Twas the night before Christmas. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, under threat of holiday cancellation if they ventured downstairs. I in my hoody and daddy in his knit cap had just settled down for a long winter’s wrap.
Buried in paper and tape, fortifying ourselves with Benromach single malt, we watched Northern Exposure on the basement TV. Serendipitously, it was the Yom Kippur episode where Fleischman is visited by a manifestation of Rabbi Alan Shulman representing the spirits of Yom Kippur Past, Yom Kippur Present, and Yom Kippur Future. It was such a delight for a show’s holiday episode to be about somebody else’s holiday.
This holiday season my Facebook feed lit up with discussion of the old liberal/conservative holiday greeting joke. Without any fundamental disagreement, we all got pretty heated about the biases inherent in mainstream cultural holiday traditions. Most of us laughed at the joke in an “I resemble that remark” kind of way (terms like “patriarchal hegemony” were used). at the same time that we defended the caveats. While the rest of the culture pondered Santa’s racial identity, and even, inexplicably, Jesus’ (seems like that one is pretty well documented), the liberal greeting seemed like an awkward necessity.
When my daughter marvels at Santa’s ability to visit every house in the world in one night, my first thought is, “Actually, he only visits the houses of relatively stable families in Europe and America, where Northern European mythological traditions dominate.” I marvel that her innocent little heart overlooks the fact that she had never heard of Santa or Christmas before her adoption at the age of three.
But I don’t say these things to her because I believe in the grandmother’s wisdom from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
Teach them about Santa and read them Shakespeare. Then, when they grow up and life gets hard, they can draw strength from their memories of magic and beauty.
Santa Claus may be problematic, but he provides a service more important than presents under the tree – cultivating a spirit of hope and generosity against the odds. Plus, I think the process of figuring out the truth about Santa is inoculation against gullibility later in life. Gen X has always been cynical about the traditions we’ve inherited, even if we haven’t got any better ideas.
I’ve scoured the internet for the Berkeley Breathed comic strip in which the little girl Ronald Ann says something like, “Let me get this straight, an old white man who spies on his client-base owns a non-union factory with a racially pure workforce etc. etc. Yep, Santa Claus has got to go.” I can’t find the strip (it’s always a shock to me something doesn’t exist online), but it makes a good point. Santa is white because he evolved from a Northern European mythological tradition. He will either continue to evolve to better reflect the needs of our culture, or be replaced by a symbol that does the job better.
So for now we welcome Santa. We give the kids multicultural storybooks and the kids give daddy video games. We burn incense on Christmas morning and eat Japanese curry for lunch while the ham cooks for dinner. We watch Elf and Miracle on 34th St. for their mix Christmas spirit and snark. And our kids play air guitar to Bad Religion’s Christmas album.
It ain’t Ozzie and Harriet. But it’s good.