06 January 2011


Punk Catholic Thought of the Year

This will probably be my last Punk Catholic post ever because I take longer and longer these days to come up with these topics. So if this is solely what you come to this blog for, well, you'll have to find someplace else to lurk.

I was going to post this on the last day of 2010, to mark a special anniversary that perhaps only six readers still remember; but now I'm glad that fell through, because that means I get to publish it on the traditional day of the Feast of the Epiphany. This post, you see, is all about tradition . . . and personal epiphanies.

May You Have a Blessed Epiphany!

When my grandmother was a teenager, her family spent a year in Spain, where the big winter feast is not Christmas Day, but Epiphany. Spanish children are taught to leave their shoes on the ledge outside their window on the night of 5 January, so that the "Three Kings" can fill them with candy as they pass by on their way to Bethlehem. (Obviously, it's the children's parents who fill up the shoes--but don't break it to the little ones just yet! Especially not these days, when they're asking for much more than candy . . .)

It's a centuries-old Spanish version of the modern Santa Claus tradition--and my grandmother tried to get her own children--and then her grandchildren--to believe in it, too. And note that she hadn't even been young enough to buy that story. In fact, she was old enough to "plant" the candy.

But traditions are not easy to transplant from one culture to another (even if they are Catholic traditions from one Catholic culture to another Catholic culture); and since Santa Claus and his toys managed to reach local shores before the Three Kings and their candy did, her dream didn't have a chance. It's easier to pass something on to the next generation when all other parents are your co-conspirators and all other children are willing to be conspired against. My grandmother would have had better luck shipping us all to Spain, as she had been.

And I kind of wish she had. There are some things that only games like this--plays like this, I should say--can do for us, and we are losing more and more of them.

If online trends are to be believed (and you really shouldn't ask me because the few Catholic blogs I still read can hardly be representative of the whole Catholic blogosphere--much less the entire Catholic Church), then more and more hipster-generation parents are refusing, on principle, to take part in their culture's holiday play. I do see where they're coming from: I'm not very happy about what Santa has come to mean, and every time I see another Joe in a Santa Suit holding the attention of a dazzled crowd, I think of Queen Elizabeth I dealing the fatal blow to Catholicism in England by replacing devotion to the Virgin Mary with loyalty to the Virgin Queen . . . and of Aldous Huxley having the characters in Brave New World invoke the name of "Our Ford" instead of "Our Lord". And I get why parents who are serious about raising their children in the Faith would insist on passing on only the literal facts (and certain handpicked legends) about the bishop and gift-giver St. Nicholas of Myra.

Then I remember the Three Kings and their gifts of candy (now toys), and realise what it would mean for an entire culture to lose such a tradition.

These little "holiday plays," as I call them, are very much like the Passion plays of the Middle Ages, when everyone in town would have a role to play in the retelling of Jesus' Passion and death. Everyone was simultaneously part of the audience and part of the cast--a sense of drama which was still very much alive when a certain playwright from Elizabeth I's reign mused that "All the world's a stage . . ." and had his characters doubling as actors for all sorts of plays-within-a-play.

He also wrote of the Seven Ages of Man, which reminded me, when I finally read that famous monologue, of a more seasonal joke about the Four Ages of Man: (1) when he believes in Santa Claus, (2) when he doesn't believe in Santa Claus, (3) when he is Santa Claus, and (4) when he looks like Santa Claus. (If someone would like to add three more to those so that we have another Seven, feel free!) All such "ages" are roles acted out on the stage of life: only death finally unmasks us all. And to be in on the "conspiracy" of Santa or the Three Kings--to understand that it is all just a play and still to fulfill one's role perfectly--is to be part of a tradition that is alive in a way that literal facts are not.

I hope that hipster-generation Catholics are not so concerned about being right, reasonable and (God forbid!) respectable that they sacrifice living tradition for something easier to explain to the anti-Santa Christian literalists (a.k.a. our little Fundie friends).

So the Punk Catholic Thought of the Year is . . .
When a child asks, "Is there really a Santa Claus?"--the proper response from a Catholic parent is, "Yes."

And if any well-meaning convert tries to tell you otherwise, remind him that he's not a Protestant any longer, okay?

Image Sources: a) The Three Wise Men, b) Los Reyes Magos


christopher said...

This was Cezanne's first year "without" Santa Claus. She was the last one in her class to still believe, I'd been feeling her pain since last year with alll the kids making fun of her. I was secretly really hoping that, like me, she'd snoop around and find her gifts somewhere and put two and two together (but she's not been a whiz at math). But, finally, about a month before Christmas, she flat-out asked momma to tell her the truth.

I was at work when it happened but supposedly she cried for several hours before falling asleep. The next day she asked me for verification and I relievedly confirmed it. I was glad it was finally over for her, she's so sensitive and it was putting a strain on her emotionally.

Within a few days, she'd recovered very very well and actually took a lot of joy in keeping the spirit of Santa Claus alive for Cecilia (who I suspect already knows that her parents are not half as smart as she is...)

Syrin said...

The Santa dilemma is a difficult one. On one hand, it's great to remember the days when I really believed. I remember seeing a red light pass through the sky on Christmas Eve and just knowing it was Rudolph.

On the other hand, I also distinctly remember being in the middle of a Kmart and hearing my mom ask plainly to my dad "Have you told her about Santa yet?" and realizing that meant it was all a lie. It was a horrible feeling.

Is the wonder worth the pain and betrayal you inevitably feel? I would like to say yes, but to cause that feeling in my children for even a brief moment would be a very difficult thing for me to do.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher: You don't know what it does to my heart to hear that yours is a pro-Santa family! <3 Give your daughters a big hug from me, please. And then cuddle your rat terrier. =P

Syrin: I would say yes, too! But then again, my own experience of "the truth" about Santa wasn't half as painful as what you or Christopher's daughter had. Someone else I know who didn't get very emotional, either, has written about this, too, quoting J.R.R. Tolkien's response to C.S. Lewis' charge that myths are "lies": that is only half of the story because they are "lies breathed through silver." Which is something else.

There are many things we believe in as children that we realise are "lies breathed through silver" at some point toward adulthood. Santa and the Three Kings are just the ones our parents play a role in as well. (Of course, it varies from family to family. I remember reading about one family's tradition of leaving bowls out so that the "fairies" in their backyard could fill them with ice cream.) And in a general sense, I think it would hurt us more to lose these plays than to discover we are part of them.

And I think there's something about growing up that's inherently painful. Santa is just the first shock--and thankfully, one which, as Christopher pointed out, children can learn to transmute into something else as they step into another role in the play.

christopher said...

As usual, you put it ever so better than I, ma'am. You have my permission to leave comments in my name here so that I can look better lol

Enbrethiliel said...


My secret is that I did one better on your strategy to sit on things for a week and sat on this post for a whole month! ;-)

christopher said...

lol Ah! But my strategy is stay out of trouble ;)

Kate said...

What an interesting post, thanks for sharing it! I too have a different cultural celebration around this time of year, again a Catholic thing but this time a German Catholic thing (and possibly a specific geographic area of Germany, but I don't know since it's come down many generations in my hometown in the US) - we celebrate St Nicholas on 6 Dec, his feast day, and at no point in my life did I ever consider Santa to be St Nick since St Nick came earlier in the month! The celebration is similar to the one you described, in that we left out our stockings and got candies and small gifts in them from St Nicholas. When I was growing up I thought this was a Catholic thing since my Protestant friends didn't do it; when I got older and moved out of my little town, I realized that it was as much a regional German thing as a Catholic thing.

My funny little town has a few of these sorts of traditions, tied more to being German than Catholic specifically, and I've always been proud that in this age of cultural appropriation we still do celebrate St Nicholas as not-Santa, that we hold on to the odd little idiosyncrasies that make cultures unique. It sounds like you do too - well done!

Thanks again for the interesting post!

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher: There's something about a seasoned seaman saying that that rings out with real irony. ;-)

Kate: Thanks, Kate! I do think that most beautiful traditions are tied to both a specific date or season and a specific place, which makes their transplanting really tricky, although not impossible. On the other hand, once they are completely uprooted from their cultural soil, they are very hard to reestablish. That's why I think even "Coca-Cola Santa" is worth preserving.