Twentieth Day of Christmas: For goodness’ sake …

It’s that time of year when we collectively use an obese, scarlet-clad old man to threaten and coerce page 36(new)(new)children into behaving appropriately. We might like to paint a rosier picture of this cultural phenomenon–hang a wreath at the door and a cheerful looking snowman outside–but this is, in fact, what is boils down to. And it always strikes an uncomfortable chord with me. It’s true that the older children tend to be in on the joke. When asked if they’ve been naughty or nice, they can smile impishly and pretend they’re worried that they won’t receive presents if they have not, in fact, been nice. But a lot of the younger ones are legitimately taken in. And I’m just not comfortable with pairing consumerism and discipline like eggnog and fine cheese … or something that sounds less gross.

Now, it may be that I take this holiday (along with everything else) just a tad too seriously. But I contend that Christmas memories hog more than their fair share of a person’s brain. You don’t remember most days of school, or soccer practice, or even summer break necessarily. But Christmas sticks with a person. And I feel that we send kids contradictory messages when it comes to the holidays.

“You better watch out/ you better not cry/ you better not pout/ I’m telling you why/ Santa Claus is coming to town./ He’s making a list/ And checking it twice;/ He’s gonna find out/ Who’s naughty and nice/ Santa Claus is coming to town/ He sees you when you’re sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows if you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness sake!”

There it is. Be good for goodness sake. But this is a song about how a powerful man will either bring you presents or he won’t, and if you cry, pout, etc. he will not. This is not a song about being good for goodness sake. It isn’t a song about being good to express appreciation for your family and friends. Essentially, Santa’s driving a bargain with the kids of the world: toys in exchange for good behavior. Goodness doesn’t enter the picture at all. And yes, it’s just a song. Just a song that I’ve heard 836,594 times conservatively.

But isn’t that kind of a pattern with us? Believe in god so you don’t go to hell. Y’know, the place with the “furnace of fire … weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:50), “where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), and “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night” (Revelation 14:11). It’s quite grim, really. Perhaps not as grim as a Christmas without presents, but it’s no day at the waterslides either. Of course, perhaps if the Bible had taken a passage from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and at least taken the time to come up with some sort of rhyme scheme, we could all face our eternal damnation a bit more cheerfully.

But the reality is, it’s all so over the top, so childish, so human, that it’s hard to take seriously. So parents and Christians are giving the same message: Don’t be good for goodness sake. We don’t give a damn about goodness for the sake of goodness. What we want is for you to obey us out of fear.

Now, I’ve long since come to terms with organized religion using fear and threats of death, torture, and damnation to get their way. But it still bothers me to think about Christmas being used as a threat against children, just as it bothers me when the phrase “Merry Christmas” is treated as a weapon. I don’t want people to behave kindly, generously, lovingly because a creepy old dude is watching them all the time (which, by the way, is a lot less entertaining now that we know our government is watching us all the time). And when we do kind things with the expectation of some kind of payout, we miss out on the incredible feeling that attends generous behavior committed without anything expectation of return. Which is sad for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an incredible high, and one that can’t be replicated by any other substance or experience. Secondly, if we don’t come to know and enjoy that feeling as children, what are the odds we’ll grow into generous adults who practice goodness for goodness’ sake?

(ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON, PRINTED IN NEW TIMES.)

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