How do you preserve the magic of Christmas when your young ones find out that one of you is the jolly fella putting gifts under the tree?
Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The tree, the decorations, the presents! Santa Claus!
Only, what do you do when your kid doesn’t believe in Santa and all his little buddies still do? Or worse yet, when the other parents start to give you grief because your son spilled the beans and dashed their children’s magical, innocent faith in the big guy?
It’s becoming a holiday ritual for us.
We celebrate Christmas in our house—according to the most recent Pew Research Center report, around 90 percent of Americans do. Like a lot of people who aren’t particularly religious, we tend to treat it more as a cultural holiday than anything. Gathering in front of the TV to watch Rudolph is one of the most meaningful rituals we observe this time of year. Over the years, my husband and I have brought together cherished holiday traditions from each of our families of origin, and tried to launch a few of our own (not always successfully—I have yet to convince anyone to go a-caroling with me). And we talk about Santa Claus, often read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, and sometimes we even leave out cookies and milk.
But we don’t pretend he is real.
Both of my kids grew up knowing about Santa as a lovely story, a piece of make-believe. I never left behind cookie crumbs or sooty footprints as clues to his supposed presence in our house. I didn’t ever tell them that there was a list of “naughty or nice,” and that Santa would only bring toys if they were good. Basically, Santa Claus for my kids (and for me before them) was a beloved fictional character, like Winnie the Pooh or the Little Prince, a seasonal figure of great affection and happiness, a kind of break from real life—magical in its way, but not the kind of magic that could be ruined by the truth.
Oh, and in our house Santa—sorry, Megyn Kelly!—is African-American.
All of this seemed to be going fine. But now, living in the South* with an 8-year-old who is addicted to truth-telling, it has become a thing. I seriously doubt we’ll be invited back to one of the Christmas parties we went to last year, because M insisted on telling his friends that Santa—the very nice 70-something actor who was sitting right there in the living room, in costume and fake beard, was not really Santa, because Santa is not real.
Feelings were hurt.
Lately, I’ve learned I’m not alone. On one Facebook parenting group, a mother posted about receiving an email from a friend asking her to please tell her daughter not to reveal the truth about Santa to the friend’s daughter (both girls are 6). In the discussion that ensued, it emerged that there is a divide between those who soft-pedal Santa, as I do, and those who go hard-core. Parents wrote about how they grew up believing that Santa only brought toys to children who believe in him—one described getting more presents than her brother because, their mother said, he didn’t believe. While most said they wouldn’t manipulate their own kids to that extent, many reported a deep feeling of responsibility for their child’s belief in Santa. They described it in terms of magic, of innocence, even a kind of holy faith.
Our familiar red-coated Santa Claus is derived from many sources, including (but not limited to) St. Nicholas, but that’s not what these parents meant. They meant that Santa Claus—the jolly cultural icon seen in malls across the country—deserves as much respect as a religion. They argued that kids who don’t believe in Santa should respect those who do, just as they would respect the beliefs of a child who practiced a different religious faith.
This just didn’t ring true to me, so I asked someone who knows more about religion than I do.
“It’s not a religion,” says Noelle, an Episcopal priest and mother of two. A religion, she explains, is an all-encompassing belief system that guides how a person lives her life—not just a seasonal contrivance, however sweet and comforting the story is. Although Santa Claus is a lovely character, she said her family tends to focus more on St. Nicholas, and most of all on Jesus (“the reason for the season!” as another friend’s faithfully observant father used to always say).
(But what about the Jews, you ask? Let the brilliant Laurel Snyder explain.)
“In our house, Santa stuffs stockings with fun little treats but family members give presents because giving isn’t about magic, it is an expression of love between people,” Noelle adds. “I have no problem, religious or otherwise, with the big guy in the red suit, but both theologically, socially and practically, I don’t like the idea that presents just appear without connection to the giver or [as part of] some merit-based system.”
There’s another difference, it seems to me. Religion, as practiced in families, involves parents sharing their own beliefs, stories, and rituals with their children. No matter how many adults claim they “believe in” Santa Claus—and yeah, the Pew Study reports that “even among adults who say there are no children residing in their household, 21 percent will pretend that Santa visits their home this year”—there’s a point at which they know who is buying the presents, wrapping them, and putting them under the tree. If you’re an adult you can absolutely believe in the spirit of Christmas, the magic of the season, what have you—but you cannot tell me you literally believe in Santa Claus.
Others argue that the Santa story reflects children’s sense of fantasy, like having an imaginary friend. I am all for imaginary friends—I had them, my kids had them, they are a good thing. But they usually come from a kid’s imagination—not from an adult’s playbook. Parents aren’t in on the game, and if they are, they don’t normally spend a lot of energy trying to make sure nobody reveals the truth to their kids. The effort some parents put into keeping their kids unspoiled begins to make Santa feel less like a faith or a fantasy, and more like a conspiracy in which only parents are allowed to know the truth.
What the Santa fundamentalists don’t get, I think, is that kids don’t require him to be real in order to love him. They don’t need parental skullduggery to experience mystery. Children have their own definitions of “real” and “fake,” anyway—and while they will debate with their friends how they define Santa, those disputes will not scar them but teach them. (Parents who’re really freaked out about what other kids will tell theirs about Christmas are in for a rude awakening when the other grade-schoolers start teaching them about sex!)
So while I’ll continue to tell M not to gratuitously rain on anyone’s Santa Claus parade this year, he and I are both clear that the reason is simply this: that it’s important to be kind and not mean. I know that he may mess up, and so may I; we are both (all!) a work in progress. Even though I don’t hold any religious beliefs, I do believe in the power of human goodness, and in the magic and mystery of stories. Church or no church, these feel like the best lessons I can teach him—this season and all year long.
* I mention this only because after moving to Atlanta from Boston three years ago, I’ve noticed that what we lost in snow we’ve more than gained in inflatable snowmen, massive light displays, and multiple-tree houses. Southerners do Christmas 110 percent.
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