I know, I know. We are such party-poopers. I promise y’all, I am not anti-celebration or anti-mainstream or anti-Santa or whatever else is happening this week. I’m all for everybody doing this holiday season how they want. If your Elf-game is strong, and Snuggles is nose-first into a bowl of mint chocolate chips, go for it sister. That stuff is super cute, and I totally wish I had the creativity (and memory, because for real, that’s the hard part) to make it happen. And true confession here, we actually do have an elf, and said elf spends the vast majority of her time in the same spot. I seriously cannot remember for the life of me to move that doggone thing. (In case you’re wondering- the elf was a gift from my grandmother, and I seriously cannot bring myself to put it up for good, in spite of the fact that the kids don’t buy it: Mom, you forgot to move Allie again. Ugh.)
Okay so anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. I was building up to the big one- the craziest thing happened last week. One of the ways I’ve coped with the transition from career-mom to stay-at-home-mom is to listen to podcasts while I do stuff. In the car, waiting in carpool, folding laundry, cooking, you know- mom stuff. The one I’m super hung-up on right now is The British History Podcast, which is amazing, since it starts at prehistory and works its way forward, from the point of view of people living in each era. While listening to an episode, the narrator starts telling the story of the origin of Christmas celebrations in Romano-British culture, around the time of Constantine. The narrator tells the historical nature of December 25th, with its origins as Dies Natalis Solis Incvicti, the feast day for Sol Invictus- the later Roman sun god. He details the common practice for cultures to keep their feast days and holy days the same as religions shifted from paganism to Christianity, and just change the names on the doors, so to speak. And while all this is going on in the background, my six year old was listening attentively.
Thankfully we were on a long car ride with napping babies, and we got a chance to really talk about what she heard. Isn’t it crazy how life throws you these crazy opportunities for self-reflection? Cora asked me some pretty deep questions: So is Christmas not really Jesus’s birthday? Do people in other places celebrate other gods on the same days we celebrate our God? When is Jesus’s real birthday? So how did Santa know to do the presents on Christmas? Does he know this story? Is Santa even real?
Nothing like a six year old to challenge you to dig deep into your values and the way you approach parenting…so, where to begin? I think the first thing we conquered was the whole is-Christmas-Jesus’s-birthday question. I asked Cora if we celebrate her birthday on her birthday- and of course, we rarely do. We talked about how my great-grandmothers, who were born at home before the days of birth certificate accuracy, had birthdays that were rough estimates rather than exact dates. We talked about how what we know about early Christianity is all based on oral tradition, so there’s room for error there, and lots of details are missing. There’s just no way to tell Jesus’s exact birthday. Maybe it was just easier for early Christians to celebrate it on the same day as already-occurring days of celebration. We decided together that we’re okay with the details being left out. The exact date is not that important in the grand scheme of our faith.
Then we talked about other cultures- we talked about similarities in other faith traditions to ours. The creation story, the flood, and even a savior who is sacrificed to save the world. We talked about traditions like feasts in celebration, lighting candles in remembrance, and even decorating with trees and greenery. We talked about how the seasons meant celebrations in older religions, and how now our major faith holidays take place in those same time frames: Easter, Christmas, Epiphany. In talking about those, I think I realized that I really don’t care what anyone else believes, or how long they’ve believed it. The world means something different to all of us, and we find our faith in different places and different environments. We feel strongly about our beliefs not because of what we can prove about them, but because of what they tell us about ourselves, the world, our God, and our relationship with Him.
And speaking of beliefs- we brought it all home with Santa. The big one. The one I’ve been waiting years to cover. I think I’ve read a zillion different articles about how to handle when your kid asks if Santa is real. I had this sweet little plan for how I was going to handle it- you know, preserving the magic and answering the questions with just enough ambiguity to leave some mystery. Y’all- my memory failed me. I just kind of sat there, paralyzed, wondering what the heck to tell this kid, after we’ve basically just confronted some serious realities about our faith- realities that I didn’t confront until I was in college. I just couldn’t seamlessly transition from this deep, rational conversation into one about magic and imagination. I am never at a loss for words, and seriously, I had nothing to say.
You know what happened? Cora took care of it for me. She said, “you know, mom, maybe Santa is just a way for people to spread Christmas joy with kids all around the world. It doesn’t really matter if he’s real; it’s just kind of fun to pretend that there’s someone bringing presents, especially if you don’t get presents any other time.” Seriously. That’s my kid. So I asked her, “Cora, do you believe Santa is real?” As I said that, my subconscious was totally saying Cut it out girl. You’re home free. Let this sleeping dog lie. But I couldn’t. I had to ask- and as usual, she gave me something to think about. “Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I mean, Christmas isn’t really about presents. It’s about giving love and doing nice things for other people. But when I am thinking that I like presents, that’s when I believe in Santa. Just not too much.”
So why am I saying all this stuff anyway? Y’all, my mom is sick. Really sick. And this Christmas is just not shaping up the way I’d hoped. Even with minimal presents (which have stayed wrapped under my tree for a month without a single kid trying to see what’s inside- we are seriously that family), limited shopping and the elimination of all the “commercial” side of Christmas, there’s no way to will oneself a perfect Christmas. I had all these beautiful images in my head of the quiet Christmas my mom wanted- some post-wedding festivities following my sister’s nuptials, a late night Christmas Eve service together, and a pot of chili and happy conversation on Christmas afternoon. Instead, she’s in a hospital, not really doing well, and definitely not knowing how much we all want her out and well and home. Maybe your Christmas is something like this, missing loved ones and wishing things were different. Friends, if it is, I’m sorry. This definitely doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think the details matter that much. We will probably always celebrate Christmas on December 25th as a family, but the fact that it’s for sure not Jesus’s birthday, and that we have no idea when that date really is, leaves us open to celebrate whenever. The fact that we celebrate our faith on days when others have historically celebrated theirs (maybe even long before we had holidays on these days), makes me feel okay about creating new traditions that make sense for us, and keeping other traditions that we feel jive with our lifestyle and current season of life. The fact that my kid can sometimes believe in Santa and other times, well…not, proves to me that we don’t have to be married to all our traditions. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We aren’t having the Norman Rockwell Christmas this year- but it’s not all or nothing. It’s a little of everything. The birth of Jesus is a foundation for our faith and our family- but the details of when are just not as important to us as the why. We find our hope and our purpose for serving and helping others in our faith, and that doesn’t change just because we can’t celebrate the way we planned. I can’t imagine myself writing anything else between now and Christmas- so Merry Christmas sweet friends. And happy holidays- for whatever else you may be celebrating. God bless us all.