People criticize Christmas for two things. One objection is that Christmas has become so materialistic that we are all missing the point. The other is that the Christmas celebration centers around a fairy tale with a magical Santa Claus and airborne reindeer. Why people have a problem with these secular additions to the Christmas story is beyond me.
Some of the best things in life are both magical and materialistic. A great gift that we can hold, see, sniff, listen to, or wear brings us alive inside. As we enjoy opening a gift, our anticipation opens us up to delight. I think the real reason Christmas cynics object to the magical and materialistic is because these things bring such undeniable joy.
Cynics can’t help taking other people’s happiness down a notch. The cynic tells us we should be honoring the idea of Christmas, not the gifts. But to know ourselves is to know what brings us pleasure. When we excitedly open a gift, we are fully our own person. Christmas cynics want to make us suspicious of this pleasure, telling us that all this materialism and magic fuel the wrong kind of desires.
Wow. These people must have no sense of metaphor. As children, we live in metaphor. Christmas is Santa Claus. The shiny bike is happiness. Later we may mature into similes: The Christmas spirit is like Santa Claus. Happiness is like getting a new bike for Christmas. Either way, gifts help children experience Christmas as a wonderful event that tells us we can have faith in the world as a safe place where good things happen. When we receive gifts, our energy and motivation rise. We feel filled up inside, elevated, and full of possibility. When children believe in Santa Claus and then Christmas presents magically appear, they directly experience the world’s goodness and their own worthiness as recipients of its generosity. Unfortunately, the adult mind has a problem with this and thinks we are doing children a disservice by filling their heads with nonsense.
But there’s no need to worry. The nonsense part will take care of itself: it will fall away the first time someone pops the bubble of belief. Fairy tales like Santa are just gentle and temporary ways of teaching children great lessons about life through the metaphorical and magical symbols they relate to. Later when the truth comes out, children learn to put away their magical beliefs, at least in public. But what remains underneath is that indelible early experience of the world being full of magical and beautiful things. So what if that was provided by parents and not a real man in a red suit? An experience is a fact. People who remain open to magic and metaphor—even as they know better—tend to be more openhearted, hopeful, and creative in ways that connect them to other people.
When a friend’s son was a toddler, she worried that stories about Santa Claus would be a form of lying to him. How would he trust her if, say, she introduced the concept of God? As he approached the age where he could understand the idea of Christmas, she talked this over with her son’s wise babysitter. She told the sitter she was thinking about not doing the Santa Claus thing. “Oh please don’t do that,” the babysitter pleaded, “it’s so good for him to believe.” My friend argued that her son might never trust her about God once he found out the truth about Santa. The babysitter argued right back: “Santa Claus is something we grow out of. Belief in God is something we grow into.”
If children remain bitter with their parents for lying about Santa Claus, it is probably not because they discovered Santa doesn’t exist, but because they have learned their parents are untrustworthy about many things.
As children, we absorb love and goodness and God not as items of belief, but because someone physically treated us in a way that made us feel whole, deserving, and connected. They looked in our eyes, held our hand, and had fun with us and gave us presents. The joy of receiving something dearly desired from a person who delights in our happiness is an undeniable experience of being loved. It is a metaphor in action. The present is not love, but the giving of the present certainly is. Giving presents is the metaphor for giving love. We need the real thing, but we need the metaphor as well to salute the underlying mystery and magic of the world.
When we give a present, we are not saying here is my crass materialistic substitute for real affection. We are saying here is this material source of pleasure that will facilitate your feeling of being loved. If there is love in the giving, our love will seem more real, not less for being in a material form. And that’s no fairy tale.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.