Benching Santa

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There’s a chill in our drafty house as I write this, sitting next to our fireplace. No logs are burning because that would be a mess, with chocolate melting over the shoes and the hearth.

It is early morning, December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the original and genuine St. Nick. The children left a shoe in front of the fireplace the night before, and will find it filled with candy this morning.

An Advent tradition, at least in our home.

After December 6, there will be little talk in our house of St. Nick, or his secular counterpart. We don’t celebrate the jolly man in a red suit, but there is hardly a whisper of humbug around here.

We have not killed Santa Claus. Rather, he’s been downgraded.

That’s part of our tradition this time of year. Here are 10 of our favorites:

Downgrade Santa. With our first-born, we did the Santa thing, and even left cookies out on Christmas Eve (and then forged a thank you note, leaving crumbs on the plate).

But when my son was six and we told him the truth (or, in his mind, revealed the lie) about Santa, his face crumbled, with an expression of sadness and betrayal. That prompted re-thinking about Santa Claus. Was it worth it? And was focusing on Santa taking away from the true meaning?

Face it, Santa Claus is all about getting stuff, with a mix of bribery (he’s making a list of good little boys and girls).

That said, we haven’t exiled Santa. We tell our kids that he’s simply part of the fun, a character that evolved from St. Nicholas (a generous bishop from the fourth century who was known for helping the poor, especially impoverished children). According to legend, Nicholas dropped money down the chimney of a poor family, to keep their daughters from being sold into slavery; thus, the shoes-by-the-fireplace tradition.

Explaining the St. Nick-to-Santa evolution helped the kids see how other religious feasts have morphed into secular ones (Easter, Hallows Eve, and others).

Celebrate Advent. When I was moonlighting at L.L. Bean, one of my tasks was to distribute the Christmas catalogs throughout the store … in late September. The “season” was in full throttle by Columbus Day. When Advent began, starting with the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the countdown of “shopping days left” commenced.

This was not a preparation for Christmas, but a mad dash. Christmas Day was not greeted with joy but, rather, relief.

We have tried to bring back Advent into our house. Now, we made concessions to the Big Day it foreshadows. We already have the tree up (recently cut down from a local farm), instead of waiting for Christmas Eve, and we do play Christmas music.

But we try to emphasize Advent as a time for preparation (and not only shopping). It can be fun (candy on St. Nicholas’s day, or Mexican food for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on December 12), but also meaningful, with emphasis on readings that point to Christmas. Our Advent cabinet, with its little drawers, contains letters that I write for each day. The letters emphasize the need to prepare for Christmas as we joyfully anticipate. Bible readings are emphasized (a lot from Isaiah), especially the ones used in the Mass that day.

When time is taken to prepare and anticipate, the actual Christmas season is truly joy-filled.

Read stories out loud. We occasionally pull out The Polar Express (to prove that we have not killed Santa), but the must-hear story for my kids (of all ages) is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski. It is the story of a widow and her son enlisting the help of a gruff woodworker to replace a Nativity set. The effect of the widow’s care and the son’s innocence on the man is truly magical.

Watch some movies. I’m not one to advocate spending lots of family time in front of the screen, but the occasional family movie night is special; none more special at our house than the annual viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Shop local. This is a more recent tradition, and the convenience of Amazon still wins out sometimes. But we’re trying, even if it means an extra couple dollars to buy from the independent bookstore, rather than ordering it online. Same goes for buying products that are Fair Trade certified, which sends proceeds directly to farmers and other laborers.

Give gifts in someone’s name. How about giving someone a goat this Christmas? Several organizations have created gift catalogs to help the needy worldwide. Instead of presenting your uncle with another pen and pencil set, send a goat (or chickens) to an impoverished family, giving the gift in your uncle’s name. Several groups provide this kind of “shopping.” We use Catholic Relief Services. Heifer Project International is another.

On a more local level, when you go Christmas grocery shopping, bring an extra cart to fill for your local food pantry.

Gifts of time. All our children give each other something for Christmas. That can stretch a budget. Often, a sibling presents another with a “certificate” for a night together. It could be a movie night, or a game night, or a day trip somewhere (the recipient’s choice, of course). Time together. Priceless.

Gifts of a letter. A thoughtful letter is not only easy on the budget, it is a gift of your time and consideration for someone you care about. These are often among the most memorable gifts.

Open one gift at a time. Because we have a lot of kids, people assume Christmas morning is a madhouse in our home, with wrapping paper flying everywhere. No. We gather around (with coffee and hot chocolate) and open one gift at a time. The process takes hours. But why rush? The family is together. 

The true Christmas season. When I worked retail, Christmas was over the night of the 25th. Decorations were taken down and after-Christmas sale prices were adjusted. But the Twelve Days of Christmas is not only a carol, but a tradition, lasting from Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Like Advent, there can be daily readings from the Bible, as well as small treats.

This how we try to live this time of year. It’s not perfect. Stresses creep in. But our nativity set always has a light over it, to draw our attention, and re-center our focus.

The nativity set does not yet include the manger. Christmas is weeks away. It’s time to prepare.

Happy Advent.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.