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I don't remember a time when I actually believed in Santa Claus. But I do remember how much I appreciated him as a child.
I grew up in a family that quietly practiced an earth-based spirituality in a remote corner of Eastern Oregon. Everyone and everything around us was heavily Christian. I often felt isolated and confused about religious and cultural differences. It didn't help that my family didn't talk very openly about our spirituality. Most of our celebrations were muted and not shared with anyone. We would pay lip service to celebrating "Christmas," even though we didn't really.
Sure, even at home we called it "Christmas" but we had no connection to the story about Baby Jesus in a manger. When I first went to school, I felt a bit dishonest, like our version was a fraud. But a few years later, I realized that Christmas trees and Santa Claus had nothing to do with the story of Baby Jesus. And yet, my Christian classmates shared them with me. It was hugely comforting to have something I could share with others and still feel was also authentic to my family and culture.
Some things have changed since I was a child. I went to college and learned that people who believe what my family does are called Pagans. I learned other words for things that had always been silent in our family - "Yule" and "Solstice," for instance. Having names for things helped me to develop a stronger identity and to integrate spirituality into my everyday life, bringing it back from the ghetto of secret rituals to which my spirit had been banished.
Today, I am slowly teaching my mother to say "Solstice" instead of "Christmas." She wants to but the words of mainstream culture are deeply ingrained in her and the years of secrecy and fear are hard to overcome. It is not that openly admitting to being Pagan is without risk in Eastern Oregon today. There can be problems at school or in a professional career, but it isn't as taboo as it once was and we feel secure enough that we can at least name these things in our own home.
I am also teaching my two children, ages four and five, about our beliefs. Yesterday, my mother hung Yule lights in the living room. My five-year-old daughter, who is attending the heavily Christian-influenced local Kindergarten, was delighted.
"Christmas is like Yule, isn't it?" she asked me as we walked the quarter mile down the mountain to the bus this morning.
"That's right," I said. "We call it Yule or Solstice and Christians call it Christmas."
"But they have Santa Claus too," she said.
"That's true," I agreed. "But I don't think they know that Santa Claus is a sun spirit."
"The sun gives us presents," my daughter said, hugging herself happily.
That's my take on Santa Claus in a nutshell. I've heard the debate – to Santa or not to Santa. It rages among Pagans, Christians and devotees of secular Christmas. The rhetoric may vary but the core of the problem is really the same. I understand the desire to deemphasize the materialistic side of the holiday. I also get how uncomfortable parents are with telling children an elaborate "lie" about a man in a red suit.
On the other hand, I know that one of the precious gifts of childhood is the sense of magic and wonder that makes Santa Claus possible.
On another day my daughter asked, "Is Santa Claus real?"
I answered, "Santa Claus isn't real like rocks and sticks are real. But Santa Claus is real in spirit. Santa Claus is real like the spirit of our favorite tree is real or like the protection of Thor. Santa Claus is a symbol of how the Sun gives us the gifts of life, food and warmth."
My five-year-old doesn't seem to have a problem with this sort of physical real versus spirit real dichotomy. That's good because I want both worlds. I want to be able to raise my children with science and with spirituality. I want my children to develop an "attitude of gratitude" because life is a lot happier that way.
I wanted to write about this because I have seen and heard a lot of anxiety expressed among Pagans about whether to or how to introduce Santa Claus to their children. The good news is that everyone gets to make their own choices these days. You won't be alone if you choose not to include Santa in your midwinter holiday. But if you want to include him and his deep Pagan roots in your celebration, here is one way of doing it.
At our house, we celebrate Yule beginning on the eve of the Solstice. We have a candlelight dinner focused on round things in the colors of the sun and the night sky (i.e. shepherd's pie with turmeric in the mashed potatoes on top and huckleberry desert with star-shaped cookies). The next morning we get up before dawn to greet the sun outside with a thermos of hot chocolate, cookies and drums.
We attempt to mark the twelve days of Yule. The second day carries the theme of harvest, bounty and possessions, so that is when we have Santa Claus.
In the evening on Dec. 21, the children leave an offering of cookies that they made in front of the hearth. We talk about the sun and all the gifts of the old year, how a new year is beginning but Santa Claus still has some gifts of the old year for children. I guide the children in saying a blessing and thanks for all the gifts of the past year.
In the morning, the children wake up to a gift or possibly two under the Yule tree. The cookies are gone. They were enjoyed with nice cups of tea by the breadwinners of the household after the children went to bed. Some were also left outside as an offering.
The fifth day of Yule falls on the night of the 24th to the day of the 25th of December and that day is dedicated to family. As a result, it is natural for us to exchange gifts between family members and visit extended family during this time. It's fine that some of our family does Christmas.
The only real problem we run into is the fact that we don't always have the 21st and the 22nd off of work or school. We try to engineer that as a quiet family time whenever we can and we aren't too orthodox to play with the dates if absolutely necessary.
We often spend our winters in the Czech Republic. While that is not the most Christian country in the world, it does have a little issue for us to deal with. In the Czech Republic, Santa Claus is not actually a very popular figure. Ironically, most secular children have "the Little Baby Jesus" bring their presents. For 70 percent of the country there is no religious connotation to this at all. It is simply tradition and my children are as used to hearing about "the Little Baby Jesus" from their friends as they are to hearing about Santa Claus from their American cousins.
As I said before, one of my reasons for keeping the tradition of Santa Claus alive in my family was that as a child, I really enjoyed having something of our celebrations that I could share with friends outside our small Pagan community. It made me feel both solid in my unique identity and included in the larger culture. So, for awhile, I pondered what to do about the constant references to "the Little Baby Jesus" in secular Czech society.
At last, I settled on a handy solution thanks to a book called Smokey and the Feast of Mabon, which is a wonderful children's book about the Sabbat of Mabon. In the story there is a depiction of the old year as an old man with a flowing white beard. And the symbol of the new year is an infant, lying asleep in a cradle, because the old year has not yet woken up at Mabon. While that book discusses the magical New Year at Samhain, I realized that the same principal could be applied to the solar New Year.
As a result, we have spiced up our Yule celebrations in the past few years with the addition of the Little Baby Sun of the new year. We view Santa Claus as a popular representation of the spirit of the old year's sun. We build a goddess figure out of clay and paint it in the colors of the night sky - with the symbolism of "the womb of the night." This we use as a table centerpiece in the weeks leading up to Yule.
Then, when the moment of the Solstice comes, I secretly slip in a sun-colored baby that I have fashioned to go along with the goddess figure and place it in the goddess's arms when no one is looking. This has been a magical tradition so far and has cleared up what little confusion my children had over references to the Little Baby Jesus bringing presents in the Czech Republic and the constant drumbeat of heavily religious Christian influence when we are visiting my family in Oregon around Yuletide.
This is an adaptation of ancient ideas, not a literal transmission of some ancient Pagan tradition. But Santa Claus has clear Pagan roots. There were pre-Christian legends about a similar figure in many parts of Europe. You may also note that Santa Claus carries the three "colors of the Goddess" – red, white and black. And that Santa Claus is said to come through the hearth and fire. All of these things make a natural correlation to the idea of Santa Claus as a spiritual symbol of the sun and the gifts of life and prosperity.
Last night, my four-year-old son turned to my mother, who had cooked the family dinner, and said, "Thank you for our food." It wasn't just unprompted. It was out of the blue. I have never actually taught my children to thank the cook, as that is usually me. I have simply taught them to be mindful of the gifts of the earth and the sun. Our Yule traditions are part of this "attitude of gratitude" and that is why I finally have started to believe in Santa Claus.
See more of Arie Farnam's writings at www.ariefarnam.com
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Arie Farnam is a Pagan blogger and fiction writer. She lives most of the year in the Czech Republic with her husband and two children, where she concocts medicines from herbs and dreams up fantasy adventures for children and adults.