Playing Santa

He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake,
He knows if you've been bad or good –
So be good, for goodness' sake!

I've always found this song really creepy. It makes me feel like maybe I ought to get a restraining order. And even before I had children, I had the same sort of visceral icky reaction about perpetuating the Santa Claus myth with them. I spoke to my husband, who had never grown up with the myth; we decided simply not to do it.

Society, however, had other ideas. Santa Claus beckoned to my children from billboards, shopping malls and greeting cards. People sung to them about him over the radio, in stores and elevators. Cashiers asked my children what Santa would bring them, and wanted to know if they had been "good." I cringed in disbelief. Where did this Santa Claus guy come from, I wondered, and how could I get inside their hearts before he did?

So I fell back on my strongest resource as a parent, and my most profound blessing: Google. Okay, I'm kidding, but only partially. I did do a search on Santa Claus, and found a wonderful resource. Then I talked to my children.

We learned together about the real St. Nicholas, a man born around 280 CE in what is now Turkey. I told them how he used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, sick and suffering. We discussed the legends of his life's work and how they feed the modern myth of Santa Claus as a selfless miracle worker, the protector of children, a mysterious nighttime bestower of gifts, one who rewards the good in us without expecting anything in return. And we talked about today's Christmas customs and their roots in the stories of St. Nicholas. In short, I showed them the man behind the curtain, and explained that he was their friend.

But if my kids don't believe in Santa Claus, the question then comes, how do I explain the guy in the red suit at the mall? Simple. He is caught up in the magic of St. Nicholas. He, like the real man before him, is devoting his life to helping those in need. One person can't do everything, of course, so if we are to fix what is broken in our world, we've all got to pitch in and play Santa.

And yet, other parents may ask, how does this all shake out on the playground? That also is simple. If a child (or, ahem, a grandparent) believes in Santa, we mustn't meddle in that belief. That person is involved in doing good – and doing good is powerful magic. Our role in that magic is to play along. We can, with a wink and a grin to our co-conspirators, support the spirit of true giving, and feel great about doing so.

So if you see my children this holiday season, please don't ask them what Santa will be bringing. Because the question they are learning to focus upon has become not "What will I get from Santa?" but "How can I play Santa?" This evening as I wrote this blog post I watched these young girls sitting next to each other on the living room floor wrapping handmade presents up for each other, each exhorting the other not to look, and would you please pass the scissors. If that isn't the spirit of St. Nicholas in action, I don't know what is.

This time of year is widely billed as the season to buy. Yet once upon a time it was the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward all. What our world needs is not another gadget, not another shill for the department stores, not another model of largesse supplying more luxury to the affluent, but the gift of ourselves. Our society cries out not for consumption, but compassion. And our actions can help make it so.