on Santa's lap

Baby Shirley gets acquainted with Santa, Hager's Store, Lancaster, PA, 1949

This picture of Santa and me, taken when I was one and a half years old, says a lot about my childhood, but tells only half the story.

You would think, looking at this picture, that my family members were big fans of Santa and had lots of decorated trees, windows and presents.

You would be wrong.

Christmas was a litmus test for the plain people (Mennonites and Amish) of Lancaster County, Penna., during the years I grew up in a Mennonite family there. It was both religious (good!) and worldly (bad!). It was connected to pagan winter solstice holidays (bad!), and it was suspected of elevating the birth of Jesus over his life and teachings (bad!).

Like lots of other holidays, Christmas came wrapped in sometimes contradictory messages.

No wonder I look a little skeptical, even at seventeen months of age, sitting on Santa’s lap.

I only sat there once. And no one else in my family had a commercial picture taken at Hager’s department story at Christmas time. As the oldest, I was born at a time when our family connection to the city of Lancaster was strongest.

That connection came through my mother’s side of the family, the Hesses, who had a stand at the Central Market, the oldest continuously operated farmer’s market in the U.S.

Mother did much of her shopping in Lancaster, especially when her parents and brother were operating the stand and she could visit them.

When Grandma Hess died suddenly, two years after this picture was taken, and Grandpa and Uncle Allen gave up the stand a few years later, our Hershey family connection to Lancaster, and to the worldly contact it produced, weakened.

So how did we celebrate Christmas? Here are a few memory highlights:

  • Christmas programs.  No elaborate pageant productions, just Sunday School classes singing carols or reciting Luke 2.
  • Homemade chocolate candies in a poinsettia-themed cardboard box, accompanied by a huge navel orange. These were provided by a generous and prosperous church member who owned a frozen food locker.
  • Trying to discipline myself to make the chocolates last at least until New Year. I always ate the marshmallow in the corner of the box first, however.
  • My parents would often go shopping just before Christmas Day and come home and put the presents (one for each child) up in a cupboard high above our heads. We ended up owning a lot of these toys that are now collector items or sold as nostalgia items.
  • Presents were seldom wrapped except in paper bags or re-used paper salvaged from more extravagant givers. We sang Silent Night and told the Christmas story before we opened presents.
  • Toy catalogs from the 1950’s and ’60’s were like crack cocaine to my brother and me. We could pore over them for hours. I remember how much my brother wanted a BB gun (just like Ralphie in the now famous movie A Christmas Story). When my parents said “no,” I think both of us cried.
  • Christmas caroling with the youth group at homes of elderly people or even on street corners.
  • My parents never told me the Santa story as if he were real

What!

Why not?

The way Mother tells it now, it’s because she had believed in Santa herself until her brother broke her heart with the news there was no real Santa. She didn’t want us to experience that terrible disappointment.

But the other reason is that Santa stood for commercialism, an encroachment on the Jesus story.

Santa kneeling to talk to young Sam and his mother

Photo by Shawn Smucker

Last week, writer Shawn Smucker, a Facebook friend, posted this picture.

His son is telling Santa what he wants for Christmas. The place is the Intercourse Public Library, not far from where I grew up.

The woman in the deep background is Amish. Shawn, whose own grandmother was Amish, was surprised to see some Amish people in the line to greet Santa. Amish people do not celebrate Christmas elaborately and generally don’t have Christmas trees or Santas in their homes.

Yet, some of them came close when Santa was in the room.

They may be skeptical, but they also find themselves drawn to the man in red when he’s handy.

Like baby Shirley in the faded department store picture, the plain people can be physically close and yet a little distant at the same time.

Santa, however, endures. Apparently, he can handle both his fans and his critics.

Please share your own experience with the Santa story? Were you a believer? Did you tell your children that Santa brought their presents? Has Santa become a stronger or weaker image for you over time?

 

Shirley Showalter

30 Comments

  1. Shirley on December 10, 2012 at 11:26 am

    My parents, both Mennonite, played along with the Santa, and reindeer theme. At the same time I had an imaginary friend I called Sally. I had no problem integrating this and never remember a time when they said it was not “real.” It was as real as Sally and all the characters in the little books they read to me. They never told me Bambi was not real either.

    I have a distinct memory of hearing a lot of clattering on our roof one Christmas eve. Mother had trouble getting me to go to bed, and when the clattering occurred, she said that Santa was arriving, and I better get into bed quick. Turns out, Daddy had thrown some fire wood onto the roof as part of this elaborate effort to get me to go to bed. He came into the house chuckling, and we all dissolved into laughter as his joke was revealed.

    • shirleyhs on December 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Shirley, that clatter on the rooftop sounds like fun! Your parents showed some real creativity, and you were clearly an exuberant, imaginative child. Thanks for a lovely story. Soon you can make some rooftop clatter for grandson Dillon!

  2. Tina Barbour on December 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    My brothers and I were told that my parents had to pay Santa for our gifts, so that’s why we couldn’t have everything we wanted. So I guess in my mind, Santa was very much tied to my parents, even when I believed that Santa (as a man in a red suit who dropped off gifts) was real.

    • shirleyhs on December 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm

      Tina, what a clever way for your parents to manage your expectations without destroying your dream. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. marilyn on December 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    o, so many similar memories: Hager’s, Central Market, boxes of candy, singing carols, Sears catalogs, unwrapped gifts, and I bet you and I could recite Luke 2 KJV right now, unrehearsed!

    • shirleyhs on December 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      You made me chuckle, Marilyn. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . . “

  4. Carol Bodensteiner on December 10, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    ” … that all the world should be taxed.” I grew up Lutheran and Luke is part of my DNA. After the Christmas Eve service, we kids each received a bag with candy and cookies in it. After church we went home and opened family presents. Then we put out cookies and milk along with our letters to Santa and went to bed. We woke up to Santa presents, including some really special item in the very toe of our stockings. I could go on and on. Absolutely, I believed. My younger sister was more skeptical. “That’s Mom’s handwriting,” she’d say after reading Santa’s note to us. “Is not,” I’d say. Yep, I could go on and on. Merry Christmas!

  5. shirleyhs on December 10, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Carol, no wonder I identified so closely with your memoir about growing up in the country. We had a lot of similar experiences. Thanks so much for adding your voice to the remembered Christmases of long ago.

  6. Sharon Lippincott on December 11, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Santa was never extravagant when I was young. We hung our stockings and got oranges in the toe, hard candies I never much liked, and a couple of doodads. Just as I turned 7, I figured Santa out after a middle-of-the-night experience tipping the Easter Bunny’s hand (http://ow.ly/g0bYt). My sister had more sense than I did and never admitted she knew. Then my baby brother came along when I was 11, and I think Santa STILL visits him, and I have no doubt he still believes.

    Our semi-conservative church congregation did have a pageant, but it was more chaotic than inspiring. I didn’t look forward to it. In general, Christmas was disappointing because 90% of my presents were a letdown, not something I wanted or appreciated. Certainly not stuff from that amazing Sears Toy Catalog!

    When own children were small, I became involved with the Worldwide Church of God, a non-traditional church that railed against this PAGAN HOLIDAY. To my amazement, although I hated feeling different, I did not miss the Christmas chaos. Although we quit having Christmas trees or Santa, we did do gifts in the fall during Succoth, which we did celebrate.

    That fear-based church has churned itself out of existence and I drifted away nearly twenty years ago, soon before it did. Now I enjoy the decorations and music. I have three tiny trees I put up on years I get around to it. We do take advantage of shopping bargains. But we don’t shower gifts on grandchildren who already have so much STUFF that they don’t know what to tell you they want. We leave that to Santa!

    • Sharon Lippincott on December 11, 2012 at 10:56 am

      P.S. We do give gifts to grandchildren, just not at Christmas. Since they all live thousands of miles away, we wait until we see them and/or find something we know they really will want.

  7. shirleyhs on December 11, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for this fascinating description of your journey with Santa, Sharon. I know what you mean about grandchildren. My husband’s grandmother would stockpile clothes all year, then bring down a huge pile from the spare bedroom. She had 75 grandchildren! Each child would step up to be matched with a new shirt, dress, or sweater. “Let’s see,” she would say. “Do you think this would fit?”

    Funny how one story evokes another? Merry Christmas.

    • shirleyhs on December 11, 2012 at 11:05 am

      Thousands of miles away is difficult for grandparents, Sharon. I’m sure that you are generous with those darling children and understand completely why you have created your own gift-giving traditions. It must be wonderful for you to see them. Hope it will be soon.

  8. Melanie on December 11, 2012 at 11:08 am

    This is a lovely reflection, Shirley. Makes me even more eager to read your memoir, when it comes out. I love the picture of you with Santa: what a treasure!

    My dad, a Mennonite minister, started playing Santa at the local shopping mall when I was in high school. I imagine some of the folks in his (at the time OM) congregation had problems with this, but he saw it as a significant ministry, and I was always proud of that. He continues to play Santa every year here in Oregon for different functions, including one Saturday morning at the local coffeehouse. I love that my kids get to sit on grandpa/Santa’s lap each year for a picture, and that they get to keep the secret of Santa’s identity from others who come to the store. I imagine this will be a memory they treasure, as it is for me, too.

    • shirleyhs on December 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      Melanie, it never occurred to me that my Santa could have been a Mennonite. And a Mennonite minister at that! Vell,vell, vell.

      I too love your family tradition. Your children have a real treat to look forward to each year. And a huge responsibility to keep the secret! I can only imagine the fun of looking back at many photos over the years. I hope you write about this some day also. In your own funny and wise memoir.

      Thanks for being so supportive of my work. It’s nice to know that my mother won’t have to buy all the copies when the book is published. 🙂

  9. Darrelyn Saloom on December 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Love the picture of you on Santa’s lap because of the look on your face. Priceless expression. Says it all.

    • shirleyhs on December 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      Ha. So true. This one photo actually encapsulates the theme of my memoir rather well. One of my first meetings with the glittering world! Thanks for making me look even harder at the photo.

  10. Debra on December 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    When my kids were growing up I thought it better to teach the truth from the get-go than keeping up the charade until they were old enough to discover they’d been hoodwinked half their lives. One of my aunts said that if you’d lie to them about an omnipresent Santa with his reindeer and sleigh traveling the world over in a single night, why on earth would they believe in the virgin birth and the angels?

    So one Christmas Eve at the family gathering, after the story from Luke was read, the presents opened, the smorgasbord of food gobbled down, the family gathered back in the living room for my father’s make-believe game. He always did love the thrill of Santa magic, and so he stood by the window and shushed all the children. “Listen. Don’t you hear ‘em? Sleigh bells. And he pointed toward the moon and said, “There he is, right there, gliding through the sky, Rudolph and the whole team!” All the children gazed out the window, spellbound by the idea. My little son Jesse leaned forward with the others, hoping there was magic and saying, “It’ll be the first time.”

  11. Erma on December 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    My mother was always very admament that there was no Santa. So I was in the first grade when I heard for the first time “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” For a shining moment I was mesmerized by the story and all those dancing reindeers. The pictures were so beautiful. Then at the end of the story, I raised my hand and announced to the whole class that there is no Santa Claus. You can’t imagine the chaos that ensued and I couldn’t understand why.

    • shirleyhs on December 12, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      Erma, I can just see that classroom. Your story illustrates the dangers of too much attempted control over children’s hearts and minds. If children are told a story is false, they become little enforcers for Truth, even when (perhaps especially when) in their hearts they want to believe. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  12. shirleyhs on December 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    There’s always a first time for magic in the lives of children. Sounds like Jesse was able to handle all kinds of stories, the real and the make believe, and realize that we may not always know as much as we think we do about which is which. Thanks for the visit, Debra.

  13. Karen Fisher-Alaniz on December 13, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    I believed in Santa far past when my friends did. While I do admit to disappointment when I learned the truth, it was a magical time. I recreated it for my children, who also believed for a long time. Actually, my oldest is 27 and Santa still fills her stocking. I love the holidays but I am careful not to forget what it’s really all about.

    • shirleyhs on December 14, 2012 at 9:59 am

      Karen, I admire the balance you bring to the issue. And that you have carried on a tradition of magical gift-giving in your family. I envied that joy among some of my school friends, and now I know the story can be told without injury to children. So glad it was in your case. May Santa’s ride down your chimney be a merry slide and may all your Christmases be white.

  14. Richard Gilbert on December 15, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Our nanny and her husband, devout Mormons, made sure our kids saw Santa in the flesh—the husband in a Santa suit—every Christmas. I guess they felt Santa was part of the magic of childhood, and we did too, while hoping our kids got an additional message from us and from our church.

  15. shirleyhs on December 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Interesting, Richard. I have never known a Mormon well enough to know their beliefs around Christmas. Did you know you were seeing your nanny’s husband?

    Every writer has to love the fact that a poem started the Santa tradition. And for those who want to make a spiritual connection, there’s the real St. Nicholas. Our trip to Turkey brought him to life. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

    • Tyler Eliason on November 30, 2016 at 3:16 am

      Shirley-

      Came across your blog in an attempt to better understand my neighbors (Mennonites).

      I, being a Mormon, paused at this comment, always interested to see what people say about us.

      I can speak from experience that Mormons celebrate a very traditional Christmas, Santa, presents, parties (no alcohol of course, haha). Leaders always double down on efforts to remind of the true reason for the season (Christ). This includes a special Christmas devotional each year. https://www.lds.org/church/events/2016-first-presidency-christmas-devotional?lang=eng&cid=email-shared

      Feel free to reach out for a Mormon’s take on anything else.

      • Shirley Showalter on November 30, 2016 at 8:24 pm

        Thanks for offering a first-person account of Mormon Christmas practices, Tyler. Hope you and your neighbors enjoy the Christmas season together!

  16. Ray Evans on December 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Christmas was always pretty austere at our house, I’m the ninth of ten kids in the family, so I’m sure that money must have alway been an issue. We loved those Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs, for sure. I think we always recived at least one “fun gift”, all the rest were clothes. We always had popcorn balls for a treat and carrot pudding for a special treat! We had no idea what Jesus was all about, (no church for many miles).
    TOG, (The Old Geezer from Geezerville)

  17. Julie Perras on December 1, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    A few years back when I was still working retail, I noticed an older gentleman; plump around the middle with a luxurious mane of snow white hair and full bread and thought of what a wonderful Santa he would make. On impulse I walked over to where he stood and said in an amazed tone “Santa… is that really you?” Just as his mouth dropped open his wife stepped from the end of the aisle and joined him and I realized that they were a Mennonite couple, Not knowing how they felt about Santa and the commercial side of Christmas I was so afraid that I might have offended them. The husband had just begun to sputter something when his wife began to laugh; each time he tried,the harder she laughed.At that point I didn’t know whether to apologize or call the EMTs to give the wife oxygen.Before I could decide she patted me on the shoulder, linked arms with her husband and went on with their shopping. I never did get to know what he was going to say, but each time I saw them in the store after that day, the wife’s eyes would twinkle and she would give a little chuckle.

    • shirleyhs on December 2, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Julie, thanks so much for sharing this story! Now you have me chuckling and twinkling. I think I’ll have to repost this story as we get closer to Christmas. It’s perfect — the lack of ability to articulate combined with all the gestures of love and life. So true to much of Mennonite experience. Merry Christmas to you and thanks again for stopping by.

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