Christmas spirit vs. Christmas wrap

Churches and parents strive to balance faith, commercialism

December 24, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun Reporter

In the days before Christmas, presents are neatly stacked under the Alexis family's tree - each pile with an equal number of gifts for the four children.

Sandy Carlson Alexis and her husband, Lans, are both pastors of Evangelical Lutheran congregations. But they know that the children "have to have the same number," says Sandy Carlson Alexis. "If not, I have to go to the dollar store to even them out."

The Alexises, who devote this season to religious tradition, also know that, when it comes to their children, concessions are required. "Our kids want what everyone else is doing," she says.

The struggle between commercialism and spirituality in America goes as far back as Puritan times, carrying over to the Grinches and Charlie Browns. The tension has only grown, from stores staying open nearly round-the-clock to fisticuffs over the hottest toys.

So for families, the struggle is how to teach children about faith, traditions and the identity of a certain red-suited fellow. It's the time of year when parents try to strike a balance between the forces of commercialism and quiet moments of reflection.

Most parents seeking to preserve the spirit of the holiday seem to think that Santa Claus is OK, as long as he's accompanied by lessons in generosity and gratitude. And reasonable gifts are important - thrilling not just the children who receive, but the parents who give.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill says he and his wife are careful about materialism year-round. Their daughters, ages 2 and 5, don't watch television because "we want their primary formation to be as Christians, not as consumers," he says.

The girls visited Santa for the first time this year, Connors says, but he still tries not to talk about Santa on Sundays at church. "I think kids are already confused about how Santa and Jesus meet up," he says.

He says he sees no conflict between Santa and the religious aspects of Christmas. "There's a certain mystery around Santa. It's enlarging the imagination to think about possibilities wider than the reality we see around us. I don't want to deprive the children of that," Connors says. "I think imagination is so critical for faith and living in general."

Erich Becker, who leads the marriage and family ministry for Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, likens discussions about Santa to reading fables. "I think kids' imaginations are really treasures and gifts. They're good for kids to read, even if they're not physically or materially true," he says. "Imagination is a wonderful thing to keep stimulating."

To parents such as Ann Stephan of Edgewater, Santa can be a tool to help children learn the concept of faith - something that's crucial to later religious instruction.

"He will pray to Santa as opposed to writing a letter," Stephan says of her kindergartner, who attends St. John the Evangelist School in Severna Park. "It's easy for him to have a belief in something he can't see."

Another St. John's parent, Cathy Stamper of Gambrills, tells her five children that "Jesus gave him [Santa] a job in heaven to give gifts to children." After Catholic Mass, the family will celebrate the holiday tomorrow with a birthday cake for Jesus.

But for other families who fear confusion with Jesus, Santa Claus is assigned to the ranks of fairy-tale heroes.

"We've always introduced the concept of Santa Claus to our kids as a character, just as they see the Disney characters on TV," says the Rev. Gregg Knepp, pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pimlico. He and his wife have two boys and a girl, ages 5, 6 and 7.

Knepp remembers being confused as a child by all of the gifts he received from Santa - and no gifts from his parents. So he and his wife decided to follow an alternate route with their children, teaching them from a young age that their parents are the ones leaving wrapped presents beneath the tree.

"We wanted our children to understand they weren't given gifts from some anonymous character," he says.

For many churches, programs tailored to children are essential to build an appreciation for the spiritual elements of the holiday.

At New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, toddlers through second-graders will wear party hats and receive goody bags from a birthday celebration for Jesus today. They will read Christmas stories and play Pin the Star on the Manger and other games adapted for the holiday, says Kathie Phillips, director of Kids Community, the children's ministry at New Hope.

Families at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum observed the feast day of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 with a fair and a visit from the saint himself, who talked about good works he's done.

"Instead of letting Santa Claus run away with Christmas, we have a celebration at church," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, an author and columnist who founded Holy Cross with her husband.

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