In Iceland for the 13 days preceding Christmas, the Yule Lads come and leave gifts in a boot on the windowsill, usually fruit or something small. It’s their equivalent of Santa Claus and our stocking. If the children have been naughty they get rotting potatoes (so you’d better watch out).
But lately in Iceland there’s been a debate. Because the Yule Lads have started to leave fruit for some children and iPods for others. At school the next morning, the children compare gifts… and those with fruit are understandably disgruntled.
In a rather amusing effort to quell the rising unrest among the Icelandic children, my mother in law who hails from Iceland, has been posting a selfie video every morning for the last week on Facebook to find the gift in her boot. The first day it was two candles, the second rubber casings for her earphones, the third a meal with friends and the fourth nothing…because she didn’t go to bed early. However big or small the gift is, she thanks the Yule Lad and where she didn’t get anything resolves to go to bed early the next day. It’s her way of pointing out that gratitude has nothing to do with how expensive the gift is.
The madness of consumerism around Christmas combined with the pervasive myth of ‘naughty or nice’ is for me yet another reason to tell the truth about Santa Claus. When children justify their worth relative to each other in terms of the amount of gifts they get from a benevolent father figure, there’s something wrong with this picture. Because er, ***spoiler alert***, the gift has nothing to do with how good or badly the child has behaved, and everything to do with their parents’ financial situation and their attitude to gift giving.
You could of course try to explain that the gift Santa gives holds no rank, but when even children under 7 compare gifts as status symbols it’s difficult to avoid. From this perspective it might be better to simply explain that we give gifts to each other to commemorate a kind man who once gave gifts out of generosity to poor children. That giving gifts is our way of expressing affection… but that affection cannot be measured in solely monetary terms. That it’s the gesture and thought that counts.
The myth of Santa Claus is based on solid values, but lying about it in naughty or nice terms only serves to teach our children lessons of emotional blackmail. We shift our parental responsibility onto a fairy tale figure saying
‘Be careful, if you aren’t good Santa won’t give you a present.’
And worse, because few parents can resist the social pressure of giving gifts, we compound the damage by ostensibly rewarding even bad behaviour with presents. The universal messages of love and generosity get skewed into a farce of one-upmanship, ranking and emotional manipulation.
It doesn’t matter whether my children have been naughty or nice, I’m going to celebrate love and generosity anyway. Let’s be honest, it’s not because I’m the ‘zen’ parent …sometimes far from it. But I love Christmas. I love to see light and happiness in the darkest period of the year. I love to see their little faces light up when we put the angel on top of the tree. I also want to show that I love my children for who they are, not what they do. And to judge their worth in terms of their behaviour and reward it in terms of the amount of money I spend doesn’t teach them the messages I would like. Judging is something we humans do enough of, without making it a systemic part of a Christmas celebration.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Part of the magic of Christmas is the Santa Claus myth. Many children are wide eyed in wonder and delight at the idea of a jolly man flying through the air on his sledge. We work hard as parents to devote four weeks of the year into creating magic for our kids. That magical Christmas package is delivered to us. Fantasy and tradition wrapped up in a big tinsel bow which promises to make our kids happy. I don’t want to take away the magic.
I want to make more of it… by being honest.
Honesty is an important part of my life. So important that I refuse to lie, even about Santa Claus. The way I see it is that after the magic, after childhood comes disillusionment. That period in your life where you realize just how many lies your parents have told. About the state of their marriage. About why they don’t invite Uncle Peter round anymore (he’s an abusive alcoholic). Or why your dog really went to live on the farm (he was run over by your neighbour). Or why they don’t go to that shop on the corner (it’s managed by intimidating foreigners). The lies of Santa Claus are small, but part of a far bigger fabrication. If they were the only lies we told our children, perhaps I could live with that. But as far as I can tell, they aren’t.
Our lies directly contribute to the cynicism which is a defining factor of a teenager’s life. That jaded – ‘we know how the world really works attitude…’ (and it ain’t pretty). Often the harsh reality of life is only so harsh, because we’ve believed that it is something it is not. I would prefer not to contribute to the cynicism into their lives. I would like to instill the magic and mystery of life in my children, even after they’ve grown too old to believe in Santa. I want the magical package we give them to be something for life… not just for Christmas.
I would like to tell them about the wonderful man who gave to the poor. I would like to show them the legend of the Yule Lads from Iceland and get excited at how they have 13 Santas, not just one. I would like to explain how Coca Cola pulled off the biggest marketing marvel of all time and popularized him in red as opposed to blue. It’s pretty scandalizing if you think about it. I would like to dress up and act out imaginary fantastical characters of yuletide. I would like to explain that Rudolph and his red nose is an important story about how our differences don’t dictate the worth of our character. And how that story captured the hearts of so many people that it’s been replicated again and again throughout popular culture.
I would like to deepen their understanding and awe of our magical reality. Adding layer upon layer of complexity giving them a sense of delight in how we humans create vast realms of mythology. To teach them that we can create the magic in our lives. And I don’t think—I don’t honestly think—I need to pretend Santa is real in order to do that.
PS. I know you might like to see my mother-in-law’s videos… but she has a reputation to protect! Instead, here’s a link explaining the weird and wonderful Yule Lads tradition. Björk isn’t looking so strange now, is she…