What Do You “Tell” About Santa?

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truth about santa, tell kids about santa, santa claus lie, santa memory,
Wikipedia 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast

A few decades ago I indulged in some concerns about the likelihood of Santa’s existence while playing with a neighbor kid. A reasonably science-minded kindergartener, I wondered aloud how reindeer could fly without wings. I speculated about the chimney girth problem and the issue of children who lived in fireplace-free homes. And then, as if no one else had encountered these breaches in holiday logic, I asked how Santa could fly across the whole world in one night.

I was torn, wanting my friend to take me seriously but also hoping he’d prop up my fading sense of magic. I was disappointed when he dismissed every one of my speculations.

Later that day his mother called my mother. Her son was upset. According to her I’d ruined his belief in Santa. She said I wasn’t a nice little girl at all. That we were the same age didn’t seem to matter. My mother, who held politeness up there with God and cleanliness, insisted I apologize to Mrs. Barton right there on the phone.

After that particular trauma I badgered my mother for days with my Santa-related questions until she fessed up. The truth stung. My older sister was in on the falsehood. Other kids at school probably were too, but by some twist of propriety they knew better than to tell believers, even if they felt superior to Santa holdouts. Clearly a victim of my mother’s politeness gene, I felt awful when it hit me that I’d been opening packages every year thinking that Santa owed me for my good behavior when all along those gifts were lovingly bought and wrapped by my parents. And I’d never even thanked them.

Fast forward a few decades. I vowed I would not follow the collective Santa lie with my own children. Sure, the truth might lead them right into the same minefield of logic versus belief with some other kid. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s how kids learn to think for themselves (as long as their parents don’t run interference). But I had no intention of killing Santa entirely. That’s because small children inhabit a different world than the rest of us. They don’t make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. There’s probably something to that. Ever notice how happy little kids are? So I wanted an approach that kept wonder and excitement alive.

yes virginia there is a santa claus,
Wikipedia 1897 New York Sun

The philosophy I decided to use with my own four kids was based on the classic 1897 newspaper column titled “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” written by Francis Pharcellus Church. It reads, in part,

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

I took the casual approach. I never hyped Santa, any more than I promoted the whole commercial side of Christmas. No “better be good for Santa.” No Santa at the mall (pretty easy with our mall avoidance lifestyle).

Sure, we still like Christmas carols that mention Santa. And my family cheerfully accommodates the thing I have for that early 60’s special, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, even welcoming my teary-eyed joy at the scene when hope returns to the Island of Misfit Toys. But we keep the holidays simple.

My reply to “Is Santa real?” has always been, “Everyone who loves children is Santa’s helper.” The few times I’ve gotten more questions, which happened rarely because kids like to keep that possibility alive, I explained that even grown-ups like to believe too. By the time kids reach a certain age, they know what my answer means. Either it means there’s no Santa or their Mom is a believer. Maybe I am. I’ve lived long enough to know that there’s magic everywhere. I just call it by different names: love, hope, compassion.

Oh yeah, and forgiveness. By the next day Mrs. Barton’s kid was already over it.


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13 thoughts on “What Do You “Tell” About Santa?

  1. It’s because children have difficulty understanding the difference between fantasy and reality that it is so important that parents be there to help them distinguish between the two. It’s not something to be “indulged” for the sake of “childlike faith” — it’s not really faith at all.

    Imagine that your mental state was temporarily rendered into that of a child’s, perhaps due to some necessary but strong medication you were prescribed. Would you want ambiguous answers that were meant to be understood later (but could easily be interpreted by you, in that state, in a misleading way)? Would you want the people who were supposed to guide and support you go to great lengths to plant false evidence (milk and cookies, Santa at the mall, etc.) to lead you into believing that something was as a real as the planets or the ancient Greeks? Of course not. That would be cruel. The only true enjoyment of “Santa fun” would come from the people trying so hard to fool you.

    It isn’t difficult to lie to a child. You can do it by omission of the truth, or by more proactive means of fraud. But let’s be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing if we choose to take part in this tradition, and not dream up virtuous motives of protecting children’s innocence. The truth is that most people do it out of conformity, with a pinch of self-gratification thrown in (some people call it a “game” but a game can only truly be enjoyed by the players who *realize* that it is a game while it is played). The idea of lying to children about an actual Santa that brings them gifts is relatively recent in our culture, and I think it’s high time we put this one to bed.

    If our children can’t rely on their parents for straight answers, who can they rely upon? If parents think it’s okay to lie over something as unjustified as this, how can they teach their children not to lie without sounding like hypocrites?

    1. I’m not sure it is possible for very young children to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Child development research tells us that they don’t really distinguish this until they’re at least 4 or 5 years old, no matter how much reality intrudes. Most of us spend quite a bit of time trying to clear that up for our kids. I know I have. My daughter was positive that cats spoke to her and that her doorknob was possessed by some kind of scary being. No amount of discussing truth versus fantasy made a difference, until she matured.

      I do think that fantasy, via fairy tales and make-believe, helps kids deal with the meaning of big abstract concepts in ways they can comprehend. As I noted in this piece about Santa, I told my kids it was ME who wanted to believe in Santa just as so many other adults want to believe in what is truly a spirit of giving. You may see this as lying. I hope I haven’t ever lied to my kids.

  2. I like Santa. It’s not rational, but as a kid we did the “Santa-thing”. And then some older kid at the school let the truth out and I asked my mom, and she confessed – but my “Santa” gift left unwrapped with a tag with my name in my Mom’s best handwritting (which is something to behold in and of itself, it’s goregous), still was there every Christmas. A couple years later my sister learned the truth, but before she did I distinctly remember my Dad getting on the roof with jingle bells because he knew we weren’t asleep yet. After the mystery was gone we all voted and decided that Santa would keep coming to our house each year, even though we all knew it was Mom and Dad who were his helpers, who did the shopping, assembling, and propping up of gifts in the middle of the night. – My parents enjoyed it to. One night they were up all night playing with our new train set!

    Now my kids are still in the age of belief, I try to drop clues that I’m Santa’s helper, but we still watch the Google Santa tracker with delight, as much in seeing the city fly-over of distant places as it is counting down until he finally reaches the Western United States and my husband and I get to stay up playing with and assmebling something special.

    You see in the morning, the Santa gift is fair game, it’s open for play as soon as the kids awake. I hope that when the magic starts to fade – my oldest is figuring it out – they too will vote to keep up the game. And maybe when they are all at the edge, or just beyond I can get up on the roof with some jingle bells and stomp around on their heads…

    Yes, it’s about magic, yes it’s about compassion. There is so much that can be in the Santa story, and it should be. It’s not about free gifts for being good, it’s about serving others without them knowing it was you. Which is a much much more valuable lesson – plus its loads of fun!

    As for Rudolph… Well I even have the Lenox ornament which thought it weighs a ton always adorns our tree. AND we voted to play Rudolph as a school fundraiser in December (the school bought a movie license to use for fundraising), there is a lot of love for that classic!

    1. What you (KtCallista, if I didn’t hit the right “reply” button) said! Particularly in the next-to-last-paragraph.

      I wrote about this a few years ago: http://rockinlibrarian.livejournal.com/171341.html

      In general, I personally am trying to focus on the joy of giving and preparing and everything else BESIDES receiving presents with my kids, and it bugs me how many people keep encouraging my kids to talk about What they Want Santa to Bring, and bringing up the Better Be Good sort of stuff. But in general, I’m a big supporter of Santa, not as an arbitor of judgement, but as a general spirit of giving.

  3. We didn’t do the Santa thing for our kids, and they have shown no sign of not feeling the “magic” of Christmas without him. There’s the anticipation of everything, just as strong as in a Santa-apostle.

    We did tell them not to discuss Santa with their friends, because if the friends did believe in Santa, it would make them unhappy to have him questioned. As far as I know, this practice in compassion has worked out well.

  4. This is how I did it for my eldest daughter “Princess”:

    I’d done a Santa gig when she was a few years old (she’s 9 now) and they let me get a photo with her. As she has always tended to be cunning and wily, she seemed to suspect there was more to the myth in the next few years. When it became apparent that we couldn’t keep it up, we showed her the photo and explained that was me as Santa.

    She still enjoyed taking part in the tradition, and didn’t decide to discourage anyone at school. It was a fairly easy, smooth transition, and it was a good way to strengthen our affection.

    I do not believe that the Santa tradition is harmful or deliberately deceitful. I’d also participated when two of my younger sisters were much younger. For me, it became the part of fond memories that quite a bit of the family has enjoyed.

    Your Mileage May Vary [Depending On Road Conditions and Driving Habits], as usual.

  5. I don’t feel as strongly about it as Hope does, but I did feel uncomfortable about the idea of selling a story to my kid that wasn’t true. Plus I didn’t grow up with the Santa thing (since my mom is religious and didn’t want Santa undercutting the Jesus story), so I didn’t have strong feelings about the “magic” of believing in it. So we just didn’t really bring it up to our son. But of course he heard about Santa in books and stuff, and very quickly he asked us point-blank, “Is Santa real?” (As he typically asks us about superheroes and dragons and so on.) We just couldn’t bring ourselves to say “Yes,” so we said he wasn’t real, but that some people like to believe in him, and that it’s a nice, fun story. I don’t think he’s really missing out, but I also don’t fault those who want to give their kids an experience they enjoyed as children. If you yourself enjoyed it and remember it fondly, then why would it be a bad thing for your kids? It’s not just for me.

    I am, however, thoroughly creeped out by the “Santa’s watching” admonitions and particularly the “Elf on the Shelf” toy you can position in your house — Santa’s sneaky little spy. *shudders*

  6. I use the Santa revelation in my discussion of paradigm shifts with my seventh graders; that point where the evidence outweighs the old idea (Santa) and a new idea (it’s my parents!) is clearly the correct paradigm.

    To illustrate the idea, I pair them up and have one ask questions (how does he do it all in one night?) while the other offers an explanation. This leads to more questions, until every answer is “magic”. At this point there is no defense; doesn’t “mom and dad” make more sense?

    We then look at science, art, literature and other fields to see what questions were asked by new practitioners, and how those fields leaped forward.

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