We never talked much about Santa in my family. I don’t remember ever believing that a jolly man in a red coat delivered toys to children all around the world. To me, it was just a fun story — just like all the other stories I enjoyed so much as a kid.
My father wasn’t sure whether any of us believed in Santa Claus, but he figured it out one Christmas season as we were all walking through a department store one evening.
“Look, Daddy,” said my youngest sister, who was about 4 at the time. She was pointing to the department store Santa with children in line to visit him. “There’s an old man dressed up like Santa Claus.”
We enjoyed Christmas stories — about Santa and Frosty and the Grinch, among others — but we knew they were fantasies. I was never told at home that Santa was real or that he wasn’t real. I just knew it was a fun story.
So why do so many people get angry about the question of kids and Santa?
Most people I’ve known seem to go to great lengths to make their children believe Santa is real. If you suggest that maybe it’s a mistake to tell their children things which clearly aren’t true, they’ll angrily accuse you of wanting to spoil the magic of Christmas. (They never seem to ask themselves whether it’s their children’s fun or their own fun they’re trying to protect.)
Another group of people I’ve known have been aggressively anti-Santa — to the point that they seem to be wanting to kill the joy and fantasy of the story. If you suggest that maybe it’s a mistake to insist that their children see Santa through the eyes of an adult, they tell you to quit being frivolous or (even worse) pagan.
I’m thinking about this today because a friend on Facebook brought up the question of what to tell kids about Santa. It’s amazing to me how many different answers there were and how strongly some people feel about the subject.
It seems to me that there’s a reasonable middle ground instead.
First, I don’t ever want to tell my children something which isn’t true. Period. I don’t want to say, “Santa is going to bring you toys if you’re good,” or, “I saw Santa and he told me to tell you this.”
I don’t want to do that because the day is going to come when they will know the truth. At that moment, the obvious question for any child to ask — consciously or unconsciously — is, “What else have they lied to me about?”
I don’t want that. I want my children to know I’ve always told them the truth.
Second, I don’t want to rob my children of their joy of experiencing a fantasy. When I was a child, I lived much of my time in the worlds of my stories. Those people and their worlds were as real to me as my own home was. I didn’t need anyone to aggressively tear down my enjoyment of those worlds. I would have been devastated.
I want my children to experience the joy and magic of living in stories — of knowing fantasy — as much as they want to make it. If they want to believe Neverland exists or that Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are out there somewhere or that they can escape to the Secret Garden, that’s fine with me.
I think there’s a mature middle ground where parents can tell their children the truth but also allow for fantasy. If a child asks you whether Santa is real, there’s one obvious answer:
“Well, tell me what you think.”
A child will tell you what he’s ready to believe. If a child tells you that Santa is real and he saw him with his reindeer, let him enjoy his magic. Go along with his story, just as you would any other fantastical story he might tell.
If the child instead presses you for an answer, there’s another obvious response:
“Well, I’ve never seen Santa, but a lot of kids believe they have. What do you think?”
In this way, you can avoid lying but you can also avoid breaking the news if the child isn’t ready. And at some point, the child is going to say, “Mom, I don’t think there’s a real Santa Claus.” If you’ll ask why the child came to this conclusion, you’ll find out the rest of what you need to know — and you’ll know that he’s not fooled by “an old man dressed up like Santa Claus.”
I love the magic of Christmas and I loved it as a child. I think we can allow our children to experience the magic and fantasy of Christmas — but without doing it in a way that will threaten to undermine our credibility.
The day is coming when they’ll decide for themselves that the white-haired man in a red suit is nothing but a story for children. I think we ought to allow them to treat it as a great story for kids — of all ages — who enjoy believing some fantasy every now and then.