Sunday, January 11, 2009

#126 - The Inequities of Santa

The Inequities of Santa

1/11/09 (#126)

"Dad, do you believe in Santa?"

My daughter asked that question a couple of weeks ago as we watched a Christmas movie, her eyes glued to mine as she looked for parts of the answer that might not be contained in the words. (I have learned not to underestimate the ability of a kindergartener to interpret body language and verbal pauses.) Such inquiries come each Christmas now, last year's couched in logic rather than faith: How Santa could get into our house since we didn't have a fireplace? I dodged that one by explaining that Santa only uses fireplaces when they're available, asking her to consider all of the people who live in apartment buildings. Santa has more magic up his sleeve than just the ability to get down a chimney, I assured.

This year's question was so direct that it caught me off guard. She isn't old enough to understand the improbable physics that would allow a chubby old man and an octet of flying deer to traverse the entire globe in 24 hours, but since most Christmas movies feature a character wrestling with this very question, it was inevitable that she would ask the nearest adult authority. (And since I do pretty well when we play along with Cash Cab at home, she seems to think of me as a good source for knowledge.) I made a face like I was giving it serious thought, and replied, "You know Sage, I do." She nodded her head, looked back at the television, and after a similarly contemplative pause, replied, "I do, too."

Within a week, my effort to maintain the charming myth of the man whose belly jiggles like a bowl full of jelly would come back to bite me.

In every household, Santa plays by a different rule book. In some homes, Santa brings all the gifts; in others, he brings only one toy. (In ours, it's the latter.) In some houses, Santa brings the most expensive gift; elsewhere, the most special gift. (In ours, it's something special.) We are trying to raise our daughter to be reasonable about her materialism, so while Sage scores a respectable booty of books, art supplies, dolls and games from her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we try to keep the focus on the joy of getting gift surprises and enjoying the kindness of family rather than seeing the holiday as a chance for maximum ka-ching. This year, "Santa" brought her a lovely stuffed fairy doll that she had adored for most of the year, and she loved it. It looked like something Santa's elves could have made, which is a bonus for us with regard to keeping the myth intact. (I figure it's only a matter of time before Sage asks what kind of merchandising deal the North Pole has negotiated in order to build and distribute so many branded products. One of these years, the question will be, "Do elves make iPods, or does Santa hire contingent workers from Apple?")

Christmas was a wonderful day. The next day, Sage started seeing her friends again, and my wife heard the following conversation between Sage and one of her friends:

"What did Santa bring you?"
"A fairy doll," Sage replied. "It's so sweet, with beautiful glittery wings."
"No, I mean your BIG gift, what did Santa bring?"
My wife cringed. "Santa", she and Sage learned that day and again on days that followed, had delivered significantly larger and more expensive gifts to Sage's friends. Sage didn't say so, but she's a girl who is acutely aware if two glasses of milk are poured with microscopically different volumes---I'm certain these inequities did not escape her attention. Hadn't she been good all year? (She had, and then some. Her teachers regularly remark on her kindness and empathy, "the first child on the scene to help an injured classmate.") Santa had given her a sweet little doll, but her friends scored DVD players, video game systems, 10,000 piece Lego sets and other monstrosities. I expected her to report, "I do believe in Santa, dad---and I believe he's a bastard."

I don't begrudge anyone for giving gifts to their children, and I'm sure these gifts brought great joy to those kids. But as my wife asked, why does Santa have to bring the high-dollar gift? Santa has a workshop staffed by elves at the North Pole, not a factory in Taiwan that manufacturers Bluetooth-enable devices. It slays me to think of Sage feeling that Santa thinks less of her than other children. My wife felt it even more, coming home the day she heard that conversation and uttering urgently, "Forget this, I'm telling her the truth. I'd rather than be NO Santa than an unfair Santa."

It seems to me there are three options for us:

  1. Up the ante on "Santa's" delivery. What the heck, this is America, what are with thinking with this "reasonable materialism" crap? We aren't going to save this economy with "reasonable materialism". When in Rome, consume like the Romans do.
  2. Explain that Santa brings one gift to each child, but that some parents also give additional toys as "from Santa" because they want the child to feel like Santa loves them. But that defines Santa so strictly, and I don't want Sage to be explaining these rules to classmates whose families have Santa bring everything.
  3. Kill the man completely. Yay, won't that be a fun conversation. I know she'll learn the truth someday, but I don't want that to be at age six. Yet is that worse than the smallness she must have felt to learn that Santa was far more generous to some friends than to her?

It amazes me how much baggage Santa left behind at our house. That was his gift to my wife and me. Thanks, Santa. I'd have been fine with a lump of coal.

I once attended a poetry slam where a performer from Washington DC spoke of when he learned that Santa wasn't real: He peeked into the bathroom one day before Christmas and saw his mom scrubbing toys, the Goodwill bag on the floor, steam and the smell of bleach rising from the tub as his mother washed off any evidence that the toy wasn't new. When he saw the toys under the tree on Christmas morning, "from Santa", he understood that Santa was a ruse.

Let me be clear, I feel very blessed: There are families where Santa doesn't visit (literally and figuratively) and I'm grateful for our good fortune. But honestly, it's tempting to toss out Kris Kringle and his ho, ho, hos as the benefactor of Christmas. I prefer the sentiment of Charlie Brown's pathetic Christmas tree thriving under Linus' attentive care; the people of Bedford Falls rallying to the rescue of George Bailey; I want "Santa" to be that mother from Washington DC, scrubbing used toys with hot water and bleach, providing a happy holiday with what money and effort she had available. That's the Christmas spirit that I want Sage to appreciate. That's a Santa I can believe in.

Though I don't know how I'll explain how a middle-aged woman from Anacostia who smells vaguely of Clorox was able to get down our non-existent chimney.

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