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The Santa Situation

"Mom, I must have been really bad this year," my nine year old said.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because Santa brought my friend a bike and all I got was little stuff. Santa must not like me much," she said.

The terrible, horrible, no good Santa Situation aka the Big Dilemma aka the rough moment and what is a mom to do?

Let me back up a bit.

My husband and I decided a while ago to be very conscientious about how we handled the Santa situation and Christmas gift giving. We planned with an eye to the long-term.

Here are key factors we considered:
  • Both kids have birthdays in December, making it a massive gifting and receiving month, with the rest of the year pretty bone dry.
  • Santa is a very special part of the holiday, but we didn't want the holiday to revolve around Santa or what Santa brings.
  • Santa is a great morality tale/myth potential that's gotten way too diluted. The original concept of Saint Nicholas giving to needy and building out a concrete embodiment to help children grasp a truly complex, gnostic and esoteric philosophy makes sense. Until it becomes more of a commercial for consumerism. Which it has.
  • We both personally believe in Christmas as being a time to reflect on deeper meanings and reasons, a time for ceremony to provide a framework for faith.
  • So while we want to incorporate the magic of Christmas, Santa, the wonderful myths, the beautiful poetry and songs, touching movies and books and all that so our children have fun and fond memories, we want to do so in a thoughtful and balanced way.
We began with initial requests to limit gift-giving. That failed. And I understand -- family loves to gift little kids with cute stuff. It's just that stuff piles up.

Eventually my husband and I decided a lot of things that could be boiled down to a single concept: spread it out and plan ahead.

Kids are going to want and need new things with each season. So why not anticipate that and allow for that possibility?

We know we can't control how others give gifts, so we made choices that we'd put a cap on spending and quantity. We (mom and dad) would give gifts and Santa would fill stockings.

You'd be amazed how this can simplify things. No need for wrapping paper stress, remembering whether you or Santa was the giver, and so forth. We give one "big" toy (something fun but over budget of what we'd normally spend) and a combination of special, want and need. It worked out this year to about six packages per child to open. Each girl got a special necklace, a keepsake tree ornament, some clothing, the big fun toy (scooters), and a fun educational toy (from Discovery). For my own sanity, I also got them long range walkie talkies. This is so I can have one at home base, they can take one out in the neighborhood, and I can check in. This is the compromise my husband and I reached since we still aren't too keen on cell phones for the kids. Yet.

Santa did a pretty good job, too. Each child got a personalized mailbox filled with candy and a stuffed Santa toy, a personalized water bottle, a name sign, Zhu Zhu pets babies, colored chalk for the new chalkboard, hair accessories, and so forth. Most importantly, he left a personal letter for each child, talking about things he liked and found special about her.

When the wrapping paper cleared, the kids were pretty happy! Within an hour, the walkie talkies were in use as the kids scooted around the neighborhood, and we all dealt with the sound of grinding rocks in the nine year old's new rock tumbler.

Earlier the kids had gotten wonderful gifts from their extended family that hit their main interests. All in all, a nice haul.

I was feeling pretty happy, as well, that we managed to spread out family visits across a week so we got nice quality time in a low-stress way. We incorporated enough thoughtfulness, such as giving to a need (donations) and actively participating in church activities, as well as talking about meaning.

All was well until December 27. When kids started comparing notes.

In our family, we talk about "need-based" giving, and my kids have, until now, accepted that Santa knows which families need more. Our kids are fortunate and get lots from family, so they only "need" stockings filled. Other families need more from Santa. It's also helped explain differences among religious and nonreligious beliefs. Why would Santa visit my kids at their house with gifts but skip their Jewish cousins? Santa respects differences, I said, and he knows that families believe and give differently. It opens up a cool learning opportunity, too, about different beliefs (and nonbeliefs) and true meaning versus overfocus on gifts.

I was stymied to explain, then, how a friend of similar means and beliefs ended up with a big, shiny, new bike.

So I fell back on myth. Santa is a mystery. Something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained. An enigma.

Which might be the truest statement ever made about Santa.

But I did reassure my daughter that it had nothing to do with her naughty or nice status, or being liked less than a friend.

And then I cursed the "bogeyman" Santa side of the myth and my susceptibility to it this year, for the first time, out of impatience with constantly bickering children who have been in rampant boundary (and patience) testing mode lately.

But maybe it's not that bad for her to ponder her behavior, just a bit, in this context...


deborah said…
I like your style. *Planning with an eye for the long-term*--that is parenting, but so easily lost in the hype and the day to day of life, right?
Kyla said…
This year was Santa's easiest year. The kids each picked one REASONABLE item to ask him for and he delivered. The most expensive item was $35 and the lest was $5. Both were ecstatic...and the reason they got these items and their friends got other things was because they asked for them.
Ed T. said…
Julie - It sounds to me like you and Jon did the best you can, but unfortunately you can't plan against all possible outcomes (in military terms, "the best battle plans never survive the first contact with the enemy.") I particularly like the idea of the walkie-talkies, it allows the kids some freedom, while maintaining the ability to keep in touch (I did the same thing for my family, in the days before I finally got my son a cell phone. Mid-high school [post-9/11], in case you were interested.)

I don't know that you could do much better at helping her deal with the "inconsistency", though you might show her the Bloggess' "Christmas Miracle" (sanitized excerpts, of course! - maybe the Chron or WaPo articles on same) with an explanation that many of these folks were looking at a truly bleak Christmas - until many, many "Santas" stepped in and helped out.

Ed T. said…
Oops - looks like I left out a key thought! The reason for the last paragraph was to help her understand that the "position on the 'naughty or nice' list isn't the only determining factor that 'Santa' uses - sometimes there are others in greater need, and 'Santa' doesn't have unlimited resources and sometimes has to make choices. Yeah, maybe a little too preachy for a 9-year old, but then I think by that time they are beginning to figure things out.

I am glad y'all had a good Christmas!

MARY G said…
What a great post! And I like the way you handle things a lot. Our family rule is that a child may ask Santa for just one thing. For the same reasons that he just fills stockings chez Julie. Of course, the child may ask parents or grandparents for other things as well, but from Santa, one gift.
And the parents really, really hope that it's available.
Yolanda said…
I appreciate reading this experience from a more experience parent. Everyone in my near circle gives their children dozens of presents, all from Santa. I insist that Santa brings one thing, and that it’s okay of it is the Big Present, but that everything else under the tree is from us, her parents. And these gifts are limited to a few categories: an outfit, a toy, books, some accessories. She also has plenty of extended family who multiply the number of clothes and toys she receives exponentially.

I have wondered how this would all play out long term, though. As other kids present different variations of the Santa myth. Could I allow her to believe in Santa without succumbing to the excess and overindulgence that I despise? Not to mention that my own childhood discovery that Santa was a myth was completely crushing, and I have a LOT of trepidation concerning the ways in which that myth is sold to my kid. Admittedly, even my husband and I had an argument over whether a gift from Santa should be wrapped (as they were in his house growing up) or unwrapped (as they were in mine).
apathy lounge said…
Some of the hardest lessons to teach our kids are the most important. This is one of them. Good for you.
Jardinero1 said…
Christmas is unlike other secularized and/or secular holidays. On holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Years, Independence Day and even Easter there is a significant commonality of practice between American households. Nearly everyone does Thanksgiving the same way; Halloween, the same way, Independence Day the same way. When you compare memories with your spouse and your friends there are more similarities than differences in practice.

Not so with Christmas, it's like the marriage bed of Holidays and what goes on there is different in every house and not necessarily like what your parents did. Beliefs and practice vary hugely over time and from one household and generation to the next.

The Santa myth is even more varied. The Christmas and Santa that my kids have is different than my wife and I each had and world's apart from the grandparents. Acknowledging that, I found the best way to cope is to stop trying to control it, let my wife make the decisions, buy what we can afford and let the kids believe in Santa any way they want to.

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