Today is the 30th of November and, in our home, that means the Christmas tree and all of the associated festive decor are being awakened from their year-long slumber. Master C burst into our room at no less than 5.45AM this fine Sunday morning (no yoga on Sundays!) and exclaimed: “It’s Christmas tree day!!”. Yes, it is my darling. Today we will deck the halls with boughs of holly, or their close enough artificial equivalent, and set the stage for the month of magic that Christmas entails. Advent calendar, advent spiral, nativity scene and, yes, Santa Claus. We even “do” Elf on the Shelf (Gasp! Bear with me, my friends, I will justify this below).
I am a member of a number of online Waldorf communities, as well as one real-life one, and the question of whether or not families “do” Santa has been a hot topic this year, though this is hardly a concern that is limited to the Waldorf crowd. I have noticed in the wider population over recent years (especially within more left-wing, progressive circles) that there is a growing disdain for the Santa tradition among many young parents, who battle with what choice to make over Christmas traditions within their own home.
While most of us in Western, Christian-based culture may have grown up with the Santa/Father Christmas tradition, the Santa of our time might not sit so comfortably with modern mums and dads. I have heard many parents say they do not wish to “lie” to their children, which I personally find a bit rich given that in the Waldorf world gnomes and fairies are presented to young children in a similarly “real” fashion yet no one sees this as lying to our children, per se, but more as an expression of the wonder and magic of childhood. Then there is the problem with the Santa of tradition who is portrayed as a fellow of judgement who withholds gifts from those who are naughty or, worse, leaves instead a lump of coal to cement the child’s guilt and shame over their misbehaviour. The threat of “Santa is watching” is used as a means of behaviour control with young children. Santa photo opportunities in shopping malls are filled with crying, distressed children who are often forced against their will to sit on the lap of this judgemental stranger that they have heard so much about, and they are then photographed while they struggle to get away, tears streaming down their cheeks, as parents stand to the side cheerfully trying to convince them to smile. This photo is then shared among relatives and given pride of place on the mantle by the fireplace for all to see and most to chuckle knowingly at. The child cannot understand why this would be funny. To be honest, I can’t either.
Then there is the issue of what Santa has come to represent: getting stuff. How do we balance our desire to teach our children that Christmas, in its true spirit, is about selflessness when the very fibre of the Santa Claus tradition seems to be entirely focussed on selfishness?
For some, the emphasis on “getting” will be balanced with lessons of giving from the bible. Christmas, of course, long pre-dates the legend of Santa, Father Christmas or St. Nicholas: it is the anniversary of the birth of baby Jesus, and a celebration of all the lessons that Jesus taught the people – lessons of love, generosity, acceptance and selflessness. Those of us who do not follow a particular religious faith, my family included, may choose to point to the story of Jesus’ birth as an example of the values we wish to instil in our children without attaching to an entire religious philosophy. This seems to be the approach that Waldorf education takes: while not inherently a religious mode of education, Steiner schools do use the stories of the bible (as well as other religious texts) to convey messages of morality to children without teaching religious doctrine. My husband and I consider ourselves to be spiritual with an interest in world religions and the commonality among these, so this approach appeals to us.
Many in the Steiner scene celebrate St. Nicholas Day, as we did also this past week, in lieu of the Santa tradition with “Saint Nicholas” leaving gold coins, fruit or other goodies in children’s shoes that have been left out the night before. This is, of course, where the stocking tradition of modern Santa originally came from. Most, however, in the Steiner community focus their celebrations on Advent as a journey toward the darkest day of the year and, beyond that, the anticipation of the light of springtime beginning to approach. As is often the way, the deep seated connection to the seasons and the earth is the focus here. Winter solstice is a very special time in the Waldorf calendar, and there is an element of the Christ birth story that is also connected to that. Santa is not a legend that is perpetuated within the context of the Steiner philosophy.
So where does this leave those of us who remember the Santa of our own childhood with fondness and wish to continue the tradition for our own children (albeit without all the behaviour control, etc.), while balancing this against our new paths within the Steiner philosophy? I can’t say what anyone else should do, but I can tell you what we are doing.
I have told the story of Saint Nicholas to Master C and explained that the names Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are interchangeable, and all represent the magic of Christmas. I have also told the story of Jesus’ birth and explained that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ life and the lessons he taught; that Saint Nick himself would have been inspired by the teachings of Jesus when he chose to bring gifts to those who needed it most around Christmas time. The way I see it, ultimately Santa and Jesus both teach us the same thing: to put our focus on others ahead of ourselves. I point to both Jesus and Santa/Father Christmas/Saint Nicholas as role models who demonstrated selfless acts of kindness and love without seeking recognition. And this year in our family we are making efforts in the days leading up to Christmas to embody these teachings ourselves. This is where the Elf on the Shelf comes in.
I know, I KNOW, just how very un-Waldorf-y Elf on the Shelf is, and how in almost every way this product (in its marketed form) goes against all I am trying to teach regarding Christmas and its meaning. Just hear me out. Since we only began our Waldorf journey a year ago, some (typically mainstream) traditions were already established and, once established, they are difficult to change without confusing our children. In the months leading up to last Christmas, I ordered an Elf on the Shelf after seeing some EOTS antics online from friends the previous year and thinking it looked like a lot of fun. When we got the box with the elf and the book, I had a read of the book and decided immediately to chuck it in the bin. Instead we wrote a letter from our elf and left it for Master C, explaining that the elf was here to encourage acts of selflessness and kindness and that he would return to the North Pole each night to share our efforts with Santa. No mention of penalties for misbehaviour, just encouragement to think beyond ourselves in the days leading up to Chrissie. But, I admit, this message probably got a bit lost in the shuffle last year as Big Daddy and I got more than a little swept up in the EOTS antics I had seen online and instead we found ourselves staying up late each night crafting funny little scenes that involved the elf and other toys getting into adventures while the rest of the house slept. It was a lot of fun, it was.
A few short weeks after Christmas, my focus starting really settling in on the Waldorf path and now, a year later, our values/priorities/intentions for Christmas have evolved a great deal. In some ways, I regret introducing the (commerical version of the) elf, since he is an ugly little thing without a doubt. If I had to do it all over again, I would have much preferred to make or buy a handmade version but, alas, one cannot go back in time so we are stuck with our mass generated version. But I do have control over what messages we are sending with our elf this year, so this is the route we have taken this time around:
Every day when the kids awake, our elf (named Pete, for all interested parties) is hiding in a new place somewhere in the house, as he did last year. And everyday he brings with him a new Christmas Act of Kindness challenge. It seems I am not the only one who, after going a bit mad with EOTS antics last year, has realised that the message it is sending may not be the one we wish to encourage (many EOTS photos show elves doing something “naughty”, such as toilet papering the Christmas tree for example). There are a great number of awesome bloggers out there doing this Christmas Kindness thing – check them out! Without these blogs and their awesome random acts of kindness ideas, I would be at a loss. So far, only one week in, our Elf has challenged us to do the following:
- Bake cookies and deliver them to the local fire station
- Pay for a stranger’s coffee
- Tape a popcorn surprise to a DVD vending machine
- Candy cane bomb a parking lot
- Donate used books to the library
- Do a grocery shop of non-perishable foods with the sole purpose of leaving the lot in the food donation box at checkout
Along with this, our elf will occasionally get up to a bit of silliness in the vein of last year but to a much lesser degree, and only in the last few days leading up to Christmas. I think we are on the right track this year in terms of being more in alignment with our evolving values, while still keeping much of the tradition we are familiar with alive and fun.
So, there you have it. Please do share how you do things in your home to encourage the true meaning of Christmas. Do you “do” the whole Santa thing? How do you balance the Waldorf way and more mainstream methods? I’m always keen to hear from others in the greater Waldorf community (and everybody else too!), please feel welcome to leave your suggestions below.
With love, kindness, and all the blessings that the holidays bring,