I don’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. What I do remember is that I continued pretending to believe for awhile afterward—this without any younger siblings to protect. Maybe I was motivated by greed, thinking that “Santa” was a better gift giver than my parents, I’m not sure.
Elisa, on the other hand, does remember when she stopped believing (because it was, she’ll admit, at an embarrassingly old age). Some kids at school found out that she still believed in Santa and teased her, resulting in an hour long cry.
I never really thought about what I would tell my kids about Santa until in college my friend JR (known to have, ahem, strong opinions) said if he ever had kids, he would tell them, “You’ll hear some other kids telling you about how Santa brought them presents for Christmas. But I’m going to tell you the truth because I love you and would never lie to you like those parents.” (Admittedly, I’ve heard him soften in recent years, pointing out that Santa is actually the least pagan aspect of American Christmas, since he’s based on a Christian saint vs. the “Thor tree” we decorate every year.)
After that, I decided I wouldn’t lie to my kids either. I’d tell them there was no Santa Claus.
One of my biggest concerns had less to do with “not loving my kids enough” and more to do with the parallels between belief in Santa Claus and belief in God. If we tell our kids that Santa Claus is real, he gives good gifts, and, “hey, look over there at the mall! You can even see him!” and then later say, he’s not real, how should we expect them to believe in a God who they can’t even see? (My atheist friends might point out that it’s exactly the same, but I obviously disagree.)
Additionally, there was an aspect of the Santa Claus story that always struck me the wrong way, especially as it related to God: the omnipresent watcher who rewards the “nice” and punishes the “naughty.” One problem is that the rich kids must always be nicer than the poor ones because they sure seem to get a lot more presents. Obviously, that’s not what I wanted my kids to believe about Santa, and it’s definitely not what I want them to believe about God. A central belief in Christian thought is that we’re all “naughty” but that God loves us enough anyway to give us good gifts—not easy to square with the coal-in-the-stocking theology.
You may think that I’m definitely not teaching Oliver and Margot about Santa. I’m not so sure.
For one thing, I think wonder, awe, and imagination are wonderful parts of childhood that are too often swallowed up by iPads and cynical adults. If Santa Claus can create an air of the magical, that’s worth something. I’m reminded of Colin Farrell’s character in Saving Mr. Banks, who, while faaaar from a perfect father, created a sense of wonder for his daughters through his fanciful imagination. Many psychologists point out that this sort of imaginative belief in Santa is actually evidence of a healthy childhood.
We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to do. After all, Oliver is only 15 months old and often prefers the box to the toy inside—and couldn’t care less whether that box came from Santa Claus, his mamma and dad, or a Wookie. But one thing we’re considering is treating Santa much the way that we might treat Elmo or Spider-Man, as fun characters who we love to talk about and “play” with, but who we don’t necessarily ever say are real. And when our kids later ask us whether Santa is real or not, we can always do the classic parent cop out under the guise of teaching critical thinking skills and ask, “What do you think?”
What about you? What do you teach or plan to teach your kids about Santa? Are there some parts of the Santa story that bother you?
P.S. Here are a few short opinion pieces from the New York Times on how to approaching Santa Claus with your kids .