Vol 10, Num 23 :: 2011.12.23 — 2012.01.05
There’s a fine line between fictions and lies.
Fictions are untruths that illuminate lessons that might otherwise, concealed by the jargon of philosophers, be relegated to the esoteric.
Lies, on the other hand, are untruths designed to confuse and deceive us. Lies distort reality, causing us believe falsehoods to be true facts.
What does this dichotomy have to do with Santa? A lot. There are many variations on the Santa myth out there, so let’s assume we’re talking about the one that involves that magical grandpa with a wide girth who navigates a flying sleigh propelled by reindeer, dispensing toys to good little girls and boys.
I think it’s safe to say that most humans over the age of, say, 11 are aware that this version of Santa is a myth — he never was and never will be. So when we share this myth with our little ones, and convince them to believe ardently in a jolly old elf, are we sharing an instructive, entertaining fiction with our children?
Or are we lying to them?
I pose these questions as a recovering Santa believer. I adored this cookie-eating gift giver when I was a child. That is, until at the age of 10, when I conducted a simple experiment: I wrote a secret letter to Santa asking him to give me a very specific gift, a gift no one in the world knew about but me. I don’t remember what the gift was — it doesn’t matter. All I remember was folding that little sheet of paper up and hiding it behind the couch in our living room. If Santa was real, if he really “sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake,” I figured he’d have the power to read a hidden note addressed to him.
I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning, when he would prove his existence to me. Finally the day came. I opened all my gifts. I got everything I wanted — except, of course, the one secret gift I’d asked for from Santa himself.
This was my moment of Santa disillusionment. We all have them — all of us, anyway, who grew up receiving presents with labels that said “FROM: Santa,” who studied the heavens on Christmas Eve for signs of a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, who checked on Christmas morning to see if the cookies placed on the mantel the night before were gone. All of us who were taught to believe in Santa experienced varying degrees of disappointment, of feeling lied to, when our hopes for the reality of that magical ice land up north were dashed.
At that point in a person’s young life, Christmas goes from being indescribably joyful to being slightly better than Halloween, depending on how good your gifts are.
When my husband and I first became parents, we decided to protect our children from this disillusionment. We chose not to tell our children that the gifts under the tree were from this mythical character. Any gifts they received were from us. We read their Christmas lists, we braved crowds at the store to shop, we picked out their gifts, we wrapped and labeled and put them under the tree.
In other words, we told them the truth.
It gets complicated, though. As Orthodox Christians, we can say with a certain sense of honesty that “Santa Claus” (as in “St. Nicholas”) is real. He lives not at the North Pole, but in heaven, with God. We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and remember the real St. Nicholas of Myra, church father and attendee of the famed Council of Nicaea, as one of the most beloved saints in church history. No, he doesn’t literally fill their stockings with goodies on December 6 — we do that, in remembrance of his silent gifting of gold to the sisters who would have been sold into slavery had they been short on dowry.
We told our children we believe in St. Nicholas, not “Santa.” We shared with them the corporate origins of the American Santa tradition and we let them make up their minds (okay, we indoctrinated them just a little).
Everything was going fine until our children started attending public schools.
That’s when the awkward question came up: “Why does my friend believe Santa is real?”
Or, this: “Julie said Santa was real today, so I told her Santa was dead and in heaven with God.”
Lord, have mercy.
We’re not militant anti-secularist exclusionists. Our kids are not homeschooled, safe to enjoy Santa-free Christmases within the confines of a community of people who share their views. On the contrary: almost all of their friends wholeheartedly believe in Santa.
When our elder children were younger we didn’t warn them to keep their views to themselves. As a result, we received at least a couple of phone calls from parents concerned that our children were going to blow the whole Santa thing for their kids. They weren’t necessarily angry calls: these parents are our friends, and they tried to politely warn us that our kids were being, um, a little too honest about Santa.
In turn, we encouraged our kids to be honest, but to avoid being the first among their friends to bring up the Santa question. If anyone asks, we told them, just say you do believe in Santa Claus (which literally means St. Nicholas) and leave it at that.
It’s awkward, asking young kids to be delicate and sensitive while at the same time encouraging them not to lie. I think it’s a useful lesson for them, but it’s not easy for any of us.
So is it wrong to tell kids about Santa? On the one hand, perhaps not. It’s a playful fiction, this act of gleefully maintaining the idea that there is such a thing as a mythical character who brings love and joy (and presents) to all. In our household, we believe traditions, myths, and legends are vital to understanding the mysteries of the world. Heck, I’m a children’s fiction writer. I make up stories for kids.
But when a myth is purported to be the truth — in other words, when it becomes a lie that inevitably falls apart just beyond each child’s age of reason — I question whether this is a tradition worth maintaining. After all, we don’t tell our kids that Harry Potter or Super Man or Cinderella are real. We enjoy these fictional characters as figments of our imagination. We do tell our kids, on the other hand, that Santa is a real being, a being we can visit at the mall and watch for on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what the myth of Santa teaches: what do we learn from this untruth?
As long as children believe the Santa myth, they learn that if you behave yourself, you’ll get lots of good material things, which is hardly a Christian ideal. Christ emphasized turning the other cheek and modeled the ultimate self-sacrifice through his death. He didn’t teach that good behavior begets tangible gifts (though some prosperity gospel believers might beg to differ). When the Santa myth is no longer believed, children learn that it’s okay to lie if it makes someone happy, detracting from the Christian conviction that “the truth shall set you free.”
Is the Santa myth a fiction or a lie? Ultimately, I say it’s a lie, and like all lies, it needs to be exposed to the light of Truth.