Here’s the thing:
I could really care less about Santa Claus.
Sure, I’m still a little annoyed that my parents intentionally deceived me for so many years, commissioning personalized letters from Santa, leaving partially eaten cookies and carrots where we kids had left a snack for Santa on Christmas Eve, and even, when I was 10 and had chicken pox over Christmas, leaving a typed message from Santa himself in the typewriter I’d begged for.
“I know Santa has to be real,” I remember telling my mom, “because who else could have typed that message?”
When I finally figured out the truth (when I was twelve), I felt devastated. Not only had my parents practiced this elaborate deception for my whole life, I was clearly an idiot. In retrospect, it was so obvious. I was angry at my parents, but more than that, I was angry at myself for being so incredibly gullible.
I didn’t really trust my parents after that, which may or may not have happened without the big Santa letdown. After all, I was twelve. Every day I found new ways that my parents wronged me and new evidence to support my growing hypothesis that they were tyrannical imbeciles. (Over the past 20+ years, I discovered that they are merely, like the rest of us, human, which would likely have been just as big an affront to my 12-year-old self as what I actually believed.)
So, yes, while believing in Santa was magical and delightful until my faithful dog pulled the curtain aside and revealed that there was no magic at all, I didn’t and still don’t believe that the wedge it drove between me and my parents and the holiday itself was worth the temporary delight.
But I also recognize that most people don’t have such a personal grudge against the jolly bearded man in red. They have nothing but joyful memories of magical holidays and the satisfaction of gradually being let in on a grown-up truth at the proper time (usually before the age of 8 because about every other child in the United States is less gullible than I was). As a result, these people share the one-sided version of the Santa myth with their children. (I say one-sided because in general when someone shares a fiction, both they and the person they’re telling understand that it’s a fiction. With the Santa myth, only the parents know it’s a fiction. So, one-sided.) I don’t think this is bad. I think it just reflects a different perspective than mine.
These parents who “do” Santa place different weights on their values than I do. For me, whimsy is secondary to honesty and transparency. My kids and I play make-believe. We just all know it’s make-believe. Now, I know that I need to watch this because I have a tendency to let my kids in on more of the truth than they ought to know at their respective ages, but at the very least, I don’t feel comfortable introducing an intentional falsehood that they’ll eventually need to discover for what it is.
“Mommy, why do some parents lie to their kids about Santa Claus being real?” my daughter asked me as we were putting gifts under the tree the other day.
I don’t recall using the word “lie,” but it’s not really a surprise to me that my daughter interpreted the situation like this, given the way I’ve presented it.
“Well, honey,” I said, ” it’s not like it’s completely untrue. Around Christmas time, people like to think about how happy we feel to give presents and do nice things for each other. Kids like the story and their parents like seeing their children happy and surprised on Christmas morning.”
“I like the stories about the reindeer,” my daughter offered.
“Oh?” This is my stock answer when I’m not sure exactly where the conversation is going.
“I like Vixen the best because that’s what a female fox is called,” she continued. “What’s the largest number of kits a female fox can have in one litter?”
I don’t think that other people are doing their children a disservice by “doing” Santa. Nor do I think that I’m denying my children magic by being up-front about the fact that the story isn’t factual. My kids like getting presents, but they don’t ask for things for Christmas, and they don’t try to find out what they’re getting (although my daughter is really excited about being in on the secret of what her dad and brother are getting). I had a box of unwrapped presents sitting in the living room for weeks and they never sneaked a look. For them, at least for now, the magic doesn’t seem to be in the receiving but in all of the other exciting trappings of the season, like baking cookies and putting up the tree and driving around looking at Christmas lights and having Daddy home from work for his company’s annual shutdown.
My children know that the magic of giving is created by us for others and for us by those who love us. My children see magic in the movement of the clouds to reveal the sun. They hear the magic in a bird’s call and their own attempts to imitate it. They know the magic of confronting a challenge and, through hard work, surpassing it. They have plenty of magic in their lives. It feels unnecessary and maybe even a little dangerous to try to manufacture magic. What if I manufacture magic and deliver it right to them and they lose the knack of spotting the magic that exists everywhere already?
So, that’s why we don’t do Santa (or the Solstice Fairy or the Easter Bunny or any other mythical gift-giving creatures). And when my daughter reaches her teens and is pissed at me for denying her all of these things, I’ll deal with it then.
What myths and traditions do you have in your family? How do you inspire delight and whimsy in your children?
Other perspectives on the same issue:
- Yes, Catherine, there is a Santa Claus (pushingonarope.com)
- Why I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus (touchstonez.com)
- He Sees You When You’re Sleeping (imperfecthappiness.wordpress.com. This is my post about Santa from last year. There are two links within this post, one pro-Santa and one anti-Santa, both of which I take issue with because I’m contrary like that.)