Thursday, December 14, 2006

have yourself a merry little

We decorated the Christmas tree last week and Amy was more excited than I’ve ever seen her. At four she’s finally old enough to sustain both an understanding of and interest in the seasonal holiday. She managed to stretch the activity over two days, involve both D and I, and even rope me into making Christmas fairies and mantelpiece decorations. It was nice to spend time with her, see her so happy and involved, and even to get a bit of craft into the picture.

I look forward to this time of year, and I’m glad that here in Oz we get to celebrate Christmas in the lazy summer. For me the two are completely intermingled. Christmas makes me think of beach holidays and relaxed times with friends and family, great gatherings and special meals, hanging out at the local pool, eating icy poles and having picnics, playing games and watching crappy non-ratings period TV movies. It’s also a great time for reading books and doing projects and the things the hurly burly of everyday life crowds out. Christmas is the pinnacle of those times for me, an excuse for everyone to make an effort to be together, to get along, to do stuff together.

But there’s a little piece of me that is feeling a growing disquiet and I’ve been working hard to understand exactly what it is.

At first it started out as a kind of dread about the massive influx of presents. Every year we shop and spend and give and receive a lot of stuff we don’t need and often don’t even want. Amy’s room gets another layer of stuff I break my back to tidy and care for, and a whole lot of stuff goes into the garbage and off to the op shop. There’s guilt and confusion and awkwardness. And I hate that I see my four year old’s brain morphing into the I want monster. An insatiable consuming stuff devouring machine with expectations about plenty that I find obscene.

This year I feel so deeply attuned to the terrible shape of our planet and environment, and this kind of gluttonous consumption is symptomatic of the thinking that landed us here in the first place. I really don’t want to be a part of it at all. We’ve run it down a little by instituting a kris kringle system amongst the adults of the family, but somehow this doesn’t seem like enough to me. I want to go backwards in the stuff stakes, not just forward at a slower pace.

But there’s more to what’s bugging me, and it has to do with Santa. The thing is, Santa to me is just one big values vaccuum. He only exists to motivate more buying, more getting. Almost no one talks about Saint Nicholas, the guy Santa is based on, whose sole existence was about making presents to give to poor and needy children. You know, kids who had nothing else, rather than delivering items on a list to add to the pile you already have. He seems like a pretty good role model to me, and a whole different kettle of fish to Santa.

Plus, it seems counter intuitive to me to create this fictional Santa guy, spin a whole stack of tall tales to explain how he can do the impossible (deliver presents to every kid on the planet in a night – yeah, right), only to come clean about him in a few year’s time and have your kids look at you as if to say, you mean you just made all that stuff up?! Why would you think that was OK?

It’s not like the lie is even justified by his roots in the moral and spiritual teachings we want our kids to learn. He’s not a comfort to children in distress in the way angels are after a death in the family, he’s not a symbol of love and peace like Jesus, he’s not a psychological device to turn something possibly scary and traumatic into a positive milestone of development like the tooth fairy. As I see it he doesn’t really serve any higher purpose and he doesn’t represent something bigger and better than ordinary people.

I’m aware that when I say all this there are a whole lot of people thinking what a sour old cow I must be. Santa doesn’t need a purpose, Santa is fun. He’s a once a year folly to bring joy and excitement to children and who wants to deny their kids that? I am sure it won’t convince any of you if I say I’m not like that. Really. I can be fun and Amy’s life has plenty of joy and excess and stuff already in it. She’s happy and safe and well stimulated – and not just with sensible educational toys. There’s a frightening amount of plastic and glitter and soft toys and loud musical instruments in her possession.

I’m not a grinch or a scrooge or a particularly austere person, but when I take a step back from the whirl of the season I feel ill at ease with the frenzy that Sata drives. To what extent does weaving a little childhood magic make it OK to tell lies to kids about how the world works, to use the threat of not getting presents from Santa as a motivation for good behaviour, to sit them on the lap of some guy in a padded polyester suit when it’s sweltering hot and get them to really focus on working out all the stuff they want want want?

I was cross examined by a bunch of Amy’s peers at kinder this morning about whether Amy was coming to the Christmas party (the answer is yes), but more importantly was she getting a present from Santa (the answer again yes – for $10 a head the kinder organises books for kids from the visiting Santa)? Was she having her photo taken with Santa (yep, last weekend my mother-in-law did the yearly ritual at a shopping centre), and would he give her a present too (yes, a plastic watch that keeps bad time and is covered all over with ads for Ice Age 2)? Was Santa going to come to our house (over my dead body I wanted to scream)?

Was there anything good in any of that?

And there’s some other stuff about Santa and Christmas I’m struggling with. And it’s a thing about living in Australia and celebrating things in a way that mean something to the reality of our lives. The great big boots and furry suit that guy wears are a health and safety nightmare in our climate, and all that snowy imagery and winter food seems entirely misplaced. Most of the time Christmas day here begs for luscious ripe stone fruit and summer pudding and barbequed prawns, cold meats and fresh cool salads. Why would we heat the house running an oven for hours to cook a roast, or boil a pudding or sip eggnog or hot chocolate whilst wearing our lightest of summer dresses and trying not to leave sweat stains on the furniture? Why do we cover our Christmas trees with snowflakes and sleighs and animals that have never set foot or hoof on our continent?

Don’t get me wrong, the Northern Hemisphere Christmases I have had have been magical – I was thrilled to my socks to wake and see snow on the ground, I loved tucking into a great big warming meal in the middle of the day and I have nothing at all against reindeer. In part it was magical precisely because it all made sense.

But from my perspective down here in Oz the traditions of Christmas seem to come from nowhere. What these rituals say to me is that we follow blindly beyond the point of relevance, and still believe that real life, important life, is something we imitate from somewhere else, not something we make from our experience and history. My daughter cares more about reindeer than kangaroos, and this year she’ll be singing about Rudolph, even while she’s eating Skippy.

I don’t want to be a sour old cow, and I don’t want Amy to grow up feeling like she’s missing out, but I just can’t feel good about the values and life lessons this Christmas deal brings. I recognise that we learn what’s right and good through cultural traditions, and that they are a really important part of finding meaning in life as well as having fun. So I’m trying to find other ways to weave magic, other ways to help Amy learn about who we are, what’s important and find joy. I’m looking for some new rituals and traditions that will help us celebrate all that’s right with life, all the good fortune we have, all the promise that tomorrow brings.

I’m not looking to veer into fake nationalistic pride at being an Aussie either. It might be as simple as starting with a Christmas tree that belongs in my country, a banksia or grevillia perhaps. We might make some decorations that include the animals we know and love. Perhaps we’ll write a story or two.

But seriously, I’m looking for suggestions - some anti-stuff suggestions, some making traditions suggestions, some great ways to celebrate suggestions. Any ideas floating around out there?


Blogger VictoriaE said...

Hello. I havn't read this blog before but it looks very interesting. I'm looking forward to some thought provoking browsing through your achives. The Santa thing is driving me nuts this year too, especially with kids I'm trying to teach not to lie, and that there is happiness and value in life beond how many toys you own. What I gained from reading your post is maybe an idea to really explain to old St Nicholas and what he did. They will totally get that. And we could leave out toys from them for Santa to take and give to the poor kids - which what my husband does anyway taking them overseas to his organisations safe houses. And the kids over there really do love and enjoy the toys. Or is that just crazy and taking an elaborate lie and making it worse? I don't mind if my girls already secretly know it's a story, but do they? It's the age we live in where "stuff" threatens to take over hey?

8:29 pm  
Anonymous Amber said...

Yes! I agree wholeheartedly.

This year I'm in a real bind about gifts – I desperately don't want my kids to accumulate crap, but at the same time, I loved the feeling of being *spoiled rotten* at Christmas when I was little and I want my kids to feel the same.

I'm pleased that we don't have the same volume of toys that other kids have but part of me worries that they're missing out, or that this will alienate them from their peers once they hit school.

Re: an Australian Christmas:

Listen to Australian Christmas carols.

Have Christmas bush in a vase on the table.

Purchase one of the limited release wollemi pines to grow as a christmas tree.

Maybe even have an outdoor tree - decorated with ornaments made from native seed pods or sturdy hand crafted ornaments.

11:43 pm  
Blogger craftydabbler said...

My husband and I discussed alot of this (not the Australian part) before Fiona was born. He was apparently really upset with his family when he found out about Santa. He didn't want us to lie to her, and I could completely understand that.

We read the stories, sing the songs and talk about Santa, but we always say things like "What a great story" or "Look there is someone dressed up like Santa." We've never done the photo shoot with Santa at the mall. I have to admit, part of me wants to leave out cookies and milk for Santa, but I'm not going to do it.

I have a friend who is adamant that her children believe in Santa Claus because it was such a magical thing for her when she was little. She said she would be angry with me if we spoiled it for her child. I told her I wouldn't say anything to her child, but that I couldn't guarantee what my child might say to hers.

I have heard of people instituing a policy of when something new comes in, something must go out. My daughter and I have gone through her things before and picked out a few items to donate. I tell her that they are for children who don't have toys. I can see that sometimes it is hard for her and other times she wants to give "too much."

I was really surprised at how many people give gifts for everyday of advent. It is said that it takes 3-4 weeks to develop a habit, so if you give a child a gift everyday for 24 days and then a pile of presents on the 25th day, it seems like you are setting yourself up on the "I want..." train. I thought that Loobylu (
had a wonderful idea of an activity advent calendar. One of the things that we are going to do is bake some quick bread on one day and then take it to share with some of our neighbors. You could do something, not baking related, like pick some of your fruit, or make homemade popsicles and share with friends or neighbors. We also went shopping at the store specifically to pick out foods to donate. I had Fiona help me choose the things she thought people would want or need.

I love Ambers idea of using native seed pods to decorate the tree. I have to say that I am not a christian. A celebration at this time of year occurs in many cultures and is often related to the solstice. Some people think of celebrating the solstice as a way to honor the life cycle. In the northern hemisphere of course, it is the darkest, coldest time of year, so light is very important. You are experiencing the Summer Solstice, so bringing in ornaments of growth would seem appropriate to me. Maybe long grasses braided to be garland?

We have a couple of relatives who over do it in the plastic and sparkles department. I haven't figured out a nice way to talk to them about it yet, though. I had a friend who sent out a letter to her friends and family explaining the way she wanted to raise her daughter (non-materialistic) and that handmade gifts, no matter what they were would be most appreciated. Almost no one in her family gave her daughter a gift, and my friend was very upset.

It wasn't until you mentioned Amy being more interested in reindeer than kangaroos that I remembered hearing Six White Boomers here years and years ago.

Let us know what and how things work out for you.

5:19 am  
Blogger Stitchingmum said...

Hi Sooz
I loved your post, it really echoed what is in my heart at the moment. Much of what I feel comes from a somewhat different perspective to yours, in that I am a Christian, and for me and my family the reason for celebrating the season is the birth of Christ, not the presents.
However, there is the Santa and presents issue. We still do Santa, and we certainly do presents. In our house, the emphasis has never been on Santa, and there have only been token stocking presents from him. I too am very aware of what kids live in the bigger world with their friends, and how much a part of their life it is to celebrate a common belief (whether this is right or wrong). It is something I struggle with, as I also don't want to teach my kids a lie, but I have also seen time and time again kids who are never taught to believe in anything fictional, and the impact this has on them not only with their friends, but also with their own families. Whilst they know these characters aren't real, they desperately still want to be part of these things whilst growing up(i.e. the tooth fairy, Santa, Easter Bunny). I have no idea what the answer to it all is, and I certainly don't judge any parent for what they choose to do with their children - this parenting gig is hard enough as it is without anyone else's criticism!! As my kids go to a Christian school, for me it is a comfort to know the lessons and values being taught, and this certainly extends to Christmas. I've made a really conscious effort to focus on giving to others in need in the world, from our local community to international aid. My eldest son's class had a bric-a-brac sale at school, and with the funds raised we took the class to Target to buy presents for the Wishing Tree. We cleaned out a lot of our toys for the sale, and the kids really got into looking for stuff to sell so that we could help buy some Christmas presents for other people. When we took the kids shopping, it was so heart-warming to see the consideration they gave to the presents they were buying for other kids their age who aren't as fortunate as them. Now, whilst this did involve buying presents etc etc, the focus was on providing for and serving others in our community, not about the 'stuff' itself.
This year we've also looked at providing some monetary funds to aid some OS projects, such as providing school supplies for children, farming supplies for communities etc etc. This has also been extended to my friends and I - each year we make a gift for each other, and we're also supporting one of these aid organisations.
As well as looking to give to others, I've told my family that I'm putting a ban on toys for Christmas and birthdays. I've had enough of wading through the junk in the aftermath, and seeing things sit there for time on end not being played with. I've looked for practical, educational things (fishing rods, art sets, books, books, books!!), and my family have done the same.
As I said before, I still struggle with the Santa issue. We talk about Saint Nicholas and the origins of Christmas, and what giving means. I don't know how to get it all right, I wish I did have the answers!
For me it's such a balancing act - I'm divorced, and my ex-husband isn't a Christian, so I have two schools of thought for my kids to contend with. I don't want to put my kids in a position where they don't 'do' Santa with me and they do with dad, it has too much potential for conflict for them. I feel all I can do is come to some happy medium, and do the best I can to teach and display not only the true meaning of Christmas, the real reason why we celebrate this time of year, but what it means to give of yourself to others and have a giving heart.
Thank you for your words Sooze, I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way!

8:55 am  
Anonymous suzanne said...

Our traditions are:
-make a christmas craft for each person you give to
-each christmas have your child pick out a gift for a less fortunate child.
-your child will always receive gifts from someone so have your child replace his/her old toys for the new ones s/he got and give them to charity
-have family and friends over to play games on Christmas Eve
-go volunteer on christmas day at a soup kitchen or a home (this is one i'd like to do)

10:20 am  
Blogger leslie said...

hi sooz,

absolutely wonderful post and perfectly timed - shane and i were talking about these very topics last week. i totally do not want to lie to my future children about santa, it makes me feel sick to even think about it. shane, on the other hand, has very fond memories about leaving cookies out for santa and thinks it will be cruel to deny them this "tradition". i just read your very many valid points out to him and i think we're making some headway over here... still don't know how i'm going to handle it when the time comes though (the "very nice story" option discussed above sounds about right, along with explaining about saint nicholas.)

and as a transplanted canadian, i have to agree that the north american holiday symbols seem ridiculously out of place here. australia is so great about promoting its culture in all other areas - why has this not extended to christmas?? last week i ventured out and gathered a bag full of banksia pods, gumnuts and seedpods to create some native wreaths and ornaments - it's a start!

8:21 pm  
Blogger jussi said...

my family and I are becoming more and more disillusioned with Christmas, we too are actively seeking more tradition and comfort in the season. Our children are teenagers and 3 out of 6 of them are as "over" the present thing as we are.
We want to celebrate, but we see that so many of society's ills are linked to "stuff" the accumulation of stuff, the lack of stuff, the desire for stuff.
My husband has suggested that next year we help out at a shelter as a family, and then celebrate later in the day, we have negotiated with the more traditional family members so that they understand when we buy chickens in their name through instead of joining those crazy throngs in the mall.We still give the kids presents, but not the adults.

We have a tradition stemming from when my kids were able to understand at about 3 yrs old, I draw a big poinsettia bloom on cardboard,and each person writes (or has written for them)on a seperate petal something they are grateful for, then we light a candle in the middle of the flower.
It is wonderful to look back over the years and see what we have written.
Santa - ah dear...Santa filled their stockings, but Mummy bought their big presents! I worked so hard raising them alone, I wasn't going to let Santa get the credit!

8:40 am  
Blogger Suse said...

Such a thought provoking post. I too have had a few Christmas rants on my blog about the materialism and consumerism that's so rampant at this time of year.

We do our best to keep Christmas very simple here. We include Advent but the children certainly don't get a present each day of Advent (!) - they decorate the Advent table themselves, and open a window of the calendar each evening.

We do have Father Christmas, but we explain the story of St Nick, and we never refer to him as Santa. And I refuse to plonk my children on the lap of a total stranger who will encourage them to think about 'stuff' they want to get.

I also refuse to do any decorating that involves seasonally inappropriate motifs such as snow and cold weather. The original Christmas night was in Bethlehem in a hot, arid country. Where did the snow theme come from for heaven's sake?

Oh I could go on (and on) but will leave it here.

Great post.

1:16 pm  
Blogger katef said...

We are only just starting to face the Santa dilema in this house and in a lot of ways I am glad that my three year olds are still petrified of Santa as it lets me off the hook for another year....

I too am another who doesn't like to do follow the snow/winter theme... as I just think it is so irrelivent to our life and culture in Australia. A lot of 'christmas traditions' seem to be old pagan traditions and relate to winter solstice (the tree, candles/lights and yule logs etc) which just makes no sense at all here when it is actually summer solstice....

Still not sure how to proceed but I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

4:18 pm  
Anonymous tiel s-k said...

well, that only took me 25 minutes to read..but I couldn't stop. i had to read it all.

As an Australian I feel very much the same way. My children are 2 and 4 and I struggle with wanting to do things one way and then not doing them because of the infestation that commercialism and social acceptance play on every December day! Even just getting together with cousins and family is hard. I'm trying not to say the word Santa. I prefer, Father Christmas or Saint Nick, but when everyone else around you says it, it is like fighting a losing battle. It is difficult to initiate new ideas and traditions when you are the youngest of the extended family. I didn't buy a big tree this year. We just have a small one, and it looks perfect in the lounge. Earlier this month I said I would buy a big one next year, but now I don't think I will. I love looking at them, but do we really need a big one??? Alas, my kids will no doubt because the other kids do.

My four year old is still waiting for it to snow! We live in Queensland. It will never happen.
Thanks TV! I'm amazed when my Australian friends send me cards with snowflakes or snowmen on the front. HELLO!!! If you live in a country where there is snow, then that is fine.

Sometime ago I mentioned this whole Australian Christmas tradition struggle in my blog and I got to thinking about icons and imagery. I'm still thinking. Koalas with silly 'santa hats' drinking beer just doesn't do it for me. We need something unique, classy. But I don't think we should expect to come up with something that is going to be on a scale that is similar to what is already there.

I like to break it down. Colours, textures, shapes, smells.

I really will stop here. You have sparked me on to post something about this.

Thanks Sooz. I promise to share any good ideas with you re new traditions.

This year for Kindy, none of the kids got presents. Each one placed a present into a wheelbarrow and it was taken away for a charity.

12:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sooz, Hello my name is Suz also-have just read your christmas blog,feel compelled to comment.
This feeling of disquiet and disallusionment with christmas is rampnt and increasing and there is no way to defeat it because it spings from a heart that cries for homesty and reality.It shows when you go to the local carols by candlenight anf they sing jingle bells and you feel empty.A celebration will always be meaningless when you party around someone and something you dont understand and have no personal connection to. And no amount of presents, food, grog and cheer can give meaning to a nothing -its an illusion of values, its a distortion of reality.
reality is that Christmas is a christian celebration of the birth of a saviour for mankind.god loves celebration and he understands that humans are fickle so he introduced celebration and rememberance through ritual early in human history so we would remember what is importasnt-and so as christians we celebrate, we throw a party, we honour the one we love and we give gifts to each other to commemorate that love , pure love comes from God-and we want to be like him.And we have a gret time because as we celebrate Jesus, the saviour of the world and our personal saviour Jesus by his spirit positions himself in the celebration and it has meaning and brings joy and peace in our hearts once more-you cant acheive that without the guest of honour no matter how fun and fine the decorations are.
You want Christmas-you want joy, you want peace, you want eternal life-that is all worth celebrting-give your kids the greatest gift you could ever give them-find a ggod church or a good friend who will share with you the real meaning of Christmas and life-
Maybe that emptiness in your heart is simply a stirring toward truth-why dont you go on a journey of discovery and next year have the Guest of honour inhabit your celebrations also.It will bring peace to your soul-Suz

11:36 am  

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