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
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.
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?