Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Santa Myth


I've been thinking a lot about Santa lately. 

Working with ESL students from places like Burma and Bhutan means that many of our students have not experienced Christmas like we celebrate it here in the U.S.--and many of them have not celebrated it (or even known anything about it) at all.  Adults and children alike are fascinated by the story.  Imagine trying to explain Christmas to someone (with limited English) who has never heard of it before: 

"A special baby was born in a barn 2000 years ago, so now there's a fat old man in a red suit who flies all over the world in a car pulled by reindeer, one of whom has a red nose, and he lands on rooftops and goes down the chimney at night and gives presents to good kids, and we write letters to him and give him cookies and milk, but he's actually not real--but that's a secret, so don't tell your children.  Oh, and there are little people that help Santa, and he lives at the North Pole, which is near Canada."  

And yes, we have been focusing mostly on the secular side of Christmas.  Not because we don't like Jesus, but because it's confusing enough without the religious side of it . . . "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" is about as deep as we get into that aspect (and even that really only works with the Christian refugees anyway). 

So, I started thinking about my own relationship with the Santa Myth.  I, like many, was introduced to Santa at a young age.  There were certain things I never bought: I knew the Santa at the mall was not the real Santa (who was, of course, too busy making toys at the North Pole to go to malls--plus, it didn't make any sense that he could be at so many malls at the same time).  I knew it wasn't logical for Santa to be able to travel all around the world in one night, but I had to factor in the different time zones, plus a good bit of magic (and he could skip the houses of the bad kids, and the ones who didn't celebrate Christmas), so that didn't pose too much of a problem, either.  

One Christmas, we were vacationing in Florida, and I was very concerned that Santa wouldn't be able to find us.  My parents calmly reassured me that he'd know where to find me--he followed these things very closely.  I was similarly concerned that we didn't have a chimney, but I supposed that he could also come in through a window, or maybe the back door.  We put out the cookies and milk, and when we woke up, they were gone, our stockings were stuffed, and there were new presents under the tree.  I listened for the jingle bells, but never heard them.  I looked out the window as I drifted off to sleep, but I never saw the glow of a red nose.  

I realized the truth when I noticed that the wrapping paper, gift tags, and handwriting that Santa used were all the same as my mother's.  My suspicions might have been fueled by other kids at school, or perhaps my (mean) older brother, but in any case, I eventually put all the pieces together. I don't remember feelings of betrayal; I don't even think that I cried. In my memory, I let that part of my childhood drift away, silently, and without protest. 

I posed the question on Facebook to find out how some of my friends were brought into The Truth About Santa. There were some common themes: parental missteps, other kids at school, Some had parents who outright told them (or, in one case, a teacher).  Andy, for example, was told The Truth, and we recently found out that his mother has been carrying guilt around for 20 years.  She called to apologize a few weeks back, an hour after a conversation about Santa.  

Now, I'm not a parent myself, but I find the whole Santa Myth to be a point of ethical confusion.  Which is the greater crime, lying to your children, or robbing them of a childhood experience and rite of passage?  (I suppose the answer to that is obvious to anyone who never believed in Santa, and much less so to anyone who ever did.) And if you choose to indulge in the fantasy, at what point do you pull the plug? Is it more damaging to dash your child's hopes, or to wait until someone in their (middle?) school does? 

The truth of the matter is that Christmas is more fun when that hope of something magical exists.  And while The Santa Myth does not make any sense at all, I'm sure we'll be passing it to our children.  And as they grow older, I'm sure we'll be fighting to keep the hope alive in their little eyes . . . 

P.S. It will be harder and harder to conceal The Truth. Thanks again, Internet.   


  1. For years I believed that I would not outright lie to my children; I wouldn't dash their beliefs in Santa, but if they asked if he was real I would tell them the truth. Now I'm not so sure. I do have mixed feelings about how long it should go on. I think most kids figure it out on their own, but for those that are so believing, when do you cut the cord? I remember being the one to tell my 11-year old best friend that Santa wasn't real, and she didn't want to believe me. A few days later my mom got a call from my friend's mom who was very angry that I had ruined Santa Claus for my friend.

  2. I don't think there is anythign wrong with Santa as long as you don't lie to kids when they ask about him (and keep pretending to believe for the sake of other kids like friends and siblings). As long as Jesus is the focus, I don't think Santa matters much.

  3. Avery will be 3 in a few days and she already knows why we celebrate the season. She knows it's Jesus birthday and that we celebrate his birth, however, being protective of her upbringing with other peoples children. We also taught her about the "Spirit of Santa Claus" and read stories from all the countries and their versions of Saint Nick. None of her gifts say "From Santa" and she has yet to sit on a jolly man in a red suits lap.

  4. "And while The Santa Myth does not make any sense at all, I'm sure we'll be passing it to our children."

    Umm, who agreed to that? I thought we were going to teach them about the Yule Cat instead?