Santa Claus is Coming to Town… Or is He?

Santa wants to know what Ralphie wants for ChristmasI 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.

Virginia, There is No Santa ClausOne 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.

Oliver's first Christmas

Oliver’s first Christmas (2013)

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 .

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8 comments

  1. valentina · December 8, 2014

    I consider Santa as a fabulous fairy tale and my sweet Nora loves him….I didn’t have so many doubts or question about telling her or not. I just did. And you know why? I have an older sister and my parents were very sad when she discovered that Santa wasn’t real and cried desperately…and they decided I should not believe in him. Well, I think that in that way they stole a piece of my fantasy, of my fairy tale world.
    I rather see my daughter happy now. For the future, we will wait and see, and face the problem when it comes.
    Kisses!!!
    ps- I hope my english is understandable enough……….

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    • Scott · December 8, 2014

      Valentina, it was perfect English. Brava! I think parenting is often a reaction against the things we didn’t like about how our parents parented us, so it makes a lot of sense that you would want to teach your daughter about Santa since you didn’t get the opportunity. Now that she is older, what does your sister think about growing up believing in Santa?

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  2. Clover Harris · December 8, 2014

    I like what you said, “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.” There is something special about children and Christmas! For us as parents, we never told our kids that Santa was real and we made sure we always emphasized about the birth of Jesus throughout the season. We still put cookies and milk out for Santa and did all the Santa things, but treated it as just a fun thing you do at Christmas. We never talked about whether you will get toys or not if you are bad or good (that is just too manipulative and makes it about the gifts in my opinion). It was just a fun time to create imagination like telling a great story before bed, only with more props you could say. But, we made sure they knew the real story and talked about the gift giving as part of that (wisemen bring gifts to baby Jesus, and Jesus being a gift to us). I don’t think our kids ever felt lied to, and they eventually figured it out and it wasn’t a traumatic thing. I think it’s good to not over emphasize, but also not be too rigid. Let your kids enjoy the wonder and imagination but also know the truth of Jesus. Kids are smart and just being open and real is always best.

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    • Scott · December 8, 2014

      Thanks, Clover! What did you tell your kids when you would put out the milk and cookies? That it was for Santa or that you were pretending it was for Santa?

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  3. Tiffany · December 8, 2014

    You already know what we do — but I must say that although the kids know Santa is not real, and that he doesn’t bring them presents on Christmas Day- they LOVE pretending that he is, just like you said. When we went on the Polar Express they were awestruck and got really nervous around him because they thought he was so fabulous and real and whatever else. The great thing about kids is that they can know something isn’t real but have a ton of fun pretending that he is (pirates! witches! ninjas! superheroes! monsters under the bed! you will spend your life telling kids things aren’t real and they won’t believe you at all- ha!).

    I think the most important things are to keep Jesus’ birth as the main celebration and not make Christmas to be a super consumeristic experience, and however else you chose to do everything else is great!

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    • Scott · December 8, 2014

      That is the ideal that we’re hoping for. Have you run into any issues with your older ones accidentally ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ to other kids?

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      • Jake · December 9, 2014

        The cat is never in the bag. In our house, Santa is never seriously talked about as real. We only ask that they don’t tell kids in other families. Santa doesn’t bring them gifts. We actually wait until New Years Day to give gifts, though they get gifts from relatives at various times during winter break. On Christmas morning we set up a manger and sing, pray, and eat cinnamon rolls, like the mornings we celebrate our birthdays.
        But we are happy to read books with Santa, etc. Even though the context normally says Christmas, we try to reframe all the songs, festivities, etc that aren’t about Jesus’ birth into what we call the “Winter Holiday.” I guess time will tell whether our kids think they missed anything by not believing in Santa in the same way as some kids. Though, as Tiff said, they are plenty happy to pretend.

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      • Scott · December 10, 2014

        I love how you have been able to separate the gift getting from the celebrating Jesus’ birth part of Christmas. I think we always hope the things we do won’t land our kids in therapy when they’re older, whether that’s not telling them about Santa or telling them about him. We’re increasingly leaning towards the ‘Santa is a fun fantasy’ idea, but we’ll see how our kids’ personalities develop.

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