I was blessed to be born into a family of Polish, German and French descent in the Midwest where nature often provided a setting which helped to underscore the lessons of the season. In the Midwest, the Christmas season (or Yule for my neo-pagan friends) begins the day after Thanksgiving and continues most often until the week after New Year’s (which Christian friends will associate with the Epiphany or Three King’s Day).
In my family, it was a time of intense family time with every weekend of that period being filled not only with the religious ceremony of Advent but also with a variety of activities in preparation and celebration of this time. Despite my father growing up in a strict Polish Catholic family and my mother growing up in a German Lutheran tradition, the emphasis in our household was on the spirituality and not as much on the religion of the season.
Recently, I read a Facebook comment from one of my formerly Catholic, pagan friends on Santa Claus as an “empty meaningless myth.” Other friends commented on their bitterness over learning that Santa wasn’t real. All of this made me sad that people who I often feel have great spiritual connection to the universal spirituality that transcends religion have missed out on the gift that I was given.
My mother, a gifted early childhood teacher, always emphasized the spirituality of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas. We celebrated the tradition of putting out stockings for Saint Nicholas on the night of my birthday (Dec.5th) to receive small presents and candy the following morning. We learned about the bishop from Asia Minor in the middle ages who was sainted for his work to give children things of joy and love to allow them childhood and play, instead of the drudgery of child labor. Then Santa came on Christmas Eve with presents magically appearing under the tree on Christmas morning. We never questioned whether Santa and Saint Nicholas were the same or different entities that I can remember. Mom didn’t believe in taking us to see Santa at the mall or to “Breakfast with Santa” in part because she wanted to emphasize the concept of Santa as “the Spirit of Christmas.”
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a little easier to teach this “spirit of the season” than it sometimes is today. Yes, there was commercialism … hence the Charlie Brown Christmas Special had its message about the dangers of forgetting the meaning of the season by getting caught up in the commercialism. But for the most part back then, it was a time of the year when people were particularly friendly and charitable. The discussion that was often held in our house, but also heard repeated in school, church and other homes, was that Christmas season brought out the good in humanity and “Wouldn’t it be nice if people would act that way all year round?” The emphasis was on sharing love for one another, remembering the joy and magical way that children see the world, and most importantly was remembering to live in the manner that a man named Jesus taught the world was divine law … “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
We celebrated the birth of Jesus with Nativity sets and always sang “Happy Birthday” over a Christmas stolen that we called his birthday cake. Why did we do this? Because we were celebrating the birth of a man who became a teacher to the world transforming the view of God from one of a vengeful force to one of universal love and teaching that each one of us had the capacity to connect internally to this divine love through what Christians call the Holy Spirit. We were taught that his teachings and the way he lived his life provided motivation for others to do the same. That Saint Nicholas and Santa were representations of the way people could embrace the “spirit” of those teachings and put those teachings into practice.
Santa and his many “helpers” was the symbolic representation or role model in a sense of how each of us could strive to bring that spirit into presence on the Earth. There are many pre-Christian cultural traditions which, I believe, reflect a similar emphasis on celebration of renewal and community connection by sharing our abundance (whether spiritual or physical or both) with others.
Winter for many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere was about a time of internal reflection, of connecting to our inner voice, of self-renewal in preparation for the rebirth that came with the return of the sun, longer days leading to the renewal of life and growing season. This season, for my family, was time of intense family time … skating and sledding, decorating our two trees, stringing popcorn and cranberries for the old fashioned children’s tree, baking and decorating cookies, sharing cookies with extended family and friends, visits from extended family, watching Christmas specials and listening to holiday music together, and sharing presents. It was also a time when we were taught to share our blessings with others less fortunate, so we gave money to the Salvation Army, we collected and delivered food and toys to needy families, and we did caroling to bring music and joy to the neighborhood and to nursing homes. The Spirit of the Season was the ultimate expression of love for one another and the manifestation of good that results from that expression of love.
There is also a certain emphasis in both the Christian tradition of Santa and the pre-Christian traditions of this season on the magic of renewal. Stories of Jack Frost painting the windows and doors with his magical frost designs; the wonder of the formation of the beautiful, unique crystals of snow in each snowflake; the miracle of being able to walk and skate on water that has frozen are all lessons in paying attention to the divine “magic” which as a child of the Midwest, I was blessed to have underscore the lesson of the “magic” of Santa and of sharing love with the world.
The magic was present in so many ways. Nativity pieces were moved slowly throughout the house to arrive at the manger under the tree on Christmas Eve and Santa would place the baby Jesus in the crib. Our large Christmas tree in the living room had a few flashing bulbs and some very special antique ornaments that only Mom and Dad could hang on the tree. Each of us received ornaments on St. Nick’s that we hung on the tree as well. As we decorated the tree we shared stories of whom had given us the ornaments or memories of past Christmases. Once the tree was decorated, we were allowed to lie in the livingroom at night near the lit tree (the living room usually was a place you went only when special company was present). We were encouraged to sit or lie near the tree and lose ourselves in the wonder of the sparkling lights and the magic of the ornaments. Playing “I spy” a certain ornament, helped to teach us how to lose ourselves in that space. I know now that those times when I lay alone in the wonder of the lights of the tree was the foundation to my connection to the divine, an early form of untrained, instinctive meditation and an experience with understanding imagination as the portal to other worlds.
Following my mother’s philosophy on emphasizing the “Spirit of Santa” and the “magic” of his story, there was no sense of bitter betrayal or that our parents had lied to us when we learned that Santa was not an ageless man who magically traversed the world in one night. Yes, my parents bought our gifts, hid them and made them magically appear for years precisely because they embodied his spirit. Santa exists as long as people believe and continue his traditions. As the oldest girl in the family, I knew that my parents were the gift buyers years before my youngest sister learned and accepted this truth. But for years, my parents kept the magic alive. Our Christmas morning tradition, shifted to a Christmas Eve tradition with presents magically appearing under the tree when we came home from Christmas Eve service. For years, I could not figure out how they managed to maintain the magic. I now realize that Mom would take the kids for a walk in the neighborhood prior to church to look at the lights and decorations, while Dad stayed behind to “put out the cookies and milk” and to pull the drapes to both conserve on heating costs as well as keep people from knowing that we weren’t home. He would meet us in the car to head to church, having placed all the presents under the tree. After church we would drive around the city to see more light displays and eventually arrive home to open the front door and find a living room filled with presents. Music and sparking lights added to the magic. We opened our presents slowly and had special food on Christmas Eve as a nuclear family. On Christmas Day, our Great Grandparents would come to spend the day sharing a special meal and quiet family time. Santa exists because my parents, especially my mother, embodies his spirit. Because we believe in him, his work continues and the hope for a better, more loving world continues.
In my twenties, I took my Iranian Muslim boyfriend to see a Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theater. It was a time when I became aware of how much this season and my family’s traditions were the foundation of my spirituality. I would wonder how if we married and had children, I would be able to blend or beliefs and still give my children those values of love and charity to others, as well as the magic of that season. We sat through the brilliant Milwaukee Rep performance of the Dickens tale in the majestic Victorian setting of the Pabst Theater. A Jamaican actor dressed in a Caribbean inspired Santa attire had so well embodied the Spirit of Christmas Present that when we walked out of the theater, my Iranian boyfriend looked up and said, “It should be snowing.” I realized that despite not being Christian he had been pulled into the magic of the season. I had already known that his spirituality as well was drawn to teaching of the goodness and charity towards others in humanity in his religious teaching more so than some of his more fanatic Muslim friends. I knew that the Spirit of Christmas transcended religious beliefs.
In the past decade, I have been blessed to experience wonderful Winter Solstice celebrations in the beautifully, magical setting of some friends’ backyard in rural southern Wisconsin. The beautiful pagan celebration is followed by a marvelous potluck inside a house built in the 1850s and lovingly restored by my friends. Gift giving and a day spent with friends and family in celebration of Yule served to create new traditions for me and expand the ways I saw the spirituality of the season manifest. Love unites us in this season. Natural magic creates a stage for us to focus on that love connection.
This year I am living thousands of miles from family and friends that I consider my tribe. This week I had to give up my beloved animal companion of 8 years, Scrappy, to a new family that could provide him a better home. I don’t have enough money to buy presents or supplies to make presents. I barely have enough money, in fact, to pay for the gas to get to work so that I can manage to pay at least some of my bills. I could be in a place like many during the season, depressed and disconnected from the season. But I am so grateful for the blessings of the love of family and friends, the memories of wonderful past holiday seasons, a deep connection to nature, new friendships and a much deeper understanding of my inner connection to source. A few twinkling lights, as well as allowing my soul to fill itself with the magic and love of this season, sustains me. I will be with my family and my friends at their celebrations this year, in spirit, through our universal connection in the one soul we call God. There is no greater gift! And I am certain that in the years to come, I will spend many a holiday season blessed with not only the spirit but the physical presence of celebrating with loved ones again.
So this season, if you are someone who dreads the commercialism or the pressures of the season or someone who feels depressed from a sense of separations. Detach yourself from the “collective conscious” emphasis on the materialistic commercialism and the decrying of the loss of “Christ” in Christmas. Spend time in nature. Reconnect to the magic. Reflect on those you love and let that love fill you and overflow. If you feel separated from family, make new family by finding ways to share love and charity with others – whether that be by sharing time with friends or spending time serving those who are lonely or less fortunate. Connect to your inner divine knowing of the power and magic of love. We have the power to restore the magic and flow of love to the season. Let’s fill ourselves with a strength and sense of connection to divine love that overflows and feeds the growth of the coming new year.