There are numerous conundrums that those of us raising children in Pagan families must face during the holiday season: what to call the tree, when do you give gifts, or how to ask the well-meaning but clueless music teacher to reconsider having “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in the public school holiday concert. One of the most persistent issues, and for some parents and caregivers most aggravating, is how to deal with Santa Claus.
Santa presents Pagans with a conundrum: the “jolly old elf” has no connection to Christian religious tradition, but he’s the go-to for many commercial Christmas displays. You will never be able to insulate your kids from Santa. Even if you tried to rear them in the middle of the woods it’s virtually certain your child will encounter some kindly hiker who’ll ask them what Santa is bringing this year.
How can we, as Pagan parents and caregivers, deal with the Santa problem?
Many Pagan families have gotten quite creative in counteracting the Santa concept by providing an alternative sacred gift giver for their families. Several families I know have gifts coming from the Yuletide Fairy. (Personally, I am not too keen on fairies for kids (a long story for another time) but if that works for your family, go for it. The Yule Elf is another. More recently, some Pagan families were eager to embrace gift-giving on Wolfenoot, an internet created holiday.
Others look to pre-Christian gift-givers. Some families who practice Northern Traditions of Paganism have Odin bring gifts to their children. Holda is a gift-bringing Germanic goddess who also fills that role nicely. In Italy, there is the “Christmas Witch,” La Befana, whose story is tied into the Christian Christ child myth, but who hints at older roots. There are a number of other gift-giving spirits and deities who can fill the Santa niche in your home.
But as we all know, swimming against the currents of mainstream culture isn’t easy. Even adult Pagans find being part of a minority and often-misunderstood religion to be challenging at times. It’s as hard, or at times harder, for our children. Part of childhood is an ongoing dance between individualization and belonging. There are times when knowing your family is different may be a source of pride for your child. There are other times when it may be easier to give them a way to participate in the mainstream without feeling like they’re betraying the family.
So the question arises: can you incorporate Santa Claus into a Pagan household?
Can Santa Be Pagan?
First, we can ask: could Santa become Pagan? Santa seems inexorably associated with Christmas, but there are numerous examinations of his roots in older traditions. In 2008 Selena Fox published an article about Holda that made a bit of a splash in the wider world as the publisher titled it “When Santa Was a Woman.” It’s now available on BeliefNet, titled “Riding With Holda.”
More recently, there have been numerous explorations of Santa’s pre-Christian origins, including “The History and Origins of Santa Claus” by Patheos’s own Jason Mankey. Like St. Brigit or the Virgin of Guadalupe, Santa Claus is commonly perceived as a Christian figure, but you don’t have to dig too far back to find older roots that we connect to as modern Pagans. Yet even if you reclaim Santa from Christmas, problems still remain.
Is Santa a Lie?
Many adults have a real problem with the inherent “lie” that is part of the Santa/gift-giver process: that Santa is an actual person who lives at the North Pole and once a year enters your house to give you toys, breaking quite a few laws of physics and economics in the process. While most people seem to recover from the “Santa is really my parents” revelation, others have described a feeling of betrayal when they realized their parents had been deceiving them. Many Pagans live by codes of conduct under which lying of any sort is not permitted. For others, it smacks too much of the “believe what I tell you, not the evidence of your own eyes, ears, and heart” dogmatic attitude which they left their religions of origin to escape.
For Pagan families who are raising their children to practice magic, the problem is more complicated. How do we distinguish between the unseen and mystical which we want them to take seriously –– our Gods and Goddesses, the spirits in the land we thank, the forces we call into our circles –– and the unseen and mystical we want them to learn to treat as a mutual conspiracy, preferably before they blow it for the younger kids?
The answer, I think, is to change the nature of how we present Santa or the other gift givers. As Pagans, we already have a concept for beings of myth whose only physical manifestations are seemings we create and who work through us to see their will done in the world — we call them spirits or Gods.
As the editor of the New York Sun said to a certain Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897, “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.” Whether we believe that Santa is tapping into an ancient archetype and is simply the modern evolution of figures like Odin or Holda, or we believe that his 20th-century popularity has created a kind of egregore as collectively children and adults give him life with their attention, Santa is a spirit that can have a real and meaningful presence for Pagans, particularly Pagan children.
Play is the way children learn to understand their world. There’s a huge body of research that shows how play is critical to every aspect of child development. As Pagan parents and caregivers, if we want to break away from the “believe this because I told you so” model of spiritual instruction that’s common to so many other religions, we need to find opportunities for our children to explore the concept of deity in a way that is safe and accessible. Santa is one way we can encourage spiritual play. Unlike all of the other deity forms that we work with, Santa has the virtue of being supported by the weight of society and his rituals (the letter, the plate of cookies, etc.) are part of the wider cultural fabric. Most importantly, he is specifically concerned with children and is expected to have a direct relationship with them.
In this way, you can think of Santa as kind of a “teaching deity.” He’s an opportunity to have conversations with your kids about concepts like deity and invocation which otherwise might be too abstract. You can start simply, working off the existing body of myth your children are already exposed to. From there you can build in connections to your own Pagan worldview, and even your family’s pantheon. “Santa is a spirit of giving and joy. He cares for children and wants them to be happy. He’s sort of like (INSERT YOUR DEITY HERE) who we call on during our circles, because he’s not physically here, but we can talk to him and ask him for help.”
If we accept that Santa can be a spirit or a deity, then under the right conditions the man with the red suit and white beard can be just as much “the real Santa Claus” as the priestess who has drawn a goddess into her body in a sacred circle is “the real Rhiannon”. When you go to a place where there is someone dressed as Santa you can be honest with your kids, “That isn’t the only Santa, but he’s a man who is dressed as Santa and connecting with the spirit of Santa. You can talk to him like you would talk to Santa and Santa will hear you.”
Be picky about your Santa. Just like priests and priestesses of other deities, some “priests of Santa” are better at aspecting than others. Most local parenting blogs or Facebook groups will have a section on where the “good” Santas can be found. Finding the right Santa can particularly meaningful for families of color for whom a visit to a non-white Santa can be a hugely affirming experience. More communities are also starting to have sensory-friendly Santas, where children with autism spectrum and/or other sensory processing disorders can have a positive experience.
At home, you can preserve as much or as little of the myth of the Santa, or your chosen gift-giver as you want. Presents can be “from Santa” or you can explain that Santa is a spirit that we call upon to inspire generosity and show our love. “Tonight when you’re asleep, I’ll call on Santa to help me as I fill your stocking with lots of fun treats.” This can be especially helpful when we have to confront the reality that those toys have to be paid for and money doesn’t magically appear from the North Pole. If you present the gift giving as you aspecting Santa, rather than the gifts as literally coming from a person outside your household, you can smoothly deal with the reality that some children get more “from Santa” than others.
Santa can be helpful to introduce the idea that generosity isn’t a one-way street from the deity or parent to the child. You can work with your child to invoke the spirit of Santa or your chosen gift giver before engaging in kid-appropriate charity work like going through their old toys and clothing and selecting good quality items to donate to a shelter, or going to get donations for a food drive, or making treats for a nursing home. When you introduce your children to the concept of charity it’s important to remember your Pagan values, such as: harm none, we’re all connected, and paying attention to all the consequences of your actions. Make sure that you’re teaching your kids to give in a way that really helps the recipient, rather than just making you feel good. If you do a bit of research, think outside the box, and ask ahead of time you can find some way to do good that is affordable and meaningful for your family.
A Child-Friendly Evocation to Santa
Use the following as a template for creating your own child-friendly mini-ritual to invite the spirit of Santa to be with you and your child during an act of generosity.
Help your kids light a candle and maybe give an offering of a cookie (or maybe a carrot for the reindeer) and put it on your family altar or by your fireplace if you have one. Tell your kids to imagine the light of Santa and all his generosity all around them, sparkling like lights on a solstice tree. Describe air smelling like gingerbread. Imagine the ringing of bells or have actual bells you give your kids to ring during your invocation. (If you don’t want to be driven insane, I suggest you hide the bells afterward.)
Once you’ve visualized the feeling, sights, and smells of Santa, ask him to have his spirit come into your family, to help you show the world love and generosity. Have everyone give a big “Ho, Ho, Ho!” If you want, you can tie a bit of red string (or even a very softly chiming bell) around your wrist and your child’s wrist, and keep it on while you do your work of generosity as a reminder of the spirit you’ve invited to be with you. Enjoying cookies as a treat at the end of your project, or as an offering on the altar would be a great way to end your working.
Too old for Santa? Welcome, Odin!
As your kids get older you can gradually merge Santa into the deities that you work with in your family by talking about the aspects of your deities that are concerned with gift-giving, generosity, or light. A young teen can be told, “Santa is an important spirit of love and generosity, particularly for children. Jove also celebrates generosity and he’s an important deity to our family, so this year we’re going to focus on him instead of Santa.” So a stocking full of gifts from Santa can become gifts from Odin, or whichever form of the divine fills that niche for your family.
Naughty or Nice?
One aspect of Santa’s lore that I would argue has no place in a Pagan parenting toolkit is the concept that Santa or his minions are watching, and may withhold presents or mete out punishment for bad behavior. Yes, there is a strong mythological background for this lore: from lumps of coal, to Krampus, to the modern Elf on the Shelf. But these “scared straight” Santa myths seem very connected to the traditional Christian concept of a distant but all-seeing and judgemental god, a world-view that is alien to many Pagan traditions.
Pagan concepts of how our gods view our behavior vary, but many of our traditions stress personal responsibility and coming to terms with the effect of one’s actions. This approach actually mirrors what many parenting experts encourage with regards to child-discipline. Rather than setting seemingly-arbitrary rules and dolling out disconnected punishments for infractions, they advise parents and caregivers to let children experience natural consequences whenever possible. When parent-initiated punishment is necessary, it should be related to the bad behavior and arrive as soon as possible. Kids’ minds are just not developed enough to connect the public temper tantrum in November with the loss of presents in December.
Besides, do we really want our kids to grow up in a pint-sized surveillance state? “He sees you when you’re sleeping/ he knows when you’re awake/ he knows when you’ve been bad or good/so be good for goodness sake” sounds like something out of an Orwellian dystopia, and not what we want for our kids.
Inviting Santa In
When we see Santa winking from the side of a Coke can or as part of a harried visit to an overcrowded mall, it is tempting to chuck him as too materialistic or too Christian to have a place in our Pagan practices. Yet, if we pause and think about him from a different perspective, Santa can have a useful and healing role in your Pagan family, just maybe a little different from what the marketers might have expected.
Merry Yule to all, and to all a good night!