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Faith in Vermont: Missing Santa Claus

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Posted on December 5, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Our family missed Santa Claus this year.

Ever since we moved to Vermont seven years ago, our family has attended the “Very Merry Middlebury” festivities in downtown Middlebury on the first Saturday of December. This annual celebration, designed to welcome the winter holiday season, includes a hot chocolate hut, horse-drawn carriage rides, a scavenger hunt for themed ornaments in Main Street’s shop windows, and various craft fairs. The Sheldon Museum’s spectacular model train diorama is open to the public, as are the impressive entries in the Vermont Folklife Center’s gingerbread creation contest. Inspired children can make (and eat) their own graham cracker “gingerbread” houses at Ilsley Public Library.

Santa Claus himself begins the event, riding into Middlebury atop a town fire engine.

We look forward to the Very Merry Middlebury tradition every year. But this year, there was some consternation among the adults in our family when we noticed that the schedule listed Santa’s arrival at 9:15 AM.

With four young children and 19 poultry to tend, we are not a family that sleeps in; even on weekends, my husband and I are usually up before 7 AM. However, it’s one thing to wake up early on Saturday; it’s another thing entirely to get four children out the door before 9 AM on Saturday. From what we recalled, Santa had always arrived in Middlebury at 9:45 (and he often ran a little late.) The hot chocolate hut didn’t even open until 9:30!

Our conclusion: 9:15 must be a type-o. Santa would likely arrive at 9:45, as usual. To be on the safe side, though, we’d plan to be in town by 9:30.

When we arrived at the hot chocolate hut at 9:30, we learned from friends that – not only had Santa come and gone – Santa had been early this year, rumbling down Main Street atop the fire engine at approximately 9:07 AM. (The priority, apparently, had been to get Santa to the Middlebury Inn, where he’d be receiving visits from children for the next few hours.)

As I reassured my children with reminders that they’d seen Santa enter town many years in a row and would see him again next year, my six-year-old looked up at me with tears streaming down her face and gasped, “But if Santa didn’t see me, how will he know that I’ve been good?”

Her question knocked the breath out of me. How did we get here? I wondered.

Just days before Very Merry Middlebury, I was involved in a thoughtful discussion between members of a Board of Trustees on which I serve, over the appropriateness of holiday decorations in public spaces. This conversation revealed that, when we talk about “Christmas,” we often use the same word to refer to two very different holidays. One of my fellow Trustees aptly characterized the difference through the use of punctuation: christmas vs. Christmas.

Christmas, with a capital “C,” is a religious holiday in which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ -- whom they believe to be God’s son and the world’s savior -- in a feeding trough in Bethlehem in the first century A.D.

Then there is christmas, which, in 21st century American practice, involves christmas trees, gift giving, and Santa Claus. While connections can be drawn between some of these traditions and the Biblical account of Jesus’s birth (Jesus can be considered God’s gift to the world, and the Magi brought gifts to Jesus after his birth), there are absolutely no Biblical references to christmas trees, gift exchanges, or Santa Claus.

How did we get here? Who is this Santa Claus?

The Santa Claus legend originated with St. Nicholas, a monk born around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. St. Nicholas is said to have given away all of his inherited wealth in order to help the sick and poor. Over time, he became the patron saint of children and sailors, and his feast day was celebrated on December 6 – a tradition that Dutch immigrants brought to New York in the late 1700s. The American Santa Claus is a combination of St. Nicholas’s Dutch nickname (Sinter Klaas) and other St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giving figures from around the world (including Kris Kringle in Germany, Father Christmas in England, a Scandinavian elf named Jultomten, and an Italian chimney-descending witch called La Befana.) Clement Clarke Moore drew on these influences in order to write his 1822 poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” and cartoonist Thomas Nast used Moore’s poem to draw the first likeness of our modern Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1881.

The Biblical story of Christmas tells us that the world is lost and evil, but God is so loving that He came down in human form to save us, despite ourselves. Somehow, during the past 150 years, Americans created a parallel christmas that tells us that love is best expressed through the exchange of material goods, and that the better you behave, the more you deserve those material goods (and, presumably, love.) We have taken a religious observance and turned it into a celebration of capitalism.

This distinction matters to me, because our family celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday.

My husband and I debated what to do about Santa Claus before we had children -- before we’d even discussed the merits of cloth vs. disposable diapers. We both grew up with Santa Claus, even receiving gifts addressed to us from Santa Claus. Nevertheless, my husband was in favor of excluding Santa from our family Christmases from the start.

During one such discussion, a friend (who went on to become a Presbyterian minister) expressed shock that we would deprive our future children of Santa. “Children need to grow up with some magic,” he argued.

So the Santa issue remained unresolved in our household. After our children arrived, I took a sort of noncommittal, “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude. In our family, Santa occupies the same sphere as Smartphones, The Elf on the Shelf, and downhill skiing: I acknowledge that it’s out there, but it’s not something we’re going to do as a family.

I have never initiated a discussion of Santa Claus with my children, never had Santa decorations in our house, and never pretended to give gifts from Santa. (We do exchange gifts at Christmas, but we limit it to: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”) We rarely shop together as a family – certainly not in shopping malls, we don’t own a television, and all of my school-aged children are homeschooled. In other words: My children are about as isolated from Santa as it’s possible to be in 21st century America.

Still, Santa snuck into our house. Somehow, my children began assuming that the small gifts (mostly toiletries) in their Christmas stockings were from Santa. They began leaving cookies, milk, and carrots (for the reindeer) out for Santa.

I have yet to disabuse my children of this belief. Because some of my daughters have big mouths and are not always socially sensitive, I’ve worried that they’d stomp all over other children’s traditions. So, when they ask if Santa is real, I’ve managed to survive a decade of parenting by answering questions with more questions: “Do you think Santa is real?”

All of this – our American creation of a secular, capitalist holiday alongside a religious one, and my parental failure to be clear about what our family believes – came to a head the moment my weeping daughter asked how Santa would know she’d been good if he couldn’t see her.

The short-term resolution of the problem was this: Kind friends, seeing how upset our children were to miss Santa, procured us a ticket to visit Santa at the Middlebury Inn. So, for the first time in their lives, my children found themselves engaging in the American childhood ritual of waiting in line to tell a man dressed in a Santa costume what they want.

Having grown up in small town Vermont, where standing in lines is not part of everyday life, my daughters have little patience for long waits. Still, they endured 30 minutes of boredom until they were ushered before Santa. They each presented their requests (world peace, a drone, something to do with unicorns, and a Barbie – only one child will get what she wants for Christmas), asked Santa how he pays his elves (“They work for magic.”), and departed (mercifully) before remembering to ask whether Santa preferred beer to milk with his cookies.

Their conclusion: “Next year, let’s get to town earlier so we can see Santa on the fire engine.”

I am still considering the long-term resolution. I am all in favor of children growing up with magic, which is why one of my daughters will receive a unicorn-themed gift for Christmas. Still, I can’t help but regret the mixed messages I’ve given my children.

Whatever we decide about Santa, I hope to be absolutely clear on this point from here on: You do not have to be good to be deserving of love.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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