The older I get, the more I am convinced that there are no “harmless” false traditions. Their effects, especially on the young, have reverberations which echo on so loudly through the generations that, if not held in check – or, better yet, firmly corrected or eliminated altogether – can literally cost the eternal salvation of souls. What we believe, what we cherish and hold so closely, and dearly to our hearts that we refuse to let them go… and even find security and order in them… is THAT powerful. I would rather sacrifice these false traditions on the altar of God than sacrifice my posterity on the altar of false tradition.
One Christmas when I was a unmarried college student, I came across a book at the library about the real Saint Nicholas. I was startled and kind of grossed-out by the stories of why this real man from history was made a saint in the Catholic church. One miracle he is said to have performed is the reconsitution of some young men who had been murdered, hacked to pieces, and stuffed into barrels. To me, these accounts seemed like stuff that would have been very strange, even fantastical, for Jesus or Peter or Paul to have done, even though they probably could have, I guess. It almost seemed like showing off: Woohoo! Look at me! Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, but I can RESURRECT three times as many people at once, even after they’ve been butchered and pickled! Say what?! An alarm in my personal belief system went off like a foghorn. Since Jesus Christ paid the price to redeem all those who desire it to be freed from their sins, and since HE is the first fruits of the resurrection, the key and priesthood power to resurrect are HIS, to be delegated by HIM and him alone. Further, there is order in his kingdom. How could any mortal man have the power to resurrect without having had that key delegated to him? I am not sure if Jesus does delegate such a power… but if he did… would it not make sense that he would give this power first, foremost and ONLY to his Apostles? By what authority would this pre-sainted man, Nicholas, do what is claimed in the legends? No offense meant to Catholics, but these stories seemed magical, in an evil way, like something David Copperfield, David Blaine or Houdini would do for a crowd, and I felt a great unease with the accounts. Finally, after having learned more about the man Nikolaos of Myra than just the one story about the Christmas goodies for the kiddies, I could not satisfactorily answer my own question: so why am I observing a tradition associated with a Catholic saint when I am not Catholic? Though I may enjoy The Sound of Music, have wandered around inside my share of European cathedrals have been very glad to buy some paczki when they’re available, and even have extended family and ancestors who are/were devout Catholics, that doesn’t mean I go to mass, observe Lent, have ever in my life said a Hail Mary, gone to confession or participated in any other Catholic observance as a believer. Especially not the adoration of any other of the faith’s 10,000+ canonized Saints. So why was just THIS ONE perfectly normal and unquestionably okay for me, people of my faith, and all the rest of Christian community, worldwide? Why was this one figure so sacrosanct that any criticism or rejection of him bordered on a socially taboo behavior?
During that time, I returned home to visit my parents for Christmas. One day Mom sent me next-door to visit our long-time friend, neighbor and mentor, Linda. I noticed she was working on yet another cross-stich project of St. Nicholas. She seemed to make a new one every year. It was always the same look: some old guy wearing a hat that looked like the Pope, carrying what looked like a shepherd’s staff. I remembered a cherished coloring book from my childhood which had explained all the different Christmas traditions in Europe, including Black Peter, a naked little baby character called the Christkind, and how St. Nicholas, though varying slightly from country to country, was not like our red-and-white chubby American Santa Claus. I guess it was the repitition of this image – in all the framed Nicholases on her walls, that prompted the question: how did we go from these Europe’s traditional concept of Saint Nick to what we have today?
Fast forward a few years later, to when I was a young married mother. It was 1999. I had the blessing in my life of a Baptist neighbor who tolerated and did not reject me and my children even though we were not of her faith. Roger and DeAnn Frye had a family life, a power to their marriage and quality of character in their children that I knew I did not have. I greatly admired the way they were building their family in a God-fearing way… with gentleness, kindness, meekness, persuasion… and obedience to the principles of the Gospel by actions made with a sincerity and honesty of heart (D&C 121:41). I saw much of the way that they lived as near-ideal, and longed for it. She said something to me which has had the most profound influence upon my life. It was her words which reminded me of the things I had learned about Saint Nicholas a few years earlier.
I went home and logged on to the Internet, seeking to finally determine the answer to the lingering question: How did we, in America, go from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus? To my horror, I learned that our American icon came from Coca Cola advertising. It came from the “children’s specials” developed in the 50’s and 60’s first sponsored by the Sears Roebuck company. What? You mean to tell me all those kiddie shows were just a ploy of corporate-capitalism?! You mean to tell me all those stupid songs I had to memorize in grade school ad nauseum: The Little Drummer Boy… Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… were just OPIATES tinged with the poison of covetousness, peddled to the masses? Even though my father had annually related the story of how he had met Burl Ives as a boy and heard Ives sing that Rudolph song to him, I had not understood as a child that my classmates and I were crooning songs sentimental with nostaligic meaning to our own parents and grandparents earliest experiences with that new sensational invention, the television. Even worse, in that process of publicly crooning “happy songs” that would “not offend”, weren’t we all just slowly supplanting the singing of hymns in a public forum (church) with the singing of “more acceptable” nonsense in a public forum (state-governed institution) and calling it good?! In those uncomfortable metal chairs and bleachers, in countless gymnasiums and cafeterias across this country, the sacred feelings and testimonies of that season were dimmed and perhaps even lost for three generations at once, all in one fell swoop! “I have [sung] nothing about Father”… or his Son. I feel frustrated today that all these dumb, meaningless tunes and lyrics, of which not one syllable carries any mention of Christ, are the fluid my elders felt was good enough to pour into the dry sponge of my young mind. I can still sing every verse, especially the personal bane of my childhood, those most-hated songs we had to sing EVERY year: Here Comes Suzy Snowflake and Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. It is STUPID and FRUSTRATING to me that I should be able to do so. It seems like such a WASTE that my mind was not filled with worthier songs and lyrics. Therefore, discerning the truth that our Greek cherub of an American Santa was just a makeover, just a new development of an ancient St. Nicholas cult mythology, BOTH with roots in merchants seeking to make money from a simple observance of faith-based rejoicing, I began to worry.
So I turned to seeking out the words of modern LDS prophets on the matter of Santa Claus and Christmas. It really wasn’t of much help. First of all, there wasn’t really much said. What mention I finally did find was very weak neutral-positive, and usually tinged with the speaker’s personal nostalgia associated with this tradition. There was NO “thus saith the Lord” statement to be found. In our faith, this usually means: It’s up to you (D&C 46:7, D&C 58:26). Therefore, seeing what I felt was as whole a picture as I could construct on my own, I debated inwardly “as for me and my house.” Should we keep the Santa tradition in my family or should we be like DeAnn and Roger and patently reject it, for the same reasons she gave me? I was strongly leaning toward eliminating the tradition altogether, but my first husband would not hear of it. Santa WAS Christmas. In his family, one received more loot on that day than even on their birthday, a practice I found somewhat shocking. And ALL of it, every last bit, was brought by Santa Claus, and none by the parents. In my family of origin, we children got more presents on our birthday than on Christmas, and the only thing Santa brought was what was in our Christmas stocking. Everything else under the tree came, truthfully (and I believe, properly) labeled as being from my parents. My parents felt that our birthdays were OUR day, while Christmas was the LORD’S day (somewhat akin to Sabbath observance). They would also always put an orange in the toe of the stocking, to help us remember past times when that may have been all the exotic treat a child ever got for Christmas: the once-a-year Christmas orange.
Two years later, the children and I spent Christmas in a domestic violence shelter, and shortly after Christmas 2002, the protracted and contested divorce, at long last, became final. The following Christmas I supposed I was now at liberty to worship God and to do so according to the dictates of my own conscience. But it was not to be. To my delight but also to my dismay, I realized the truth I had forgotten: we did not live in a bubble. The following year I began a new tradition with my children: the observance of Saint Nicholas Day, a German custom. Traditionally, it occurs on December 6th. This is when German children are visited by the Christchild (Christkindl) and have their stockings filled. Now why, might you ask, would a person whose conscience had long been troubled by questions regarding Saint Nicholas, ignore those stirrings, and seemingly jump from the pot into the flames with such abandon? Such was not the case (1 Samuel 16:7). Keep reading.
The German Kristkindlnacht, Christ-child Night, or Saint Nicholas Tag, was a tradition I always found confusing. Remember the international Christmas coloring book I mentioned having as a child? In that coloring book, the Christkind was portrayed as a young baby in a diaper. So… just HOW does Jesus go from being a toddling infant baby every December, delivering presents to everyone while wearing just a diaper, to becoming an adult man that gets stripped naked again, nailed to a cross and dying only a few months later in April or May? I mean, can we give this poor guy some clothes during the holidays in his honor and a little bit more of a lifespan for heaven’s sakes? And what goes on between May and December then? Is this Nicean-decreed triune God dead or just “gone”? Is he on vacation somewhere for 7 months out of 12, waiting to be immaculately conceived again? Is this some kind of bizarre Deity recycling program? When I visited Germany everybody in my Lutheran host-family seemed to act like this was a normal thing. Yup, in Germany it’s the Christchild, not Santa, who comes with the presents. As I was writing this blog piece, I looked up the word on Google and Wikipedia. I find myself just a bit more startled to find Christkind described as “Promulgated by Martin Luther, explicitly to discourage the figure of St. Nicholas, at the Protestant Reformation in 16th-17th-century Europe…The Christkind is a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings. Martin Luther intended it to be a reference to the incarnation of Jesus as an infant.” HUH? So we go from naked baby to a figure that looks more like a woman? Isis and Venus matriarchal-power-promoting fertility cult much? Um, Luther, so how did this make things BETTER than St. Nicholas again??? Now we have the battle of the loot-bringer, do we? St. Nicholas for Catholics, the Christkind for Lutherans, and the melting pot’s Santa Claus for anybody who’ll have him, and if THAT is just to much, there is always Dr. Seuss’s Grinch character, if that fits you more comfortably. Wow. This is a mess!! I can even more clearly understand why so many youth, especially in Europe, reject the notion of Christ as being just another fairy story from their childhood, and perhaps even the most fantastical and bizarre of them all.
But hey, wait a minute… I thought this holiday was about God’s gift to us, NOT about gifts to us. The gift-bringer is Jesus Christ. The gift-giver is Heavenly Father. All others, please exit stage-left.
Turning back to 2003, when I found myself a divorced mother of young children… As I pondered and prayed about what to do about Santa and my own children, the tradition of St Nicholas Tag kept returning to my mind. I ignored it at first, irritated. Then I finally realized that this thought might be my answer from God at that time, and for this reason: I found that in my particular situation it was nearly impossible to get rid of the all-pervading shadow of Santa. First, there’s Western culture. He is plastered EVERYWHERE and on EVERYTHING. I could not make him disappear. Second, because my ex-husband still had influence, and he pushed the Santa thing, hard. Third, as he has gotten older, my own father seems to have adopted Santa Claus as some kind of personal hero. He and my mother invested in an expensive Santa Claus suit and began a new tradition of having “Santa Claus” visit at our family reunions. AAAGH! So obeying the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother included the inescapable yearly procedure of exposing my children to the very personage I was trying to abandon. Fourth, and worst of all, because of other people, strangers and friends alike, both inside and outside of the church, I found myself and my children trapped! The questions always and repeatedly came, throughout late December and in the early weeks of January: “Did Santa visit you?” or “What did you get from Santa Claus?” I quickly learned that without St. Nicholas Tag, these Santa-worshippers (consciously or unconsciously, the fact remains that they were), these Santa-worshippers would get alarmed and misunderstand when my young children responded that, no, Santa had not brought them presents… at least not at Mom’s house.
So St. Nicholas Tag was a happy compromise. They could give the simple answer: Yes. People would go on their way, (to the tune of Tradition, from Fiddler on the Roof, I sometimes mused?) happy at getting the answer they wanted and expected… and none the wiser. <<<smile>>> I quickly learned to like this new St. Nicholas Tag. I secretly called it the Let’s Get Santa Over With Day. Why? Because it came so delightfully EARLY in the month! The shelves were not yet woefully picked over and bedraggled when I looked for items for the stockings. I did not always pick December 6th, either. I usually picked a day very early in the month, usually on the first weekend or a day that I knew would be free and clear for the stocking ceremonials… and always before the 10th. I made each child their own Christmas stocking and instead of making them Ho-Ho-Ho centered, I focused each stocking on that child’s name (meanings of the name and namesakes) in association with Jesus Christ. The best thing of all was discovering that St Nicholas Tag was a wonderful antidote to the GIMMIES. They always knew that “Santa” was me. So it just came natural at that point to teach my children that just as “Santa” had given them a nice stocking full of presents, because of his love for Christ, they could bless the lives other people for the rest of the month – in memory and honor of Christ. I bear witness that NO OTHER CHOICE I ever made in regard to observing Christmas has had more positive impact in my home and in the life of my family than this one choice. After December 6th, Santa was effectively banished, or at least REALLY put in his place as being the one, to kneel with all the rest of us, in adoration at Emmanuel’s manger, instead of BEING the idol, reason, anticipation and reason for sleeplessness on Christmas Eve. As soon as they awoke on December 7th, my children’s attitude did an immediate 180-degree turn from inward-focused to outward-focused, and stayed that way all month! The whole entire month changed, the whole holiday changed, and especially Christmas Eve and Christmas Day changed in a way that I can only describe as being more fully filled with the TRUE spirit of Christmas, even the spirit of Christ.
Since my remarriage and as the years have passed, we’ve been drifting farther and farther away from the stocking thing. I had to learn to stop worrying about disappointing my kids. I had to stop trying to compete with my ex-husband about who could give a “nicer” Christmas to the kids. At first, their stockings were filled with so many expensive toys and goodies, they might have cost upwards of $50-100 each. Then, as the economy began to tank, we started to hear beautiful Christmas stories from times past that had nothing to do with money or expensive gifts. I remember being touched by Elder James E Faust’s story of the ruby ring his parents had given him which he, at first, he did not understand or appreciate. Then there is the true story from the Great Depression of Frankie’s Orange, as related by author, Patricia Polacco. I began to remember, with more fondness, the one tradition from my parents I have kept deliberately with the intent to honor them and all my forefathers: the Christmas orange. My parents based it on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her Christmas… how so delighted she was with the simple small gifts her own parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, had provided from just what they had to give. No merchant-enriching trip to Nelson’s Mercantile was necessary to make their children supremely happy. I remembered Laura’s account of her delight in the rare, once-a-year Christmas orange, the red mittens Ma had made, the maple candy she and Mary had made with Ma and the homemade doll named Charlotte. Because it was a symbol of the sweetness of the love behind the gift of sacrifice, we kept my parent’s orange tradition, and explain it to our children as such. We also began making the stocking more about food goodies (minus the candy) and much less about toys. Wow! For cheaper! Suddenly the stockings cost a whole lot less and there was a lot less junk to step on in the house during the rest of the year. In fact, when my youngest child was born, I never even got around to creating her stocking. We ended up just using the one my husband’s mother had made him. Because I DON’T feel the real need for this tradition anymore, ESPECIALLY now as the influence of ex-husband upon my family has lessened and the physical distance from my father and his Santa suit has increased, I think that this Christmas will probably end up being the first one where we might not even do the stocking thing at all. And fa-hoo-doray, Christmas will surely still come, because it ISN’T about ribbons or boxes or toys, just as Ted Geisel asserted.
Going Santa-stockingless is pretty amazing, considering the fact that I still have one child who is a preschooler. I look forward with wonder and anticipation to what she might someday remember about Christmas in our home. It won’t be the lyrics to Frosty the Snowman, worrying about that poor doll left on the Island of Misfit Toys and it won’t be the subtly sinister, deliberately distracting 25 Days of Christmas television mind-programming. Firmly believing in the principle of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out), all these are things that I have rejected on her behalf. If it took 3 generations to slowly train Christ out of Christmas, then it will take 3 generations to train him back in. And it all begins with me (Isaiah 58:12). I am hoping that her memories will be something truly holy and divine that will last in her heart forever. I can hear her now, singing her heart out in the next room, as she plays with her dolls and our Little Peoples nativity set and her older brother plays with his Playmobil nativity set. I wanted the story of the First Christmas and the Holy Family to be approachable for my children, so we own multiple child-friendly creches. She is sitting on the floor, in front of the Christmas tree, singing THE song she has been obsessed with all this month: the chorus from Handel’s Messiah. She has asked me to play it over and over again on YouTube, so thank you, Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She lays in bed sometimes, singing it. We hear it echoing from the walls of the bathroom tub and winging from behind us in the car. With all the joy of her little lisping heart she sings “HA-LAY-YOU-LAH !! HA-LAY-YOU-LAH !!” She may not understand it all, but she understands enough. “FOREVER! AND EVER!!” she sings. What more could a mother ask for than this? Yes, praise Jehovah, or Hallelujah, that I am no longer asleep in the poisoned poppies of tradition, social convention and lack of commitment to seeking, loving and then living Truth… and nothing but the truth.
As a closing word: we rejoiced over her conception and, if memory serves me correctly, I believe we played the Hallelujah Chorus a lot after we learned we were expecting her, late one frosty January. Why the Hallelujah Chorus? Because For Unto Us A Child Is Born, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Hallelujah Chorus are my husband’s Bohemian Rhapsody: or, in other words, his head-bangin’ rock-on! songs. Yeah! Handel’s Messiah is what the Moore Family rocks out to in the car, in the kitchen, and around the house most Decembers. Jeff had seen this child in a waking vision before he even met me and we had waited and prayed for her for over 5 years. It has been a hard year for our family and we have had cause to mourn the threatened eternal loss of one of our children. We did not play the Chorus like we had been apt to… and this particular Christmas there has been some sickness in our family… a telling thing that it has been respiratory, for the lungs are where the body stores grief. With what has suddenly bloomed out of our daughter’s little heart this Christmas, and brought the song soaring back into our home, it is hard not to believe she does not have some embryonic memory of this song, and of our joy associated with it, with her, and with that God who gave her to us. He is the only means by which we have a hope of keeping her and all of our children forever. Joy to the World!
How could I tell them to believe in a lie AND to believe in the greatest truth? How could I be like a fountain running both pure and impure water at the same time? I have never taught my children that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny were anything else but false traditions; Traditions that our family does not observe because they are just not true. People say I am spoiling things for them, but I what I desperately, passionately want, more than anything else, is for my children to know that I never, ever lied to them, especially in regard to the reality of Jesus. I want my children never to question that when I bore witness to them that Jesus is Lord, our Savior and Redeemer, that what I was telling them wasn’t the absolute truth. – My Baptist neighbor and friend DeAnn Frye, quoted as directly as I can remember… in her log cabin kitchen to a very impressionable and pregnant young mother. These words became a lodestar for me, a concept to cling to, because I wanted what she had so badly for my own children and family: never speak guile to my children so that they might know to what source to look for remission of their sins (2 Nephi 25:26). Her words were part of what started this whole journey of faith. Thank you, DeAnn. Of you it could truly be quoted “We did not doubt our mothers knew it.” – Alma 56:47.
For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it—
Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven
These should then be attended to with great earnestness.
Let no man count them as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity, pertaining to the saints, which depends upon these things.
— D&C 123:12-15