If you were to meet an alien who asked you to explain Santa in Australia, what would you say?
The older I get, the more I wonder about Santa and how we celebrate Christmas in Australia. It is very peculiar. I’ve had to think about it because I have curious children. When my oldest child was five she asked me ‘If Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birthday, when is Santa’s birthday?’ Good question. And soon after: ‘Mum, is Santa real? Just tell me the truth.’ Figuring it is important that she trust me, I told her, then had to try to explain. She asked why parents routinely lie to their children. Why is the lie so embedded that everyone plays along, so much so that post offices and shopping malls pretend Santa is real? Why do parents do the work of thinking about what their children want, and earning the money to pay for it, and buying the gifts and hiding them, then transfer all the credit to a fictional character? Why wouldn’t you want your children to know the gifts are from their parents, who love them? Why would you teach children to be wary of strangers, tell them to not allow strangers into the house, then welcome an unknown man who sneaks inside when everyone is asleep? Why do parents insist their children sit on the lap of a man they don’t know, smile and be photographed? Why do we pretend that Christmas is a cold and snowy celebration, that Santa wears a woolly suit, and we decorate with fake snow and eat heavy meals, and sing carols by candlelight when it is is the middle of summer and the sun sets at 8pm? Why do we sing about reindeer and sleigh bells during a heatwave?
It makes sense in the northern hemisphere where it is the middle of winter. Where it gets dark at 3pm and everyone feels the need for some festive cheer to help them through the cold and dark of winter. But it doesn’t make sense in Australia.
When we know the earth has limited resources why do we cover our houses in decorative lights and buy lots of gifts people don’t want and wrap them in paper that will end up in the bin? Sometimes I wonder. If we were trying to trash the earth, we probably couldn’t come up with a better way than the way we celebrate Christmas. The gift guides that include a section on ethical gifts are a little perplexing. Does that mean that all the other gift sections are unethical?
My daughter is now eleven, and I can send her into paroxysms of frustration by telling her about the conversations on the mum forums about ‘the magic of Christmas’ and mums defending their right to lie to their children for ‘the magic of childhood’ and how they are glad to keep their children believing in Santa until they are ready to start high school, because, after that point, their children would be a target for ridicule. They say that ‘Santa is real if you believe he is real’, the logic of which makes her mind spin. Try substituting another word for ‘Santa’: monsters/ghosts/my talent/my fat. She appreciates good thinking.
The best I can say about Santa is that he provides an example of how mythology turns into tradition and standard practice. How beliefs and rituals can move from one country to another. How they can combine with other beliefs and rituals, merge and morph and grow, and lose meaning on the way. He stands as an example of how these things can spread, and change in significance.
I’m not suggesting we ditch Christmas. My kids are looking forward to it; the presents and seeing the extended family. I’m just saying lets celebrate in a way that is meaningful to us, according to what we believe and where we are.