Christmas spirit seen through an 8-year-old’s eyes

It took my granddaughter almost eight years, but she finally figured it out. When I asked her what she wanted Santa to bring her for Christmas, she answered, “There is no Santa Claus.”

“Who told you that?” I asked.

“My friend. Her dad told her.”

“Really?“ I said. “Well, don’t believe everything you hear. Her dad is mistaken. Santa Claus is real. I’ve seen him with my own eyes.”

“No you didn’t. Where?”

“All over the place – at Christmas time.”

“Those are just guys in Santa suits.”

“No, those guys are Santa’s helpers. Santa himself is in the air. And in the decorations, and the Christmas music and the special food. I’ve seen him at work. He’s real.”

“Is not.”

“Is so.”

“Is not.”

“Better not let Santa hear you say that. You won’t have a very good Christmas.”

“Santa ISN’T real!”

Twenty-some years ago, I participated in a “men’s group,” a weekly gathering of guys who talked about their feelings and the issues involved in trying to be a fulfilled man in America’s frequently alienating, spiritually impoverished culture.

A core group of us grew close to one another – close enough to open up when the specter of Christmas forced its way into our discussions. On those dark December evenings preceding the holiday season, we talked about how society expected us to express festive exuberance, real or not, and pressed us to provide copious material gifts for our children, family and friends.

We discussed our fear that we couldn’t meet the demands for gift giving. Most of us had adequate but limited incomes, and the expectation of the consumer culture is for us to give more and more gifts – ranging from plastic toys to diamonds and new cars – to more and more people. The mainstream message was clear: If meeting these expectations is beyond our means, we should borrow money to perform our societal duty – if we fail to do so, we fail as “men.”

We also talked about how excessive materialism was affecting the environment. Even then, the limits to material growth on a finite planet were everywhere apparent. How could we go Christmas shopping and still protect Earth?

After some arduous soul-searching, we concluded that we would not allow consumerism to steal Christmas – to co-opt the true holiday spirit. We would support each other and cherish sharing time with family and friends, giving more of ourselves and less stuff. We would feel better, not worse, about curtailing materialism. Gifts would be limited, enduring and of intrinsic value.

“You’d better tell Santa what you want for Christmas before it’s too late,” I told my granddaughter.

“I already told you and Grandma that I want a camera. So I can be ... so I can learn how to take pictures.”

“Become a photographer. Asking me for a camera doesn’t help; you have to ask Santa. I don’t do anything for Christmas unless Santa tells me to.”

“But there isn’t any Santa.”

“I guess you’re stuck then. No camera. Maybe no tree.”

“I don’t believe you. You can’t see Santa.”

“Are you sure? Who do you think makes sure poor kids get Christmas presents? Feeds the homeless? Makes ordinary people sing in the street? Lights candles at the darkest time of the year?”

“Everybody? I don’t know!”

“And why does everybody do that?”

A kid’s-level camera is plastic and foreign made – probably under dubious or dismal labor and environmental conditions. And a camera could be just another fleeting fancy that ends up on a scrap heap. On the other hand, my granddaughter has shown a real, sustained interest in photography, one that engenders hope that she’ll learn and grow with her camera. Someday her photographs might help save the planet. There’s hope, and hope is the message of the holiday season.

I came across an anonymous aphorism: “There are three stages in a man’s life. He believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus.”

And one afternoon my granddaughter unexpectedly said, “I think Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas.” OK, it took her eight years to get it. But never underestimate the wisdom of children at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via email through his Web site,