This season is so alive with wonderfully powerful and magical stories. Children and adults alike have their imaginations charmingly tickled as they strain their ears to hear sleigh bells in the night sky, or engage with the image of glowing hay surrounding an adorable baby and baaing, fluffy lambs.
But as they grow up they want to know the answer to a question never far from their lips the rest of the time….Is it real? Sure you’ll agree that they ask it about as often as “Are we nearly there yet” on a car journey don’t they?
If it’s not real, what do they lose? What do we lose as parents, otherwise trying to make Christmas as magical and wonderfully mysterious as possible?
Why do we tell stories? Stories can show us truths and teach us things. Stories can be a way we deal with things we don’t understand. Stories can entertain us and we can lose ourselves in them and imagine we’re the characters. Stories can be inherited traditions, long cherished as part of our culture’s way of connecting across time with deep truths.
Do stories necessarily lose their potency if they are found not to be based in truth? Now, I’m not a philosopher as you know, so we won’t go into the whole ‘What is Truth?’ discussion here! But as far as our children are concerned, the question they – at some point – come to ask us about all the wonderful stories they hear, is whether the figures of Santa, God, Mary, Jesus really exist or existed and whether the events really happened.
I wish we adults had such meaningful conversations as our children. There was apparently a big discussion in the playground this week about whether you had to believe in Santa if you believed in God. The two were seen as inextricably linked. The whole idea of one package of beliefs going with another is a fascinating can of worms isn’t it?
The other week I was playing the role of Mary in a dramatisation for local schools. (I always wanted to at school…didn’t know I’d only get to be Mary at 37! Not me above by the way!) I was rather tickled by one boy’s comment, that the elderly man playing the Angel Gabriel, couldn’t possibly be an angel. He added indignantly, “I saw his feet!”
We all have our own take on how to deal with reality and stories. My personal thoughts for what they’re worth, are that when my children ask me if Santa’s real I tell them he’s not BUT with a strict warning not to burst anyone else’s bubble. We still have loads of fun with Santa pictures on practically everything around the home; singing ‘When Santa got stuck up the chimney’ a zillion times, and leaving mince pies out for Santa, with a knowing chuckle that it’s really Daddy. But faced with a point blank question about what’s true and what’s not, I feel I need to answer.
And if that means I re-examine my own beliefs about the account of the first Christmas and if I have to explore what I really believe about angels and how much I think stories within the Bible are figurative or imaginative models, and how much they’re true to real life events, then so be it. It’s a good result for all of us.
And of course, if you don’t believe the Christmas story, then why would you confuse your children when they ask you if that’s real? But that’s just always puzzled me.
I want my children to decide for themselves what’s real. But they do look to us for opinions on the way. They ask for a bit of a steer about what really happened versus what is a story of Disney-like fantasy.
I will tell my children I don’t believe in Santa. I will tell my children I believe that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in very humble circumstances long prophesied by spiritual people through the ages – something which never fails to excite me. I will tell them I find believing in angels – especially the gold winged flying variety – really tough! (And of course, when we look a little deeper we may see that this version is more due to Victorian artists than Biblical accounts.)
But what an opportunity…whatever your beliefs, to be able to explore with your children how a story is never simply JUST a story, and perhaps never simply true.
Some stories can have more basis in fact than others. Some can be literally true, although they’re bound to have some spin on them. Some can be figuratively true in that they point to truth. And of course, if we separate Santa from St Nicholas we see where both the Santa and the Christmas story connect: bringing kindness and joy to the world, irrespective of race, wealth or beliefs. We need both stories, and what bits you think are true is inevitably the compelling discussion of the holidays both for children and adults. May feel a bit daunting, but I think it’s worth grabbing the bull…or the reindeer…or the oxen…..by the horns/antlers/horns!
Please do share your thoughts – how do you deal with Christmas stories with your children? At what point do you tell them about Santa? and what have you told them about the first Christmas?