By John Lee Pendall
I have some huge issues with ol’ Kris Kringle.
I loved the legend when I was a kid, but now that I’m older, I see it for what it really is: conditioning. On a side note, you may have noticed that I bring up conditioning a lot. One of these days, I’ll sit down and hash it out in detail, but not right now. Right now, I’m talking about Santa Claus.
Santa pretty much represents everything I find terrible about the human race. My main criticism is that he’s a symbol of patriarchy and fear-based culture. Santa doesn’t give toys to every child; only the good kids get presents. He’s judgmental, and he’s always watching; he sees you when you’re sleeping. How freaking creepy is that? I’m not gonna tell my future children that some rosy-cheeked weirdo from the North Pole is watching them sleep and scrutinizing everything they do. Now that I think about it, Santa is totally the kid-friendly version of the Abrahamic God. He provides a smooth transition from wonder to dogma.
St. Nick is also a convenient disciplinarian tactic for frustrated parents who say things like, “You better stop that, or else Santa won’t give you any presents.” I see that sort of thing all the time at work (I work in retail). So, so, so often people punish kids for being kids.
Santa’s reward and punishment scheme is a reflection of our twisted conception of the good (to borrow a term from the Stoics). We tend to equate the good with whatever feels good and/or prevents us from feeling bad. The B-Man called this a heterodox way. It’s the cornerstone of hedonism and, if we fall prey to it, life tosses us around like a carton of eggs in a washing machine. This is dukkha. We usually translate dukkha as suffering or dissatisfaction, but the literal translation is, “A bad axle.” If you have a bad axle, then you’re in for a bumpy ride.
Christmas is, potentially, a very Buddhist holiday.
We come together, family and friends, and celebrate another year. We cultivate a loving warmth amidst the still winter freeze. We set the world alight and fill the air with songs. Most of all, we give to each other. Generosity is the foundation of Buddhism. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu said that if everyone just practiced being generous, then we’d all be enlightened and the world would be cured of all its afflictions. I think that’s a valid point of view.
All suffering is somehow related to selfishness and self-centeredness. Anger, fear, worry, doubt, misery, hatred, greed, pride, craving…all of these afflictions arise when I place myself at the center of the universe. When my thoughts, words and actions are fueled by these afflictions, I force my suffering upon others and, over time, the whole world is engulfed in suffering.
Tranquility, courage, trust, joyfulness, love, generosity, humility and understanding are the antidotes to these afflictions. And they too can be passed from person to person. Christmas has the potential to epitomize these traits, but it takes a little doing on our part. We have to wrestle Christmas away from commercialism and the reward/punishment paradigm. One way to do that is to give Santa Claus a face-lift.
Dukkha stems from having a wrong view of the good. The good has nothing to do with reward and punishment, it has to do with virtue. In Buddhism, virtue is characterized by the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Immeasurables, the Seven Factors for Enlightenment, and/or the Perfections. These are said to be unconditionally good, not good as opposed to evil. They’re like an oceanic world where there are no beaches for the water to break against.
Sometimes the good feels good. Sometimes the good feels anything but good. The good isn’t about feeling; it’s about honor, clarity, empathy, and integrity. Kris Kringle exemplifies none of these traits and the holidays, if devoid of a selfless message, condition none of these traits in children. What the holidays condition is that obedience is the good and that accumulating objects is the key to happiness. Thus we start the cycle of suffering all over again with each new generation.
It isn’t only the youngins who’ve been brainwashed by Christmas. Adults run around from store to store, fill their Amazon carts so full that the wheels start squeaking, and max out their credit cards all to avoid guilt. We stress ourselves out and blow hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars that could’ve been spent on necessities just to circumvent a little shame and to get a little jolt of happiness as our loved ones light up when they open their presents.
Infants and new toddlers do Christmas right. You know what their favorite part of Christmas is? The wrapping paper. You could’ve just bought them the most expensive, awe-inspiring toy on the planet, and they’d still be more enamored with and fascinated by that shiny, crinkling paper.
We were all like that once. It was a special time in our lives before we knew about Santa Claus and our Father who art in heaven. When we’re born, we’re automatically anarchists and agnostics. Infants have no religion, no political affiliation, and they place no value in currency. It’s possible to be like that again. That’s what Buddhahood is all about: growing young. It’s about regaining the innocence and earnestness that came naturally to us when we were children. The only difference between a Buddha and a kindergartner is that Buddhas are selfless and free of clinging and craving.
For adults, Christmas can be about growing young. It can be about letting ourselves be charmed by ordinary wonders and intoxicated by the joy of giving. If we can nix the guilt-driven stress of shopping for everyone and focus on the cozy, altruistic aspect of Christmas, I think we could immensely benefit ourselves and others. Especially if we can teach children to find more joy in giving than in receiving.
To help the kids, we desperately need to reinvent Santa Claus. Make him a blind beggar freezing in the streets. Instead of reindeer, maybe he has a dog or a cat, his only friend in the whole world. I can see him as I type these words; a painting in my mind. There he is, sitting on a snowy sidewalk with a puppy or kitty by his side, snow carelessly dusting his weathered red cap. The building he’s resting against is an orphanage, and the kids are laughing and playing with their new toys, toys he gave to them by selling everything he had. He isn’t miserable, sitting out there in the cold. A soft smile graces his ruddy cheeks.
We could teach children to put out milk and cookies for Santa and his pet not because they’re gluttons for tree-shaped pastries, but because they’re starving. We could teach that this old beggar is poor because he gives everything away to children so that whether they’re naughty or nice, they can have presents on Christmas morning. “Why does he do that?” they might ask. “Because he loves to give.”
This is the kind of image the Christmas needs to have because, beneath all the frantic consumerism and religious overtones, it’s the message Christmas conveys.
Editor: Dana Gornall