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The Santa Claus Conundrum

How much do your kids want to know?\nAnd when do they want to know it?

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I believed in Santa when I was a boy.

There, I said it.

This may not seem like an outrageous admission, but here in the Missoula valley, no assumption goes unchallenged. Neither do made-up stories about overweight white men who spy on us in our sleep in order to promote consumer-based materialism. We believe in Subaru station wagons, organic produce and a single-payer health-care system, but the rest is up for discussion.

Another way to look at the Santa myth, Missoula-style, is through an old computer-programming adage: “garbage in, garbage out.” More specifically, what effect does lying to our children about Santa have on them? And even more specifically, what effect do my lies to my children—twins, a boy and girl rapidly approaching their third birthday—have on them?

This was the question I set about to answer this Christmas season.

Actually, the question didn’t start with me. I was prepared, even eager, to pass on the tradition and get Ben and Peregrine excited about good ol’ Kris Kringle.

But all was not in accord in our house about Santa Claus.

I found that out one recent night after a lively dinner-table conversation in which I was busy constructing the Santa myth for the kids. On Christmas Eve, I explained, Santa lands the reindeer and the sleigh on the roof, then comes in the door. (We don’t have a fireplace.) He unpacks toys, stuffs stockings.

“Why does Santa come at night?” Peregrine asked.

“Because if he came during the day, everyone would want to talk to him,” I ad-libbed. “But he’s too busy. He has to deliver toys to all the children in the world. So he goes at night when no one’s around.” The answer didn’t seem to satisfy her (although Ben looked content), so as a distraction I added, “We should leave a plate of cookies.”

“Why?” Peregrine asked.

“As a snack for Santa,” I said.

“Why?” Peregrine asked.

“Because he has to travel all around the world,” I said. “He could use a snack. He needs the energy. We could make him some gingerbread cookies.”

“No,” said Peregrine.

“No?” I asked.

“We could eat them,” Peregrine said, and Ben kicked his legs in agreement.

My wife Kim was quiet during all this. Later—much, much later—after the kids were asleep, I found out why.

“Honey,” she said, “I don’t think we should lie to the children about Santa Claus.” She was especially concerned about the material fabrications I might create—faux evidence—that Santa actually comes into the house. The plate of crumbs where cookies had been on Christmas Eve, for example. Boot prints in the snow. A sleigh bell on the porch, that kind of thing.

It wasn’t that she felt Santa was harmful, it was the lying. After all, the children trust us implicitly. They believe what we tell them. She does not feel comfortable exploiting their naiveté for our (and, one presumes, their) amusement. What kind of precedent would that set? How would that color their ability to trust? She had recently talked to friends—Jen and Nicole—a couple with a new baby and vastly differing views on Santa (one pro, the other anti), and it made her realize that we had the option of busting the Santa myth, if we wanted.

Kim is a realist and a skeptic. What’s observable, tangible and rational is real, and the rest isn’t worth spending time on. As a child, she explained, she never bought into the Santa myth because it wasn’t “plausible,” as she said, “him coming down the chimney, the flying reindeer, the elves.” Her most vivid memory involving Santa as a child was when she told her younger sister that Santa did not indeed exist, but that they should pretend he did to keep their parents happy. For her, Santa was a trick adults played on themselves.

Busting the Santa myth hadn’t occurred to me before. While I like Santa, I’m ambivalent about Christmas. As a child the season seemed overcrowded and overwhelming. Tree buying, cleaning, present-buying, decorating, present-wrapping, school parties, baking, cooking, tree-decorating, present-opening, the party, the visits, more present-opening, the cleanup. (I prefer Thanksgiving. One day to hang out with friends and family, eat as much as you can and watch football. Period.) Santa bugs me a little, deciding who’s bad and good—why does he get to decide, anyway—but I love a good story, and Santa Claus is, if nothing else, a good story.

So while I understood Kim’s concern—hell, I almost agreed with her, and was somewhat mystified I had never considered the possibility before—I felt conflicted. Yes, technically, I was lying to the children…but I was loathe to forgo the pleasure of spinning a good yarn, one in which my friends and neighbors and fellow citizens all shared. Give up…Santa?

The more I thought about it, the less radical it seemed to tell Ben and Peregrine the truth. Would knowing Santa was fictitious really diminish their enjoyment of the story? They love Elmo, even after I told them he was just a puppet (even if Ben didn’t believe me), They love Winnie-the-Pooh, Madeline, Max the Wild Thing, Babar, even Thomas the Train—a talking train…with a face! Or “Finger-ly,” the name Ben gave to my strolling and dancing index and middle fingers, which love to walk across the table onto their arms, steal food off their plates, and create general havoc. Once, out for a walk with their mother, Ben mused, “I wonder what Finger-ly is doing right now.” (He was helping daddy vacuum the living room.)

And isn’t there enough to appreciate in the real world? Here in Missoula is Santa necessary when every morning the sun strolls up Mount Sentinel, as Peregrine observed one morning? Or when you can draw pictures in the frosty car windows on the way to preschool? Or make snails out of Play-doh? Or play flashlight tag at night with the lights turned out? The world is filled with magic. You just have to learn how to look for it. Does Santa help? Or hinder?

The next day was Missoula’s Parade of Lights, and we bundled Ben and Peregrine in their snow suits and waited on the edge of Higgins Avenue as it grew cold and dark to watch our annual winter parade. Trucks rumbled past, children sang on floats, two tiny ponies pranced by, and parade-goers handed out candy canes to the crowd. But most people weren’t really paying attention. They were craning their necks, looking down the street.

Finally the long-awaited vehicle came, an old-fashioned carriage pulled by a team of black horses, and the spectators waved frantically, some shouting “There he is!” A mother across the street lifted her toddler’s arm in salute. People surged off the sidewalk and into the street for a closer look.

At Santa.

Both Ben, perched on my shoulders, and Peregrine, on her mother’s, stared slack-jawed at Santa and Mrs. Claus. Neither waved or smiled or cried “Santa!” Maybe they didn’t recognize him, I thought, or maybe they weren’t as interested in Santa as I had assumed…or feared. But later that night when I asked each what was their favorite thing about the parade, both had answered without hesitation: “Santa.” It was then that I realized what I had earlier mistaken for disinterest or confusion was actually awe.

The Santa myth was taking root in my household. Was it too late to stop it? Did I want to stop it? I wasn’t sure.

So I called up Jen and Nicole, the mixed-Santa couple scrambling to define their own Christmas tradition now that they have a 3-month-old son. On the phone, amid gurgling and fussing from the boy, I got their takes.

Nicole and her siblings always knew Santa was a phony, while Jen’s family penned yearly letters to the North Pole, their requested gifts invariably appearing under the tree at Christmas time. But neither said they felt slighted at Christmas-time. Despite an absent St. Nick, Nicole hardly slept from excitement on Christmas Eve, and Jen still finds gifts under her family’s tree from the jolly old elf.

“I was the kindergartner that ruined everybody’s Christmas,” Nicole said. “I thought, ‘they’re so stupid. Santa is your dad, dummy.’” As a child, Nicole’s own mother had defended Santa to her naysaying classmates based on her parents’ testimony. When she finally discovered her parents had actually lied to her, she vowed never to lie to her own children, especially about Santa. Irate phone calls from the parents of Nicole’s friends were a small price to pay.

And I admit that I definitely sympathized with Nicole’s opinion that Christmas is too materialistic. In Nicole’s childhood home, Santa was considered a distraction from the true meaning of the holiday, the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth. Santa was about the stuff. While religion isn’t an issue for her anymore, Nicole remains suspicious of Christmas commercialism, with Santa at the center, handing out the goods.

Jen, on the other hand, was adamant that Santa’s gift-giving was selfless, and that’s what mattered. A gift from Santa carries no strings, unlike the sweater your great auntie knitted, or the five-dollar bill slipped into a card from your dad’s cousin. “A gift from Santa was always special,” said Jen. It was exactly what you wanted, and you didn’t worry your parents were spending too much money, and you enjoyed that gift because it was special, not because your parents were eyeing you as you played with your new toy.

Learning the truth about Santa didn’t bother Jen, either. In fact, she found out the clever way, sneaking downstairs in the middle of Christmas Eve, catching her folks, in flagrante, wrapping gifts in the paper only Santa used. She said it made her feel smart, like she had solved a complex puzzle her parents had spent years crafting. “No kidding,” her older brother said when she told him, and she was officially in on the secret still kept from her younger sisters. For Jen, unlocking the Santa secret was a rite of passage.

But the thing that got me most was the point Jen made about parents. “It’s the only time they’re allowed to creative and silly,” she said.

Bingo.

After that salient observation, it was time to call my unquestionably pro-Santa mother to find out how and why the Santa myth was maintained in my own house as a kid.

I can hear the disappointment in her voice when I say I’m considering telling the kids the truth about Santa Claus. “I firmly and utterly believed in Santa Claus,” she said. “It’s the story of Christmas.”

When she was a girl, my grandparents really did up the Santa thing. There were the cookies, of course, but also a leather strap with bells hanging over the door. In the middle of the night, my mom says, she would hear the tinkling of the bells from her bed when Santa came through the door. (No fireplace there, either.) My mom cared so much about Santa she actually thinks she saw him—clearly—from her bedroom window in his reindeer-pulled sleigh cutting an arc across the wintry night sky.

Unlike just about everyone I know and spoke to about Santa, my grandparents used the unquestionable righteousness of that self-appointed morality watchdog to cajole my mother and her brother into proper behavior. They once put coal in my mother’s stocking.

You can imagine that in a household like that, Santa cut quite a contrast to my grandparents. He was good. He was a role model, an ideal to aspire to, and when he was exposed as a fraud—my mom can’t remember how, exactly—she took it as an opportunity to apply that ideal to her own life, far beyond the Christmas season and into all the days of the calendar. “I’m an idealist,” she admits.

We know that it was really my mother’s hope and decency that she saw flying through the Maine sky. But Santa offered her a shared cultural icon on which to project those ideals. Santa allows my mom to think, even now, that everybody is filled with decency, because they all once believed in Santa Claus.

Which led me naturally to my next phone call, to a friend and researcher in the California university system. If Santa is a cultural icon, I wanted to find out what kind. I wanted an anthropologist’s perspective on holidays, gift-giving, and Santa.

Holidays, she said, are generally seen to fulfill certain societal functions. The most obvious is that they offer a “momentary reprieve from the ordinary.” But they’re also a means to “foster allegiance” among social groups. (The Fourth of July, for example, fosters allegiance to the country and its ideals.) The widespread practice of holidays also creates a sense of cultural unity. On Christmas morning, for example, our experience is influenced by the knowledge that families all across the country are celebrating the holiday at the same time, and in a near identical manner. We’re creating a group identity for ourselves.

This is where it gets interesting. What kind of identity are we creating with Christmas? My friend suggested that Christmas could be seen as a holiday cementing a group allegiance to Christianity—but only the most optimistically devout among us would claim that most celebrating Christmas have Jesus Christ foremost in their minds. Instead, the holiday has spawned considerable secular traditions revolving around gift-giving and—you got it—Santa Claus.

So what role does gift-giving play in societies? According to my anthropologist friend, gift-giving binds people together. Gifts create alliances and indebtedness. If I give a gift to you, you owe me. If not materialistically, at least a debt of gratitude.

But in households where the Santa myth predominates, there’s no visible provider of the gift. It’s “free.” The child “owes” no one.

An argument could be made that “free” gifts emphasize the selflessness of giving, the beneficence of an anonymous donor who gives, not with ulterior motive, but for the sheer joy of it. Or as my mother described Santa, “a generous, loving person, one who ideally brings children what they want.”

Another argument could be made that “free” gifts teach children to acquire and use material goods without the responsibility of any relationship to the labor that made or paid for the gift. The children learn that good things come obligation-free. In other words, Santa prepares children to become good American consumers. Which one did we want to teach our kids?

When I questioned people about the Santa myth, they often responded with disappointment and even guarded anger. I was attacking a sacred institution. There was a lot of sympathy for my children, who would be “robbed” of the “magic” of Santa Claus. But no one could describe why tricking your children into thinking Santa was real improved the story, except to say that it fostered imagination. This is, of course, a dubious claim. Thinking Santa is real helps children conjure imaginary worlds? No: burdening St. Nick with corporeal existence limits the possibilities of his story.

After talking anthropology, it was obvious I had stumbled upon a “sacred preserve for children,” as my friend called it. By considering banning Santa to the realm of the unreal, Kim and I weren’t just dealing with a simple issue of lying. We were challenging society.

But still, I hadn’t answered the question central to my inquiry: does lying to children about Santa harm them? Would “outing” Santa harm them?

One name that kept appearing in my search for an answer was Jean Piaget, the famed Swiss psychologist who’s pretty much responsible for the study of child behavioral psychology. His prime theory, the one that seemed to apply most to the Santa question, involved a child’s “stages of cognitive development.”

An oversimplified layman’s explanation of the theory goes something like this: Each stage of a child’s development represents her perception of reality at that moment, moving from simple to complex. At each stage, the child observes her environment using the particular perceptive powers in her arsenal at the moment. When enough “wrong” evidence accumulates—evidence that doesn’t fit in with her current model of perception—the child readjusts, or reorganizes, her cognitive perception, thus making the leap to the next stage of perception, and so on. Basically, a child builds, internally, an increasingly complex understanding of her world from the relatively simple building blocks of earlier models.

An argument in favor of perpetrating Santa using this interpretation of Piaget would go something like this: Kids will figure out Santa Claus on their own. Until they do, they may not be ready for the adult complexity of fact and fiction, “good” and “bad” lies, and moral relevancy.

For example, when Kim’s sister Tamar was a little girl, she asked her mother, “is Santa real?” Tamar’s mother answered, simply, “no,” figuring (with some relief) that this was the end of Santa.

Instead Tamar replied, “I thought so. It’s just some fat guy who comes down the chimney and gives children presents.”

She wasn’t ready for the truth, even when directly confronted by it.

And that seems fairly obvious with Ben and Peregrine as well. They don’t seem eager to distinguish real from unreal with the same discrimination as, say, Oprah Winfrey. Ben calls his stuffed animals, “Bear” and “Lion,” his “best friends.” Peregrine calls her big, stuffed bunny her “nighttime mommy,” because that’s who she kisses and hugs after the lights go out. When I put our monkey puppet on my hand, it transforms from a piece of cloth to “Daddy Monkey,” who likes to read books about monkeys and urges the children to perform monkey-like stunts for his amusement. Not only do they comply, but they treat Daddy Monkey differently than they treat me. They talk to him in different tone of voice and answer all his questions sincerely, despite hearing my voice doing his talking and watching my hand operate the toy.

At this age, I’m guessing, it would only confuse them to sit them down and say, “Santa Claus is pretend.” Why is daddy telling us this, they’d no doubt wonder. Why is this important? And suddenly the unaccustomed complexity of the situation would probably cause them to construct explanations they can understand, like Tamar did, and come up with an equally bizarre or unreal—at least to an adult mind—explanation.

Why push them? Santa believers and non-believers alike seemed to suffer no apparent harm from their interactions with the Santa myth, unless their parents had used their authority to delay the child’s natural questioning of Santa’s existence. Everything I had seen pointed me toward an inescapable conclusion: the whole Santa thing was about the parents, not the kids.

And that’s why Kim and I have decided to let them believe. We’ll let them believe in whatever they want, in the way they want, until they seek us out and ask for the truth. And then we’ll tell them.

In the meantime, before they dismantle it themselves, we still have to answer their questions and construct the Santa story for them.

On a recent trip out of town, parents in the front seats sipping lattes, the children strapped into their car seats in back, Ben interrupted his steady kicking of the back of my seat to ask if Santa Claus had a brother.

“That’s a good question,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Yes,” said Ben, “Santa has a brother. What’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s ‘Santa Kirby.’ Do you like that?”

“No!” Peregrine shouted from her car seat. “Santa Claus doesn’t have a brother!”

“What?” I said. “Does he have a sister? ‘Santina Claus’?”

“No!” said Peregrine. “Santa doesn’t have a sister! Just Mrs. Claus!”

“Santa has a giraffe,” said Ben.

And so it appears that Santa Claus is already growing on his own, far out of our control, and in a richer, more interesting way than I could ever imagine. To Ben and Peregrine it doesn’t matter whether he’s real. The question is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Santa lives with, or maybe without, his brother at the North Pole, and that alongside the reindeer there is, or is not, a giraffe.

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