The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

The doubting parent’s guide to the holidays (WaPo)

By Mari-Jane Williams
From the Washington Post Lifestyle section, Dec. 6, 2012

Answering awkward questions is an inevitable part of parenting: Where did I come from? Why doesn’t Santa ever die? Why is that lady so big?

Often, though, the toughest questions are about God and religion. For parents who are not religious, the holidays highlight those queries and at times make us second-guess our choices.

It’s one thing to be ambivalent about religion yourself, but as parents, we want to make sure we expose our children to as many different views as possible.

“It’s easy when you’re childless to sort of float and do what you think is right for you,” said Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief,” (Amacon, $17.95). “As soon as you have kids, all those questions come to the fore. A number of friends of mine were entirely nonreligious, but once they had kids, they felt that they ought to be going to church.”

Other parents have the added stress of trying to navigate a holiday of another faith, because Christmas is so pervasive this time of year.

“It’s hard,” said Esther Lederman, the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in the District. “If you’re a Jewish parent, you’re trying to make your child not feel bad that Santa isn’t coming to your house. ”

We spoke with McGowan and other experts about how to expose children to the religious traditions of the holidays without compromising your beliefs. Here are some of their suggestions.

Be honest about your doubts, and ask them what they think. The questions don’t need to cause anxiety for parents, McGowan said. Just be honest with your child and tell him that many people celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but you don’t. Then give him a chance to talk about what makes the most sense to him.

“They need to know that most of the people around them see the world through a religious lens,” said McGowan, who lives in Atlanta.

“Every time I make a statement about what I think is true, I let them know that others think differently and that they get to make up their own minds. It’s not necessary to put blinders on them and not let them see the religious aspect of the holidays. That would be strange.”

Take your children to religious services during the holidays. Andrew Park, the self-described “faith-free dad” who wrote “Between a Church and a Hard Place” (Avery, $26), says he and his wife take their children to services at different churches on Christmas Eve to expose them to a variety of faiths and customs.

“Christmas Eve is an opportunity to experience what religion means to people other than their parents,” said Park, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The greater the variety of the experiences, the better. It gives them context and understanding about religion. That’s powerful. Whether they become believers in a faith or not, having that understanding helps them become citizens of the world.”

Read biblical stories. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible as a literal text, many of the stories are still fascinating and can capture children’s imaginations. Read the story of Christmas and talk about it in the context of history or ancient mythology.

“There’s something about the Christian story that is very engaging to a kid,” Park said.

He also noted that his two children, ages 8 and 10, are starting to make connections between the practice of modern religion and the way it was practiced in ancient societies, how it’s portrayed in fantasy literature, and the role it has played in history.

Make it secular. Nothing says you have to observe Christmas or Hanukkah as religious holidays, McGowan said.

If you are ambivalent about religion, you can make the holidays a celebration of family and generosity. Or focus on the celebration of light, or Santa and cookies.

“What some parents find is they pop back into the church and it really doesn’t satisfy what they’re looking for, so they look for secular ways to fulfill those needs,” McGowan said. “They are looking for ways to have important landmarks in their lives or rites of passage, and there are lots of equivalents that are entirely humanistic: naming ceremonies for babies, coming of age ceremonies around age 13.”

Read at WashingtonPost.com

The getting is good

“Getting” gets a raw deal at the holidays if you ask me. Everybody’s supposed to embrace the joy of giving, and woe betide the receiver who admits to liking that part too much.

I guess I’m as guilty of putting that pleasure in the penalty box as anyone, banging on as I do year after year about natural generosity: “Receiving is all too familiar to [kids],” I wrote a few years back. “They are constantly in the receiving role. We give them food, clothing, and everything else they need. But give kids a chance to step outside the receiving role and experience the satisfaction of being the generous one and they vibrate with excitement. They feel grown up. It empowers them.”

Well that’s true, and very cool. But it’s time to restore getting to its rightful place as well.

First of all, if giving is the only end of the transaction to celebrate, and receiving is this unseemly and slightly bad-smelling thing to do, then the act of giving is a bit tainted by the fact that it puts the recipient in a compromising position just so I can be all splendid and selfless. But there’s an even better reason to rehabilitate receiving. As the last of the gifts were opened in our house on Christmas morning, I sat with the same two thoughts I always have at that moment each year:

1. “Seriously, what is it with me and Little Smokies? I’m gonna be violently sick. Ooh lookie, three more.”

2. “Gaww, I just love these people.”

I love my family all year round, but I must admit there’s this extra little glow on Christmas morning as we regard each other from atop our hills of presents. And I realize every year, then forget again every year, that it has to do not just with what I gave, but what I got – and it’s not about greed.

I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy sitting there with my gifts just because I was now the owner of wooden picture frames, a laptop lap pad, a shoji floor lamp for my office, a quarter-zip sweater, and about six pounds of good coffee. I felt warm and fuzzy because of the demonstration we’d just had of our care for each other.

Owning the lap pad is a lovely thing, but I could have bought it myself. I actually had enough credit card and Internet to make it happen on my own. But this one came to me not because I pointed and clicked, but because my youngest child had seen me struggling in my recliner with three books, a laptop, and a cup of coffee, made a mental note, and excitedly gave me something that showed how much she notices and cares about me. That, more than the thing itself, is why I gave her such a tight hug after I opened it.

I also had the unfettered ability to buy my own shoji lamp. Instead, Becca had heard me cooing over the lamp at my sister-in-law’s, remembered, and got it for me. And so on with the sweater, the frames, the coffee.

I had done the same for each of them too, doing my best not just to put something in their hands, but to show that I had listened, and cared, and made an effort. And each of them had done the same for each of the others. So by the end of the morning, we were sitting not just amidst our new stuff but in a web of tangible kindnesses we had done for each other.

THAT is one of the big reasons I feel so darn lovely every Christmas morning. And yes, it’s partly because the getting is good.

(Comic panel from Beaver and Steve by Clay Yount.)

Cee Lo Green receives Facepalme d’Or

For rewriting a line of John Lennon’s Imagine in his New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square, Cee Lo Green has been awarded the first Facepalme d’Or of 2012.

While singing the traditional year-ending anthem, Green chose to replace the line “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” with “Nothing to kill or die for / And all religion’s true,” thereby angering Lennon fans (for messing with perfection), evangelical Christians (for implying other religions might be true), and atheists (for precisely reversing Lennon’s clear intention).

“The committee was a bit conflicted on this one,” said Facepalme committee chair Patrick Stewart. “Not about whether it deserved the award, of course. But this marks the third time an edit of this precise lyric has earned the Palme — and it’s not even the worst example, not by a long shot.”

An entering college music student in St. Paul, Minnesota earned the 1993 award during her audition (in front of the author of this blog) for singing, “Nothing to kill or die for / And more religion, too.” But neither of these comes close to the performance by a singer on Jimmy Swaggart’s televangelical program in 1985, who changed ” Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too…except your own.”

“I couldn’t believe that one Myself,” said a prominent source.

A ‘Yes Virginia’ two-fer

Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:

santabelieveOne thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.

This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog

Ho ho ho no mo

(Another holiday chestnut from the Meming of Life vault. First appeared Feb 25, 2010. New posts coming next week. No, really.)

And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

Delaney (then 8 ) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

“Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

“Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

(Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

When I was Laney’s age, I specifically recall looking at the North Pole on a globe, seeing the vast expanse of water, and thinking, Uhhhh…ice floes. That’s it. The workshop is built on unmapped ice floes.

At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

Just before Christmas (2009), Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

“When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

“Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

“Good, because I love Santa.”

“Who said anything about Santa?”

“Never mind.”

Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“Figuring what out?” I asked.

“Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

“That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

“Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

“What’s up in here?”

Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

“What did you figure out.”

“I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

“What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

“That…well, he isn’t real.”

“Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

“A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

“And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

She beamed.

“Was it fun to figure out?”

“Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

“And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

“Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.

Santa Claus: The ultimate dry run

This year, the annual reposting of my take on Santa is brought to you by Justin Bieber, whose mother didn’t want to do Santa because she was worried that Justin might draw parallels between Santa and another magical being. Now ain’t THAT a kick in the jingle bells…

IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
_______________________
First appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 87. For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see p. 85.

Time to get your ween on


“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.’” — From JesusWeen.com

Well alrighty then.

Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.

Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.”  Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.

Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death).  Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.

Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.

Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1

So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
_____________________________

1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).

A holiday message from Tiny Tim (Minchin)

And you, my baby girl
My jet-lagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school…
ERIN McGOWAN (12), singing under her breath while waiting for the school bus

I still get close to tears every time I hear this astonishing, lovely song. Tim acknowledges the complexities that swirl around the Christmas holiday for nonbelievers, then lifts deep and simple meaning out of that mess, expressing what this holiday has always meant to me. What a rare and beautiful thing it is.

Enjoy — and whatever you celebrate, however you celebrate it, have a happy and peaceful holiday.

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it
I am hardly religious
I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, to the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I’m looking forward to Christmas
Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus

I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don’t go in for ancient wisdom
I don’t believe just cause ideas are tenacious it means that they’re worthy
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy

And yes I have all of the usual objections
To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,
Are taught to externalize blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs

I’m not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate is just fine by me

‘Cause I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jet-lagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if, my baby girl
When you’re twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You’ll know whatever comes
Your brother and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Waiting for you…
Waiting…

I really like Christmas
It’s sentimental, I know…

Believe it or…look, just believe it.

santabelieveI’ve been in such a good mood lately, and now the Universe is trying to muck it up.

One thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial. I had so far avoided it, then the wretched thing found me through #@*&% Facebook:

DEAR EDITOR, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON. 115 W 95th St.

The editor replied:

VIRGINIA, Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias! There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

jbNot believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

And so on.

Let’s look at this. A little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry. When my son asked how Santa’s sleigh flies, as I described in PBB, I gave him the opportunity to work it all out:

“Some people say the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered…But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

For two years he intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.
jc4
“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Just as I was recovering from the yearly “Yes, Virginia”-induced nausea, a related piece of spam plopped wetly into my inbox from EZSantaLetters.com:

How to Convince Your Child That Santa is Real

One of the major drawbacks of life in today’s world is the fact that children grow up too fast. Belief in Santa Claus is one of the aspects of childhood that is usually first to go. Promoting the belief in Santa is one of many things parents do for their children. Several methods exist to accomplish this, but two of the best are a Santa call and Santa letters.

A call from Santa Claus will go a long way in promulgating the belief in him in most children. Children do not normally receive many phone calls as a rule. Since they are usually a special event to begin with, calls from Santa Claus will be especially well accepted.

As parents, we all want our children to be able to hold onto their childhood as long as possible. One aspect of childhood that we encourage is the belief in Santa Claus and all he stands for. Arranging for a child to receive a phone call from Santa and planting evidence of his visit are two ways to help keep children believing as long as possible. These will add to the child’s enjoyment of Christmas as well.

I’ll let you do the commentary. This Santa spam and its “Yes Virginia” ancestor are like drops of amber with a bit of human nature inside — that urgent human yearning toward belief, and revulsion to disbelief.

What fascinating and funny things we are.

Merry Krismas to all

Originally posted Dec. 20, 2007

nikOh, how completely I adore this.

I had an interview [back then] with Rev. Welton Gaddy for the Air America program STATE OF BELIEF. Among the questions was the classic “How do nonreligious families celebrate Christmas?” My staple answer usually includes phrases like “Many different ways, there’s no need to all conform to a single expression,” “The winter solstice celebration is as old as humanity,” “Food, folks and fun,” and “Oh, there’s a religious version, too?”

Three hours too late, I learned from a comment on the PBB Discussion Forum that I don’t celebrate Christmas at all, and never have. I celebrate Krismas. As Jacob Walker, one of the namers of the holiday, put it:

Krismas is a secular holiday that celebrates the myth of Kris Kringle, commonly known as Santa Claus. It happens on December 25th of each year, and is also closely associated with Krismas Eve, which occurs December 24th… Krismas is about giving gifts, especially those “from the heart”; it is about the magic of childhood; it is about peace on earth; and it is about goodwill towards humankind, and anything else you wish it to mean that does not involve the Jesus as a savior bit.

Apparently this idea is three [now eight] years old. Leave it to me to miss it. This is not merely cute; the more I think about it, the more genuine brilliance I see. Here’s more from Jacob:

I loved Christmas growing up. I treasure those memories. I treasure the mythology of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Elves, etc. I treasure the idea of giving gifts, the beauty of Christmas lights and the smell of Christmas trees. This is what Christmas was about to me. These are the secular mythologies and symbols that we have made Christmas about.

I really didn’t think much about the birth of Jesus while growing up; it was just another mythology surrounding the time, and I never believed in Jesus as a savior. As I have grown, I have come to believe that the notion of Jesus being a savior, and many of the ideas of fundamentalist Christian churches, and the Catholic church to be detrimental to peace, acceptance and love in our world. So I didn’t want to support them any longer. It also would not be true of me to celebrate Christmas when I really don’t follow what many people consider the MAJOR tenet of that holiday. So I decided to create a new holiday that would support the tenets that I believe are good and righteous.

In recent years there has been a movement by many fundamentalist Christian groups to “pull” Christmas back to being a religious holiday only. I think that is fine. We can have Krismas, they can have Christmas.

(Many thanks to BornAgainHeathen for the tip!)