Friday, 28 December 2012

Father Christmas - A Cultural Perspective

File:Nikola from 1294.jpg

Source for this image here.

Oh!  I have been delving deeper into Cozi since I wrote yesterday's post, and am finding it a wonderful resource!  Today I discovered that it has its own recipe cache, and it also has lots of useful articles including advice pages, organising suggestions, planning tips and much more.  No, I am not an affiliate - just very excited to share this great website, which I have only just discovered!  I've already downloaded a few recipes from the site, and am finding the shared family journal and scheduler really useful for our busy family of 4 adults.  I can't recommend it highly enough - why not check it out yourself and see if you agree?

One of the articles that I had a look at was about Father Christmas - and the whole issue of whether it is acceptable to include the mythology that surrounds him as part of your family's Christmas traditions.
I was interested to read about this, as during the run up to Christmas, I had wanted to write a couple of posts about our personal family Christmas traditions, and about Father Christmas in particular, as I know that this is a "hot topic" for many Christian families.

One of the questions that our family has all been asked more than once is "how do you lot celebrate Christmas?".  People are often surprised when we tell them that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else does - by using a mixture of family traditions, and rituals that are informed by our faith.  Papa Bear and I were raised as Catholics, although we don't currently attend a Catholic Church, and having also Italian mothers, our Christmas customs are, like everyone else's, quite varied.  We enjoy advent, the run-up to Christmas that this year began on 2nd December, and all the lovely Christmassy preparations that accompany it.  We have a Christmas tree, lots of candles, a nativity scene (Papa Bear gave me a beautiful new Precious Moments one this year to go with the same cute one that we have had since the cubs were wee - it lights up!) and many Christmas themed ornaments - including Father Christmas ornaments.  However, we have never encouraged our children to think that Father Christmas exists today.

Of course, like so much of the festival of Christmas, Father Christmas is in fact adopted from pre-Christian times, and it is thought that the modern day Father Christmas who is said to bring gifts to children across the world on Christmas Eve is a combination of  the real 4th Century saint, Santa Nicola, whose passing is still marked on 6th December in many countries, including Italy where his remains are kept in a basilica about 200 miles away from Calabria, where our mothers were born, and the pagan god, Odin, who was associated with the festival of Yule, which was held around about the time of 25th December.  Santa Nicola was a Bishop who was renowned for his generosity and desire to help those less well off than himself, especially children, and it is possible to see how this figure, associated as he is with the feast of Christmas, can have been mythologised into the fantasy of Father Christmas which is upheld in so many homes today.

When our children were small, they often asked us about Father Christmas.  They wanted to know who this bearded, red coated person was that they saw everywhere, and what his link to Christmas was.  We told them what we ourselves were told as children - that he was a real person, thousands of years ago, who was very generous and kind, and gave gifts to many people, and since Christmas is a time for celebrating generosity, love and warmth, he is associated with it as a symbol of these things - just as fairy dolls, bells, hearts, tinsel and gingerbread men, in their own particular ways, are too.  To us, and to them, Father Christmas is merely an emblem associated with the festival of Christmas in the same way that a cracker or a candy cane is.  On Christmas Eve, our children hung stockings at the ends of their beds, and we filled them after they had fallen asleep.  But they knew it was us that had done it - not Father Christmas!

Like our parents, we did not want our children to be lied to.  We know Father Christmas isn't real,  but we remember his generosity, so much the symbol of all that Christmas means, by giving our children gifts.  For us the focus of Christmas is on Christ - it is after all, the celebration of His birthday - but we also wanted our children to share in the traditions associated with this season, so that through them they could come to know Christ better.  The easiest way for children to learn is through experience, and by giving and receving gifts, retelling the Christmas story through words and images, and marking the birth of our Saviour with a big celebration just as we have for their birthdays, we believe we have been able to demonstrate to them just how important Jesus is in our lives today.  We've taken the focus away from the gluttony, self indulgence and greed that Christmas would be without Christ, by placing Him right in the centre of our celebrations.  But we do have celebrations, and giving gifts is part of that.  

I know that there are many arguments for and against the myth of Father Christmas.  Many Christian families defend their decision to encourage their children to "believe" in Father Christmas by saying that just as Jesus does, he represents love, and that he is not one single person, but present in all of us.  However we feel that this detracts from the fact that Jesus Himself is just this thing - love, generosity and most importantly, sacrifice.  We don't need Father Christmas to do that job for us.  He can be present at Christmas, but he needs to take a back seat.  It is not so much about us being concerned that, had we encouraged the Father Christmas myth, when our children realised that they have been lied to about that, they would also question whether Jesus was also just a myth, but that lying is intrinsically a sin.  If you tell your children that Father Christmas is real, and go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate that myth, then you are not so much inviting your children to question other aspects of your belief systems, as to invite them to think that on some occasions, it is OK to lie.  This isn't what the Bible says.  Not bearing false witness, telling untruths, is the ninth commandment.  It doesn't say "except at Christmas, when it's cute", or "only if it benefits someone else".  It's always wrong to lie.  So instead, we have allowed the image of Father Christmas to be part of our Christmas customs, but we haven't allowed the myths that surround him, to be.  

We weren't ever concerned that our children would be led to question our faith because we dispelled the myth of Father Christmas.  Father Christmas doesn't have a book that records his history, his life, and the impact that it had on the world.  Jesus does.  Father Christmas doesn't do anything except deliver presents.  Jesus may make miracles, but He also teaches us how to live.  He is for every day - not just Christmas!

I think this poem, which I have shared before, sums up our position beautifully - 

Santa lives at the North Pole 
Jesus is everywhere. 
Santa rides in a sleigh 
Jesus rides on the wind and walks on the water. 
Santa comes but once a year 
Jesus is an ever present help. 
Santa fills your stockings with goodies 
Jesus supplies all your needs.
You have to stand in line to see Santa 
Jesus is as close as the mention of His name. 
Santa lets you sit on his lap 
Jesus lets you rest in His arms. 
Santa doesn't know your name, all he can say is "Hi little boy or girl, what's your name?" 
Jesus knew our name before we did. Not only does He know our name, He knows our address too. He knows our history and future and He even knows how many hairs are on our head. 
Santa has a belly like a bowl full of jelly 
Jesus has a heart full of love. 
All Santa can offer is HO HO HO. 
Jesus offers health, help and hope. 
Santa says "You better not cry" 
Jesus says "Cast all your cares on me for I care for you". 
Santa's little helpers make toys,
Jesus makes new life, mends wounded hearts, repairs broken homes and builds mansions. 
Santa may make you chuckle but  - 
Jesus gives you joy that is your strength. 
While Santa puts gifts under your tree 
Jesus became our gift and died on the tree. 
It's obvious there is really no comparison. 
Jesus is still the reason for the season. 
Yes, Jesus is better, he is even better than Santa Claus.

The Reverend James Spellman

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