Isadora Duncan didn’t believe in Santa Claus. She believed strongly in human will, in the power of the human spirit to transform material circumstances, in the healing properties of art and love. But she didn’t believe in Old Saint Nick.
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In narrating significant events from her childhood, Duncan recalls a Christmas when she was punished for challenging a teacher’s assertion that Santa Claus had brought candy for the children. She writes, “I made the first of my famous speeches. ‘I don’t believe lies,’ I shouted. ‘My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus’” (Duncan, My Life). The teacher responded by denying Duncan the candied treat and forcing her to stand in a corner. Duncan writes, “I never got over the feeling of the injustice with which I had been treated, deprived of candy and punished for telling the truth” (Duncan My Life).
I wonder what Duncan would say about the relationship between economics and Christmas holiday rituals in our contemporary culture? Surely, there is still disparity between different families’ abilities to provide lavish and abundant material rewards for children’s yearly goody behavior. I wonder, as well, about training children to expect a direct material pay-off for behaving according to adult strictures. Doesn’t quite seem consonant with understanding the true nature of charity, the impulse to give from a sense of compassion, not from an expectation of reward.
Duncan may not have subscribed to the Santa myth, but she certainly got the concept of charitable giving. In fact, her life abounds with examples testifying to the significance of selfless service. In starting her first school in 1904, Duncan advertised for unwanted children and took in those whose families did not have the means to care for them. She refrained from charging tuition and poured the earnings from her tours into running her school. She migrated to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, desiring to bring her art to the workers and their families. Her intention was to share her talents with her students and her audiences for free.
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Duncan, with her uncompromising vision, firmly believed that every child had a right to develop her creative and expressive capacities to the fullest, and she held on to this egalitarian belief. She also believed that children have an innate sense of wisdom and should not be underestimated by adults. I imagine she would have appreciated my young niece’s impulse to put the expensive toys on her list for Santa, rather than asking for them from her parents, both illustrating her belief that Saint Nick is not constrained by finances and attempting to demonstrate frugality for her parents.
Despite the economic disparities that still plague our contemporary society, there are some great organizations with programs intended to bring holiday gifts to families in need. One of my enterprising yoga students corralled a group of people together to adopt a family through SafePlace, an Austin organization providing support to survivors of domestic violence. Austinites, if you are interested in sponsoring a family for the holidays next year, there are several great organizations including SafePlace and The Christmas Bureau of Austin. If you don’t want to wait that long and are interested in ways to make a difference now, check out I Live Here, I Give Here.