You know Christmas is just around the corner when you start seeing the red, green and white lights strung out around the windows and roof ledges. As a young boy I remember my parents and older siblings preparing the Christmas tree. One of the first things to be put on was the string of Christmas tree lights. We never used very many. There was only enough money in our family budget for a string or two of lights. That was more than enough to decorate the artificial tree and fascinate us younger children in the family and draw us into the holiday spirit.
As far as I was concerned, Christmas was a time to receive gifts, period. Adults presented it as a time to be happy and a period that was almost entirely devoted to pleasing children and young people in general. It was, and is, supposed to be great to be a kid during Christmas.
In a small remote community like my home of Attawapiskat, no one took the time to explain the traditional non-Native stories and folklore of the Christmas holiday. We were pretty far removed from all that. In our history, we had been converted and taught by the Catholic religion to be devout Christians. The only thing we learned as children was that Christmas was the day that celebrated the birth of Christ. Gift giving was symbolized through the presents that were given by the three wise men from the east in the story of Christ’s birth.
We heard of Santa Claus every Christmas and he was a symbol of the holiday in everything that we purchased and saw on television. However, no one in our family ever explained to us the significance of Santa Claus. Our parents had grown up in a very traditional lifestyle of hunting, gathering and moving about the land. With the coming of the Europeans, life changed for us and our people had been converted to a new religion. This religion was interpreted through very devout followers and they did not promote much folklore or non-religious ideas or practices. This included the story of Santa Claus.
Our parents and grandparents must have been very confused over the meaning and purpose of Christmas. On one hand, they had religious leaders telling them to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Christ. On the other hand, in modern times, there was a newer and louder message that Christmas was a commercial period that included consumerism, an adoration of the image of a man in a red suit with eight reindeer and a time to indulge in excess and celebration.
Before we had television, our community followed a few traditions from the European culture during the holidays. There were gatherings and celebrations and some gift giving. When I talk to Elders they tell me that Christmas back then was not as significant as it is today. The biggest reason to celebrate was because church informed everyone that this was an important Christian holiday.
In the 1970s, when our world was opened up through the window of television, we started seeing and following the traditional North American and European traditions of Christmas. From that time on, we copied whatever everyone else in the Western world was doing. This involved the story of Santa Claus. I don’t think we really understood what this was all about, but we knew that it was how the holiday was celebrated.
I was about 12 or 13 when I really started to understand who Santa Claus was. Up until then, he was just a man with a white beard in a red suit that was associated with Christmas somehow. There was some description or explanation from our non-Native teachers at school but I think that most people from outside our community assumed that we had some knowledge of European traditions and customs. This is still evident today. I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently about this subject. He grew up in a typical non-Native European Canadian family. At an early age, adults told him stories about Santa Claus and about the fact that this man flew throughout the globe on Christmas day to deliver presents to all children. He was surprised to find out that this was not the story I grew up with.
I don’t have a lot of imaginative childhood memories of Santa Claus coming down my chimney and delivering presents. Our family did not leave milk and cookies for jolly old St. Nick. I had a hard time with the flying sleigh and reindeer too. Come to think of it, I was just as confused as my parents in trying to figure out what this time of year was all about. My best memories don’t include Santa, presents or religion but rather spending time with family and friends in a warm home during the coldest time of the year. The worst memories I try to forget. Some people think that Santa Claus is really the manifestation of love. I like that explanation enough these days to declare that I really do believe there is a Santa Claus.