by Robin Bartlett Barraza
The miracle of the Christmas story to me is the miracle of the incarnation. We are created from the same source, share the same spiritual lineage, and the whole world is our family. Each night a child is born is holy, and a new person is added to our family. I am thankful that the Jesus story teaches that truth.
In my home, we have had a pretty sad year. We have been learning to live apart in our little nuclear family following a divorce last Christmas. As a result, we have been with the darkness for a long time, and we are ready to welcome the light. Solstice is our favorite holiday, since the longest night allows us to enter fully into the darkness before the nights get shorter and shorter. We appreciate the time to cocoon into our houses together, sprinkling our home with sparkly lights until Spring comes again to remind us of our world re-born. My family is ready for that kind of re-birth, and this season is a beautiful reminder that hope comes slowly and surely. I have had weekly and daily reminders that the whole world is my family because of the kindness and grace offered to me and my kids and ex-husband during this time.
We love the waiting and hoping of advent, so we made an advent altar. You can do this too! On it, we have an advent wreath and a creche, and together we light a candle each Sunday on our wreath for faith, hope, peace, and joy, and share a short advent reading.
On Christmas Eve, we will tell the beloved story of a child born in a lowly manger, whom poor shepherds visited and angels trumpeted the arrival of. I teach my children that the miracle of the incarnation story of Jesus is the idea that God is born in every child, no matter how poor or humble his/her beginnings. I teach them that they have a little piece of God in them–their capacity to love comes from that holy part.
So speaking of the love and goodness of God born into every child, I have been struggling with the “Santa threat” these days, too. Do y’all know what I’m talking about?
I admit to using Santa as a frequent discipline tool because I have young children (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, so you better be good for goodness sake”) and it’s easy. It works. My kids stop bickering or drawing on walls or poking at the fish in its tank or whining about brussel sprouts or whatever they are doing when I pick up my IPhone to call Santa, or start singing that song (the Bruce Springsteen version, of course) menacingly.
Lately, I’ve been worried about what this teaches them about unconditional love and getting “stuff and things” based on being good. I know you’ve thought of this, because you are awesome good parents. I can be a tremendously lazy, tired, stressed-out parent, and go for the easiest tool in my toolbox a lot. Santa’s awesome for that. But I’m worried about what this teaches them about God.
I know not all of you believe in God; at least not an anthropromorphic God with the capacity to love. And I know that some of you are probably weary about making proclamations about God to your children, wanting them to come to their own understandings. Me, too. I was brought up atheist and Unitarian Universalist, and I see the merit in that approach. God is a dangerous, fraught, complicated subject to broach with kids.
But I want to teach my kids something about the nature of God because I know what happens in a vacuum. I know that other people will fill in what I leave out. My kids’ll hear from a friend that God will send some people to hell. They’ll hear from a Girl Scout leader that God will only award some of us for good behavior. They’ll hear from an evangelist that God only favors those who believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins. They’ll hear that only some people are in and the rest are out.
I want my children to know this about God, and this only:
GOD IS LOVE.
I drum this into them. And every time they hear something different on the playground, or from street preachers on the subway, I drum it into them again.
GOD IS LOVE.
And then, for good measure, I tell them: God loves all the children, no matter their behavior. God loves your Muslim friends and your friends who live in the projects and your gay, atheist Godmother and your Catholic abuela and your UU grandmother and your divorced parents and the criminals in the jails and the kids called into the office on a daily basis to sit with the principal. Everyone’s in.
GOD IS LOVE.
I say this when I don’t believe it myself, because I want my kids to expand their circles as wide as they can, to right the wrongs committed in the name of God in this world. Everyone’s in, baby. That’s what I want them to know.
GOD IS LOVE.
Santa, of course, is not God. But he is an unmistakable symbol for God. The parallels are obvious. Santa sees you when you are sleeping and knows when you’re awake. He wants good behavior. He has a white beard and lives in an other-worldly place that sounds a lot like heaven to a child. He has a naughty and nice list. He only rewards you for good behavior, and if you believe in him. Sound familiar? This is not coincidence.
If Santa is a stand-in for God, I want my children to know that Santa loves all the people regardless of their behavior; that Santa loves the poorest of the poor children, and that the fact that they receive less does not mean they are less important; less well-behaved; less loved. I want them to know that the prosperity gospel is false. I want them to know that the reason why they receive good things and abundance is random chance, luck and a result of privilege they were born with. It is not because they celebrate Christmas while others don’t. It is not because of good behavior or God’s favor.
Also, I want them to know that I love them regardless of their behavior, and I hate that I teach them differently with the Santa myth.
This is hard, y’all.
What do you do about Santa? I’d love to hear.