This article appeared first in the Nov/Dec 2011 edition of Island Family Magazine.
Few figures stir up as much controversy in certain circles as Santa Claus. You may find it hard to imagine why this jolly old elf inspires any bad feelings at all, what with his merry dimples and rosy cheeks and his desire to give gifts to children the world over. But among parents of young children there are some who think that Father Christmas is not merely a magical part of a lovely winter holiday, or even a benign figment of our collective imaginations. No, for some he is actually a malevolent figure, evil incarnate, as if “Santa” is really a misspelling of another red-cloaked nefarious character, albeit one with horns and a spiked tail.
Granted, this last view is not all that common. Most parents I know that struggle with the idea of Santa have deeper, more personal reasons for not encouraging their children to believe in this overweight mythical gift-bringer. Some think that Père Noël represents the crass commercialization of what is supposed to be a holiday of peace and joy. Others are at a loss as to how to explain to their children why it seems like Santa skips big parts of the globe, mostly where the people are of a different religion or the kids are poor.
It is true that there are some hard questions to answer about Santa Claus, like why richer kids get better Santa gifts and how reindeer don’t disintegrate in mid-flight given the speed they must travel to reach every household on the same night. I think it is also true that Christmas has become far too commercialized. But none of these are reasons enough for me to abandon our family’s yearly ritual of Christmas Eve mystery.
There is, however, one truly intriguing reason that some parents reject jolly old Saint Nick. As one mom put it to me recently, “I don’t want to lie to my children.” Another parent agreed, saying that if we lie to our kids about Santa, when they come to the age where they reject a belief in Santa Claus as a childish phase, they will also think their parents lied to them about God, or even love—both untouchable and invisible in their own ways. If I lie to my child about one thing, how can they trust me about other things? Will they one day reject belief in God or hope in love as childhood fads, adolescent beliefs that no longer fit in a world of global disasters and broken relationships?
It is an intriguing question.
Our family is one of those who throw themselves full force into the magic of Santa’s highly anticipated visitation. Each year, after receiving my son’s hand-crafted letter, Santa Claus sends us a video email confirming that our Nicolas has in fact been a good boy all year round and may indeed get a present. We leave out snacks for Santa and his reindeer—usually vegetable sticks and low-fat milk in light of Saint Nick’s diet and exercise regime—and only a few crumbs are left on Christmas morning. We’ve heard the shuffling of feet on the roof, we’ve seen deer tracks in the snow, and we once even had to clean up Rudolf’s droppings on the second floor landing. One year Santa snagged his jacket on a stray nail in the living room, leaving behind a thimble-full of red material and a five-year-old satisfied that Mystery truly had visited our home during the night.
My wife and I have worked together to encourage our son’s enjoyment of the season’s magic, even if it meant pushing the evidentiary envelope a tiny bit. True, Santa has never really been careless enough to leave crumbs on a plate, and Rudolf’s bowel movement looked suspiciously like little piles of damp cat food on the breast of the new-fallen snow. So you can imagine how shocking it was for me to consider first the accusation that I was lying to my son—I preferred to think of myself as aiding and abetting, rather than outright lying—and second the idea that my wholesale deception would reduce the credibility of all the beliefs that we hold dear. Simply put, in encouraging a belief in mystery and imagination, am I really creating disbelief and distrust?
It is a question that I thought was worth exploring. So during the last Christmas season I began talking with pre-teens and older children about how they came not to believe that a jolly fat man in a red suit traveled the world on a toy-filled sled pulled by flying prairie animals. Some of them remembered being disappointed—even crushed—when they found their Santa toys in the attic or when their friends at school revealed the parental conspiracy. A significant number of them actually pretended to their parents that they still believed, not wanting to disappoint them or ruin things for their little brothers and sisters. But not one of them felt that their parents were untrustworthy because they “lied.” The thought hadn’t crossed their minds.
As I talked to these young people, I became more at ease with my role as parental myth-maker. The last thing in the world I wanted was for my kids to grow up with an attitude of distrust and disbelief. But as I pondered the results of my informal survey, I was still unsettled by something, a thought that flickered on the edge of my mind’s eye, just out of reach. For some reason I was unsatisfied by my conclusion.
The thought haunted me for days until it finally took full shape as I was watching my son decorate the Christmas tree. I had been worried all this time about lying to my kids, and what those lies would mean for their own faith and trust. But the whole argument, I realized was based on a single premise: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.
But I’m not entirely convinced there isn’t a Santa Claus.
It’s true, my wondering eye has never seen a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. I’ve never caught the old jelly-bellied man in his trick, smuggling elf-made presents into our house like a peddler opening his pack in the street. I have some doubt there is a single, solitary, bearded North Pole dweller who visits each house in a single evening, dealing coal to some and Hasbro toys to others. But I’m not certain the spirit of St. Nicholas has left this world entirely. He may not look exactly like a Coca Cola commercial, but I’m inclined to believe that there still is a Santa Claus.
Even if I’m wrong, though, I still think the childhood belief in the magic of Christmas is not just not a problem, but is an essentially good thing. We live in a world that focuses so much on the make-up of things—their touch, taste and smell—that I think we forget the real importance of these things. In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace meets the soul of a star named Ramandu. Knowing that stars don’t talk, Eustace assures the stranger that “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu responds by saying, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
I encourage my son to believe in Santa Claus because I believe the world is more than just the “is,” more than just the stuff we see. For lovers, love is more than neuro-chemical reactions, a mammalian drive similar to hunger or thirst. For believers, belief is more than a social convention or hopeful traditions. Humans are more than salt water and a few inexpensive carbon-based bits. There is meaning, I believe, in the mysterious make-up of our world. And children are uniquely suited to remind us of that meaning. For children, pretending isn’t lying. It’s just telling the truth in a different way. In this way, I think, Christmas is just like a story that’s mid-way through. That’s why we still feel the magic, even as adults.
So, with all due respect to those who would prefer that Santa hang up his cloak and put the reindeer out to pasture, I will continue to invite him into our home. For some, Santa is an aberration, a disruption of the real meaning of Christmas. But to me, someone who believes deeply in the babe laying in the manger, Santa helps cultivate the imagination that it takes to believe and trust in an adult world where believers and lovers are sometimes hard to find.