Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Santa, Report Cards, and the Chinese Nativity Set

The Grape's school provides a detailed report card at the end of each semester. It rivals power point presentations from my distant past, in terms of weight and thickness.

His contained no surprises, though one line item concerning library skills needled me: "Differentiates fiction from non-fiction."

The librarian, quite rightly, marked this as a "developing skill" for the Grape, which I interpret as progressive school speak for a C+.

I love libraries. I get that children need to learn to navigate the library. I just hate the timing of this curriculum point.


Because of Santa, and his magical team of elves, reindeer, and mind-bending transportation logistics, all of whom stand solidly in the non-fiction category in our house.

The Grape likes categories, and like lots of little kids, sees things as black or white. Watch gangs of little kids play. They never incorporate nuanced villains or flawed heroes.  It's good guys versus bad guys. Period.

The Grape came home from the school library and set to work organizing his books into fiction and non-fiction piles. The fiction pile towered high.

He held up one of our family's inter-generational favorites: Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas.

We read it in Finnish, but it's available in English and other languages. It has gorgeous illustrations and painstakingly detailed explanations about how the whole Santa Enterprises situation works: the post office and translation department, the stables, the airfield, the toy workshops and warehouses, the support staffing, the elf schools, the espionage, elf downtime.

It's all depicted as a culture of generosity, cooperation and friendship.

Kunnas writes with nearly Rowling-esque detail, and I highly recommend the title for any child who loves Christmas and picture books.

"Non-fiction," I proclaimed firmly, with only small pangs of guilt sticking in my gut. No protest from the Grape. He placed the dog-eared copy at the top of the non-fiction heap with visible relief on his face.

I do not know whether there is a God, but I love my kid's faith in Santa.

For every thing of wonder and beauty in this world, there is also tremendous cruelty and suffering on a scale impossible for most of us to comprehend. Santa fits with my philosophy of letting the Grape be little, unaware of the real evil in the world, for a few precious years.

Santa represents the best of childhood: magic, innocence, generosity without agenda. He shows up whether you remember to leave out cookies or not.

Despite what his detractors argue, Santa need not be about capitalist excess. In our house Santa brings gifts few in number, though admittedly high on wow factor. Santa dazzles; relatives provide.

I felt unprepared to fight back when moments later, the Grape declared Frozen to be non-fiction, too. "Because Princess Elsa, the real one with powers, came to my cousin's party."

I asked if he was sure. He said yes, while conceding she did not, in fact, use those powers to transform the premises into an ice castle.

I dropped it.

We have, at best, two years of the Santa magic left. I refuse to do anything that could jeopardize that beautiful, pure childhood wonder. I can deal with the Princess Elsa issue around Valentine's Day.

Just when I thought we were clear of this perturbing question, we reached the stickier wicket of Baby Jesus.

R. and I are not raising the Grape in the church, but we want him to be culturally literate, which in Western civilization, includes Biblical literacy. The stories inspired much of the world's greatest art, architecture, literature, and music.

I love Christmas music, though only after Thanksgiving. Most of it is religious, and it rings through our house for a month. The Grape and I know most of the words. I've never seen this as an issue.

I've also got nothing against Nativity sets; I came close to buying one when we were in Naples. It was gorgeous and fragile, and represented many weeks (months?) of an artist's labor.

It also looked tricky to transport intact while traveling with a two-year-old. Next time, I told myself.

Mistake. Big mistake.

This year, without warning, we found ourselves in receipt of the world's most garishly painted Nativity set, undoubtedly made in a Chinese sweatshop (like most contemporary American holiday decor), and addressed to the Grape.

"A barn!" the Grape proclaimed happily, and set to work arranging the figures. He decided the set needed some color, so he festooned a rainbow lei on the roof.

The angel looked like a vaudeville performer. Or a drag queen who didn't quite bring it.

The latter makes more sense. If I recall correctly, the Bible's angels were all men.

The shepherd was dressed in something resembling a mini-skirt, paired with gladiator sandals.  "He looks like he's going to the Pride Parade," the Grape observed.

All the human figurines had blushing peaches and cream complexions you'd never see on any native resident of the Middle East.

After watching him play with the barn for a while, R. and I explained the characters in the scene, to be met with the inevitable question: "Baby Jesus. Fiction or non-fiction?"

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I said firmly. "Like a legend."

The Grape frowned. "Isn't Christmas Baby Jesus' birthday?"

"Most likely not. It's Jesus' birthday observed. Emperor Constantine picked the date."

"Way too much information," R. hissed at me.

I tried to redirect. "He had a strong willed mother. Kind of like you. The date worked for many reasons, and she wanted a big birthday celebration for Baby Jesus. She really liked Baby Jesus. So yes, Christmas is pretty much Baby Jesus' birthday."

The Grape smelled uncertainty. His eyes narrowed. He picked up one of the wise men. "Which one is Constantine?"

"He came later."

He dropped the myrrh man and held up the (very strangely diapered) Chinese Baby Jesus figurine."Is this the same Jesus they kill at Easter?"


"They killed a baby?"

"No, it's another observed date. Jesus was older then."

"Easter is in April!" the Grape screeched. He counted the months on his fingers.


"Fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape practically howled.

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I repeated, with confidence.

"They killed a baby? A BABY? Why didn't his family protect him?" The Grape was incensed. "Families. Protect. Their. Babies."

At this point, I felt way out of my theological depth and called my mother, who didn't have a good answer, either.

"That's a fascinating question from a five-year-old," she said.

"No kidding. Why do you think I was trying to kick this whole conversation down the road a few years?"

Our household is culturally Christian—a notion I borrowed many years ago from Jewish friends who celebrate many of the holidays and traditions with which they grew up, but don't consider themselves observant.

(I know lots of people in this boat. I've got a whole post ready to go on what that means for us. It's too much to tack on here.)

"Is the Baby Jesus story fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape bellowed, for what felt like the hundredth time.

"Ask the librarian when school starts again," I said. "Ask her whether the Bible is in the fiction or non-fiction section."

My hunch: it's shelved with mythology, a topic covered in later grades. I'll report back.

It was a cop out, but bedtime was approaching and I wanted to get back to the safe territory of dancing sugarplums and flying reindeer.

The Grape put the animals from the Nativity safely into their barn, and told me "the people should go to a hotel."

I snarfed mulled wine.

R. remarked we needed to do better.

We put the Grape to bed and I stayed up late, re-considering when we ought to introduce the concept of Biblical literacy.

I'd wanted to wait until the Grape saw the world in a more nuanced way. For him to be old enough to challenge the idea that groups with differing beliefs are all good or all bad, and to be wary of exclusionary, judgmental spiritual outfits.

To understand that religion and morality are vastly different things, and that one does not necessarily flow from the other—though sometimes they're related, like when the church across the street gives away a grocery store's worth of food to the people lined up outside. Or when my mother spends a day at her church, peeling potatoes for the homeless (true story, many potatoes).

Other times, they are not. Like when we deposit new toys at the police station for Toys for Tots, or buy coats for the school coat drive. We help because it's right, not because our church commands it.

We already point out the good and try to teach him gratitude. But we've been shielding him from the bad and the ambiguous. Maybe that's okay. At least for one more year.

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