because we have been programmed to? Are people truly happy to spend their time and money on all these presents? Can they really afford it? Do children really love it or is the reality that children spend Christmas morning squabbling and comparing presents and crying because it's not what they really wanted, or because brother must be loved more because his presents are better? Do parents really feel like benevolent lords or do they actually feel tired and broke and unappreciated?

The peasants are never grateful enough and the lords are never generous enough.... Yet we all pretend.

Imagine refusing all gifts and bonuses because whether you mean to or not, they make you behave differently toward the giver--freebies are never really free. Imagine taking full responsibility for getting your needs met. Imagine teaching our children to refuse to be bought and to take full responsibility for getting their needs met, that if they want something, they should go out and earn it, not put it on a list and sit around and wait. And not hope that some magical authority will bestow it upon them if they are good enough. Not giving gifts to one another declares that we are equals and that both of us are capable of getting our needs met.

Of course, the responsibility to earn what you want instead of beg for it requires the freedom to do so--freedom from the slavery that is school would be necessary for kids.

There's the other side of gift-giving too, the authentic side. Humans do love expressing their love to those they love with gifts. And I love those gifts! Real gifts feel wonderful--stumbling across something perfect for someone you truly love and surprising them with it, when you want to express how you feel for someone and have the time and money to search high and low for the perfect expression of that love, when you are giving because you genuinely want to meet someone else's needs, not because you have to, not because it makes you good, not because you have been threatened (internally or externally), not because it is a certain day of the year.

Authentic gift giving would never feel like your job, your role, a game, or a chore. It would never feel like winning or conquering. There would be no attempt at control behind the gift, just an expression of love. I am fairly sure it would never happen on a prescribed day of the year, but it could be argued that having a holiday that reminds us to express our love to the people we value is fine, until it turns into a job. It's one thing to set a goal for yourself to, once-a-year, buy something nice for people you appreciate, but it is quite another thing for those people to develop an expectation and to feel unloved if no gift comes their way. 

Moreover, if we take a moment to pause and come into reality, if we gave gifts in the present, if we moved into our perceptual brain while giving and receiving to just honestly perceive what was happening... I think we may learn that even when it comes to authentic gift giving, we feel loved, but the actual gift is not wanted. It is an economic law: If someone is going to spend $100 on me, I will do the best job of buying what I actually want.

If I have self-esteem. Let's not forget that women have been socialized from birth to be bought, to see themselves as objects only worth what people will pay for them. Receiving presents make us feel feminine, worthwhile. If our husband doesn't buy us presents... we must be worthless!

Presents often don't meet the needs of the receiver. They meet the needs of the giver--and it's important for the giver to remember that. We all experience the desire to express appreciation to those we value. We all experience the desire to make a valuable contribution to the lives of those we love. But let's be clear here: We are setting out to meet our own needs. People have said to me, "I want to appreciate you somehow in some tangible way. It would mean a lot to me if you would allow me to give you something. What could I buy you that you would most enjoy?" I love that kind of self-aware gift!

Santa:

So when it comes to Santa: My son knows that that guy dressed in red is Santa, also called Odin and Saint Nick, which is a story about a man who lived a long time ago who gave money to beggars at Christmas. "I don't support giving money to beggars," I tell my son, "so I don't celebrate this man. But many people love beggars and slaves and will do everything they can to make you want to be one. Especially if you are a kid. When the Vikings celebrated Santa, he was called Odin, and he was the god of hospitality and mead. The Vikings celebrated him by inviting people over for dinner. That is what I like to do!"

My friend Dave Scotese pointed out to me the creepiness of Santa, that as parents we are supposed to give to our children as a magical benevolent authority (is Santa a government stand-in?) rather than ourselves. Our children spend Christmas morning grateful to the generosity of "Santa" rather than their mom and dad.

I read some of the emails I got to Anders and asked him what he thought. He thinks parents should not lie to their kids. Even if the grandparents really really want them to.

An interesting note on Santa is that Anders loved knowing about the Santa lie when he was three and four. He loved it when adults tried to convince him that Santa was real. He would howl with laughter. As a five-year-old Anders decided that he wanted to pretend that Santa (or Odin) was real, so that year for the Solstice we bought stuff for our stockings. Anders must have filled (and unfilled) the stockings a dozen times. Then I hid them for a few days before the solstice. Anders and I left cookies and a beer for Odin, and I got up in the middle of the night and laid out the stockings and a few presents I had been hiding from Anders's aunts. Well, Anders was quite delighted in the morning. So delighted he wanted to do it again for many more nights. So, even though he knew it was me and knew it was all pretend, the joy of waking up to surprises was everything a parent wants on Christmas morning!

More on how I celebrate:

At my house for the solstice, we turn off all the lights so we can experience the natural darkness fall. We use only candle light or Christmas lights. We spend the entire day cooking a feast to enjoy with friends. If we are in Nicaragua we light sparklers. And we hang out. We do not exchange gifts. Some gifts arrive from relatives, and I hand them over to Anders--but very few.

As Anders gets older, I am sure he will want to have the Santa experience one year. I was a nanny for a lot of Jewish kids, and they all need one year with a stocking. That's fine. We can go all out and do it properly in Europe with snow too! I love totally buying into a foreign cultural experience!

As Anders gets older we can keep talking about a way to celebrate the solstice that is meaningful to him and me and his father. We are nimble and flexible, not bound by a fantasy of tradition, and totally open to suggestions. Perhaps we will celebrate the Solstice with a festival that involves very interesting discussions and explorations about power and powerlessness, equality and inequality, control/war and peace/respect in human relationships and in society.

In the mean time we go all out for birthdays--that is the individualist holiday I can totally get behind. But I am still wary of presents. I don't stop other people from buying them. But I make sure Anders gets things he actually wants (from his wish list), and I always encourage people to put money in his bank account instead.

For a couple years I needed my husband to "spoil" me on Christmas--to make up for what I felt deprived of as a kid. He graciously complied and... now I don't even need the holiday at all. And if I ever feel that need again, and he is willing to comply or one year Anders really wants to be showered with presents... sure! My goal is only ever to be honest with myself, so that I can get my real needs met and not just fall into the zombie trap.

In conclusion:

When I was a teenager I worked hard and enjoyed spending lavishly on my family at Christmas. Then I read Atlas Shrugged and realized that I was Hank Reardon. Spending lavishly on my family was only fun when I thought it made me good. When I realized that it didn't, that I was supporting my own destroyers, both financially and intellectually by the acceptance of my "duties" to them, I was free. I think of this because so many people my age tend to spend Christmas in (voluntary but miserable) servitude to their children and their aging parents. I feel so sad seeing it! "You are free!" I want to shout! You do not have to spend lavishly on your family--in time or money.

*I need to write an entire post about the disrespect of older generations to the younger, and this paragraph is going to be a little bitchy because the stories I have heard from some of you shock me! Grandparents exist to be of service to their grandchildren. Biologically speaking, humans would not live so long unless the older generation contributed to the survival of the current generation being raised. Today, it seems that the older generations rob from their own grandchildren or great-grandchildren, taking the time and money of their parents, making demands on their parents, hindering them, refusing to give up the throne. Family matriarch and patriarch, please! Your place is to be wise woman and wise man, helper to the new warrior king and queen fighting out the battle of life for the survival of their children. Any parent insisting that their children maintain the Santa lie or continue to spank or whatever it is... I applaud everyone who wants to use NVC to try to stay connected with them. Personally, I don't think I could tolerate it for a second. I will feast with people who make my heart sing! And I will see my family when I genuinely want to for a non-holiday when there are no "shoulds" involved in the visit.

So, solutions for those of you struggling with presents and the Santa lie--I have none to offer! But maybe watch closely and try to get in touch with all the real feelings and needs of your experience this year. What do you really need from the Christmas holiday and are those needs getting met? Can you get those needs met without attempting to control other people? Can they be met in an authentic way? If you love shopping for presents--do it!!!! Have fun! If you don't--skip it! If you don't want to lie to your kids about Santa--don't! And don't let your parents either. Most grandparents will be happier to have you visit and do it your way than not have you visit at all.

Laura Ingles Wilder believed in Santa as a little girl. Her parents lied to her--and whipped her--and she loved them anyway. Relationships can "handle" a lot and still provide enough value to each party to keep it going. Not saying we should start lying to one another and whipping our children, just saying if you loved Santa and your family loves Santa and the idea of your kid believing that gifts come from a magical authority figure and not their family that loves them--go for it. Meet your needs! As long as you are honest with yourself and your kids don't mind, as long as you feel your way and tell them the truth when they want the truth, and keep monitoring your relationship... I can imagine this could work out. What makes us upset is not that other people cannot meet our needs sometimes, it's that they don't try or explain, that they are self-involved and not truly seeing us.

Two Last Notes:

Those who fled their rulers and established America weren't actually the first wise peasants/farmers/men with self-esteem who fled. In the 1000's and 1100's, when the kings in Scandinavia were first establishing what it meant for one man to be a king and another to be his peasant, a whole hoard of people moved to Iceland and made a law that no royalty would ever be established there. Thus existed for 200 years what some consider to be the most peaceful and free (anarchistic) society that ever existed. (See Viking Age Iceland.)




4 comments:

  1. I don't do the Santa thing with my kids either. When I was a kid, when I found out the truth about Santa, I honestly felt betrayed and disrespected. I didn't want my kids to feel that way. When family members ask about it, I just simply state that I don't want to lie to my kids. It gets a silent response, but I know they know it's not right deep down.

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    1. I think you will enjoy this--

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/12/23/twas-the-night-before-reason/

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