What overall message do we want to imprint on Cedar about the deeper meaning of this season?
Cedar was two and a half years old during the holidays this year, old enough that we could start talking to him about these things, but young enough that we could still kind of wing it as we went along, glossing over the parts we weren't quite sure about yet, and taking note of the things that we want to cherish.
So what's the harm in Santa, you might ask? Well, none really unless you pause to think about the underlying teaching of the story: that Santa is watching and judging our children, that they are being rewarded or punished based on their behavior, and, that some kids (the affluent ones) just happen to get a whole lot more presents from Santa than others.
I have to ask: do we really need Santa? I mean, isn't there enough real magic and ritual in the season that we can do without this story too? And what about the part where we teach our kids that Santa comes down the chimney, a home intruder no less, but it's okay because it's this old white dude with presents. Or what about all the borderline-sketchy shopping mall Santas who, to me anyway, seem to dilute the magic?
Seeing that I hadn't quite worked out how I felt about this whole debacle, in the end I did purchase and read to Cedar The Night Before Christmas a few times, and tell him that Santa would be bringing him a present, and we even took a picture on Santa's lap (at a friends' house party).
But in the end Cedar was neither super excited nor scared of Santa, because I didn't play it up. I didn't emphasize the chimney part, and nor did I make a huge deal to emphasize how the one present sitting by the chimney Christmas morning was from Santa and not us. Nor did I wrap it in different paper; Matthew thought it wouldn't matter at Cedar's age, but I'm pretty sure he would pick up on something like that, at least on an unconscious level. In any case, Cedar was just so excited to get a new c.d. player that who it was from hardly mattered.
Speaking of presents, I had fun picking them out this year, but didn't want to overdo it. I figured a few presents from us would be just as exciting to Cedar as receiving a dozen, and I'd rather be able to spread out our "toy budget" (not that we are that financially organized) throughout the year than to feed into the Christmastime consumer frenzy. So Cedar got a few new books, art supplies, socks, a dress-up cape (he said he didn't like it), and one "big present": the c.d. player (the cheapest at Fred Meyer I could find). What can I say, my kid is obsessed with playing music and dancing, and it beats trying to fend him off the computer all the time. Of course he got plenty of other fun stuff from his grandparents, too.
When Cedar is older, I will teach him about Baby Jesus and all that, but I will also teach him about other religious traditions, and how they are connected by certain core teachings. Be kind and help others. Share with your neighbors. Give thanks. Welcome the returning of the light.
Then, comes winter. Winter is a time to hibernate. To huddle in close with loved ones and family. To work on projects that we have saved up for this season. To go deeper into our hearts, into our longing, our ache, and also our gratitude and our connection to other beings. To light candles, decorate, and make our homes more beautiful, in contrast to the starkness of the branches outside. Winter is also a time where we are called upon to remember to share more with those who don't have homes, those who may be hungry or cold. Winter is a time to light candles and fires. To huddle in close, to sing, and to pray.
Winter is when we celebrate Solstice, or Christmas, or Hanukkah, or some personal incarnation/combination of our mixed heritages. Winter is also when we take stock of all we have accomplished in the year behind us, and set forth our intentions for the new year to come.
For me, Winter Solstice seems like the true New Year to celebrate. Cosmically speaking, seasonally speaking, it is when the true shift happens. Either that, or else autumn also feels more like a time of new beginnings to me, like around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Maybe in part this is due to years of back to school conditioning, but I think it's more than this; I think it's also just the sense of drawing inward that comes over me as the season dawns, while still fueled by all the active momentum of the summer.
In any case, I realized this year that, slowly over the last ten years, the holiday that has become the most holy to me is Winter Solstice. After I returned to the States, in 1992, from living in a huge polluted city in western China for two plus years, I was starved for nature: for space to walk in without being stared at by throngs of people: for close friendships; for deep eye contact; and for the environment of the Pacific Northwest which I grew up in, yet had taken for granted for so long. Never again.
It was around this time that my friends and I started celebrating Solstice together with a simple ritual. We hollowed out 12 satsumas, one for each month, or cycle of the moon, and placed tea lights within the rounded peels. We did this while standing near a body of water; for several years at my friends' waterfront house in Olympia, on Eld inlet, where the tide drifted the candles out in a slow chain. Then, one year, we did it at Matthew's Beach on Lake Washington, where the waves kept pushing the candles back to shore. And another year, at the neighborhood pond near my house, a bit less pristine, but carrying on the ritual all the same.
Whether there was two or five of us, we'd each go around in a circle and take turns lighting a candle and saying a prayer or intention for the new year. Often, this was just one word. The intention might be something that we wish for ourselves, or for all beings-- it didn't matter, because ultimately it is all one and the same.
This year, my friends are more scattered and so I did not attend a Solstice gathering. But Matthew and I did manage to light some candles after Cedar went to bed, and speak of our intentions for the new year. I regretted that we had not remembered to share a part of this ritual with Cedar (he loves lighting candles), but no matter, it would mean even more to him to introduce it to him next year, when he is three and can grasp that much more.
So this is what I realized over the holidays: I want Solstice to be our primary family holiday. Holy Day. Then, Christmas can be more about gathering with family, presents, sharing, and good times-- and yes, in this sense, also holy. But this way, at very least, we can remember during this busy season to take a deep breath together, and honor the deepest parts of ourselves and the world. And because Solstice falls before Christmas, we can do this before the onslaught of presents and parties so that those exciting events don't overshadow the smaller, quieter, and more soulful rituals that can be so hard, yet important to create.