Thursday, December 3, 2009

If you don't get presents does this mean you aren't good?

The legend of Santa says that "He knows if you've been bad or good." We have songs about this. Parents in Christmas-celebrating households use this liberally as a threat throughout December. Every visit to Santa's mall helpers includes a question about whether or not you have been good this year. The net effect is to create a culture in which children believe they get presents from Santa only if they have been good.

So what is the effect on poor children in Christmas celebrating who have been good, but don't get presents? If I apply MY kid logic I'd believe that I wasn't good enough to deserve a present. What is the emotional impact of this?

The national unemployment rate is 10.2%. Nearly 60% of the 308 million Americans are of working age, which means as many as 31 million adults who previously were working for pay now are not working for pay. Which means there are a whole lot of children who may end up believing they weren't good enough to get presents from Santa this year.

The magnitude and implications of the recession hit me in a new way while I was shopping at a local discount retailer earlier today. I encountered at least half a dozen adults considering what Christmas decorations to buy, what toys they could afford for their children, what grocery items were too far out-of-date to be safe to eat. I overheard children wistfully talking about the toys they wanted, adult daughters and their mothers talking about how they could possibly get x and y for the little ones in their families, and husbands and wives trying to figure out how they could possibly give as much to their extended families as they had last year. Overhearing all of these conversations made my heart sad. These conversations reminded me that this year is different. That this year children - and adults - won't get as much as they hope for, as much as they believe they deserve as recognition of their efforts to be the best they can be.

My shopping experience also created an enormous feeling of guilty gratitude. I don't have to find a way to try to fulfill my child's wish list while managing unemployment or other forms of public assistance. I don't have to tell my child mommy's unemployment makes our house invisible on Santa's map, so he might not find us this year. I have the privilege of giving myself almost everything I want (and my wants are small, so this is easier for me than for some). I have the privilege of consciously making choices on what to buy and what not to buy to give to my sweetheart, my family, friends and colleagues, service professionals who make my life easier, and even strangers. I have the privilege of not having to worry about whether a lack of presents under my tree is evidence of my inherent unlovable or badness.

I wish I had the power to change our cultural messaging about the meaning of Christmas and the role of Santa. If I did I would encourage families to tell children that Christmas is a season of love, and we share love with each other in many different ways - by sharing a hug, reading stories together, and sometimes, when we are lucky, giving and receiving gifts.

However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you can find love in small gestures, kind touches, AND simple gift giving this year. Merry Christmas.

"Do you ever miss Santa"

My nine year-old niece asked me this earlier today when I was telling her that I was at the mall to buy my brother a gift for his Christmas stocking.

"Wait a minute!" she declared after half a beat. "Why are YOU filling Uncle TK's stocking. Doesn't Santa do that?"
"Santa only fills the stockings of kids. He has his hands pretty full taking care of children all over the world, so at a certain age he stops giving people presents."
"How old were you when Santa stopped bringing you presents?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"Twenty-one or twenty-two," I swiftly replied. (I hope Santa reads this so he knows how long he is on the hook with the present giving.)
"Do you ever miss Santa?" she asked, in an even quieter voice.

Of course I miss Santa! I'm also grateful that the spirit of gratitude, surprise, and fulfillment can be experienced through buying gifts for my family, populating my online registry with things I've found online, and quietly contemplating Christmas lights that bathe the front of my home, the homes of neighbors, town centers, and many businesses.

Where do you find the spirit of the season - whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwaanza, Solstice, or New Year?