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My mom loves Christmas. Every year of my childhood our family decorated the tree on Thanksgiving and basked together in its multicolored glow every night until December 25. Most of our decorations were homemade, and I remember spending hours with my mom and brother and sisters making ornaments by the dozen to give as gifts. I still have a few of them: a wreath sewn out of scraps of my dad’s threadbare work shirt; a drum made of plastic canvas, yarn, and milk jug lids; and, strangely, a tiny Santa Claus boot that holds a miniature candy cane.
The Santa boot is strange because Adventists consider themselves a “peculiar people,” “in the world but not of it.” Santa is a part of how the world got Christmas--and everything else--wrong, an interloper stealing attention from Baby Jesus, one of the many things good Adventists don’t do. We kept the Christ in Christmas before it was cool!
My mom allowed more worldly Christmas fun than some of the Adventists we knew. Some of the most hardcore didn’t celebrate Christmas at all because of its materialism and roots in pagan traditions. My uncle claimed, for instance, that hanging ornaments harkened back to hanging Christians’ heads in trees during pagan rituals (an image I sometimes think of when conservative pundits get particularly nasty about the “war on Christmas”).
My mom rolled her eyes at that kind of fundamentalism. Like most American Christians, she allowed an uneasy coexistence between the sacred and the secular in our Christmas traditions. She cherished a hand painted ceramic nativity, but it shared space with a collection of snowman figurines and a small red disco ball that played “Jingle Bell Rock,” a gift my eight-year-old brother solemnly bought her with his allowance and which she still treasures. We watched Christmas movies on TV, but we were always reminded that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins was the true meaning of Christmas and that angels weren’t really dead people who had to “earn their wings.” And, of course, there was no such thing as Santa.
By the time my daughter was old enough to participate in Christmas traditions, Alex and I were out of Adventism and well on our way to identifying as atheists, and we didn’t do Santa Claus either. At the time that wasn’t a deeply thought out choice; it just wasn’t part of our experience, so we didn’t bother with it.
If you grew up without Santa, as I did, and if you don’t have kids, you might be surprised by the amount of grief other parents have given me about Santa Claus over the years. “I can’t believe your daughter doesn’t believe in Santa,” they say with apparently genuine bewilderment. “It’s so sweet when they’re little! It’s so magical. Don’t you want her to have that?” I can’t deny that the experience of waiting for Santa with their little ones has been “magical” for those parents. I can’t deny the sweetness of their memories, but I don’t want the necessary trade off.
When she was two or three, Alice asked me about Santa directly. We were watching a Christmas special on TV, and she said, “This is pretend, right?” At that moment, I made a choice that I consider to be morally and ethically right: I told her the truth.
There aren’t many things I’m sure of as a parent. I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’ve met a lot of great kids who are growing up under wildly different parenting styles, so I tend to be nonjudgmental about how people raise their children (as long as there’s no abuse or glaring safety issues). One of the few core parenting values that I really believe in, though, is honesty. When Alice was born, I promised myself that I would be a person she could trust. How can she trust me if I will lie to her face, just to protect a cute tradition?
Believing in Santa Claus was one of the dozens of cultural experiences I did not share with my peers when I finally ventured out of Adventism. It’s also a thing that makes my daughter different from her friends and classmates. Tonight she and her dad and I will snuggle up in the glow of our Christmas tree to watch movies full of miracles we don’t believe in: three peculiar people together in the world, but not totally of it.