“So what are you doing about… Santa?“
Now that MaiTai is a bit older and aware of the holiday happenings around him, I’ve run into this question a handful of times.
In fact, I’ve run into this question more times than MaiTai has even asked about or mentioned Santa on his own.
It’s like some weird conspiracy. Before you can openly talk about — *lowers voice* — Santa, you have to double check with the adult guardians of nearby children if they ‘know’ or not and what they’re ‘doing’ about him. This applies equally to families who eschew the secretness of Santa as well as those who promote it.
We weren’t going to make a ‘thing’ about Santa, like ever… but since it appears many others view this personification of Christmas as an issue to be dealt with… I feel I need to release this perspective to those who are unclear but want to understand.
We’ve been doing a lot ‘about’ Santa. His name is recited in nearly every radio song from Thanksgiving until year’s end. His face is printed on all of our gift wrapping paper. His likeness is found blown up on our neighbors’ lawns and stuffed into sewn fabric as decorations in our favorite stores.
MaiTai asked once who “that man” is, but now he knows.
There was a moment when I could’ve said: “He is Santa, a magical man who brings gifts to all the good boys and girls while they sleep on Christmas Eve.”
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t draw up those words in my throat. It didn’t feel right. It was a fabrication, and it wasn’t even MY fabrication — just a repetition of someone else’s generations-old story.
I decided to answer more simply and hoped that would satisfy his mild curiosity.
“His name is Santa Claus,” I told him.
“He looks nice, ” I said, opening the door for further discussion if he wanted.
“Yeah,” he casually agreed before quickly moving on to a new topic as toddlers do.
So What DO You Say?
“But I mean, are you going to tell him he’s real or not?”
Well, the idea of Santa was influenced by a real person named Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop who was at one point very much alive. (Santa’s modern representation also takes after the British Father Christmas, the Dutch Sinterklaas, and the Germanic pagan god named Odin).
MaiTai prefers to call him ‘Father Crimmas’ and corrects me if I refer to him as the more colloquial ‘Santa.’
“I mean now. When are you going to tell him ‘about’ Santa — that he’s real now?”
What does it mean to be ‘real’?
Santa is like any character in a story. Somewhere between imaginary and also — given the amount of measurable energy we put into ensuring his embodiment of spirit especially during the holidays — actually quite real in a sense.
Let me explain.
Let’s take Minions. I don’t need to explain to MaiTai how Minions aren’t living beings. Or to lie that they are, for fear that he’d miss out on the magic of entering their imaginary world if he knows they aren’t.
Let’s take Elvis. How do I even know Elvis was real, like really know? I wasn’t alive when he supposedly was. Sure, a lot of people can attest to have known him in the flesh and I’m sure there’s a yellowing death certificate somewhere. But that wasn’t my experience.
Who can I count on to know what’s real? Who can my son count on to know what’s real?
If I hope for myself to be one of those people, it certainly won’t help by telling him Santa is alive, only to one day inevitably shatter this consciously-built, intentionally crafted illusion. He may then no longer have questions about Santa, but would new questions arise about me and my dependability?
I do know feelings are real. I can ask MaiTai how he feels about Santa, and his answer tells a truth. It tells his reality, and he’s the one who gets to tell it.
There can be so many emotions wrapped up in the holidays, traditions, nostalgia, childhood memories. To me there is something that seems so… uncomfortably commercial about the ‘selling’ of Santa. I don’t want MaiTai to end up feeling emotionally manipulated to believe this story that both well-meaning people and marketing sharks alike want him to buy into.
MaiTai’s own experience is his reality and I hope to find a way to honor it without imposing cultural obligations upon him.
I want MaiTai to enjoy his holiday as it occurs, and to feel at ease in confiding to me how he presently sees it through his own eyes and how it makes him feel in his own heart.
“How will you explain all that to a three year old though?”
It’s easy. If it comes up, we’ll tell him Santa is part of a story that people like to tell. This is vastly different from telling him the story of Santa as if it’s happening like current news coverage on channel 2.
I wonder how much trouble the Chinese have explaining to their children that the floating dragons paraded down their city streets for Lunar New Years are not, in fact, real dragons with beating hearts and functioning brains?
Midwinter is a special time for most Earth dwellers. We look forward to the winter solstice, the lengthening of days, putting the year behind us and venturing forth into a brand new one. Our peers observe this time in their own diverse and interesting ways, which I’ll touch upon later. I can say Santa is based in part on a real person, and real traditions that celebrate his character are one way we celebrate the season.
We’ve read some books that feature Santa and we read them like we would any Dr. Seuss book, for example. But we don’t then go out of our way to elaborate on the ‘real-time’ endeavors of Santa. And we won’t unless MaiTai invites us to partake in an extension of the story wherein Santa physically brings him gifts and lands reindeer on his roof, or however he prefers it to go.
We’ll leave the imagining up to him like we do with Dr. Seuss, for instance, rather than feed him what he’d then accept as ‘facts,’ ones with no wiggle room for personal interpretation.
“It sounds like you’re just overthinking the whole thing.”
Actually I didn’t have to think much at all about it, at least not until our adult acquaintances swooped in with the Spanish Inquisition to figure out why the heck we want to suck the joy out of Christmas.
Hoping for simplicity, we’ve tried to avoid ‘doing’ anything specific about Santa to begin with. But based on my interactions with other people especially since MaiTai entered toddlerhood, it seems they really want everyone else to have some kind of plan. Some battle strategy. An official position. Prepared answers.
Come on, people — why make things so complicated?!
The Power of Pretending
I think we greatly underestimate our children’s natural gift for pretending. We sometimes default to thinking they can’t learn this way, know this way, or believe this way if we don’t get our pre-programmed adult selves in there to overrun things.
MaiTai loves pretend play. He regularly asks if I want to play pretend cooking, or pretend guitar. We have a good time playing these games he himself requests, with our plastic eggs and air instruments. He doesn’t say he wants to actually eat the eggs for dinner, nor does he ask if our mimed guitars are what musicians use in concert. I don’t even think to mention these possibilities, the irrationality of which I’d just need to admit later.
MaiTai has seen Disney characters outlined in coloring books, on a media screen, sewn onto pajamas, stuffed into toys, and he’s even seen them 6 feet tall, walking around and manipulating the third dimension like the rest of us. Dressed in costume just like Santa at the mall.
Who knows, it could really be Mickey! Or Santa! Or just an awesome actor underneath who picked the best outfit of the day!
How much fun is it to simply wonder? To skate that line between reality and absurdity that children exist upon?
Kids don’t see things with adult eyes and don’t assess everything with adult brains. We need to remember that, embrace it, allow it, and not fear it so greatly.
Christmas Without Santa?! What a Grinch…
Well, at least this is what some people think when they hear we’re not telling MaiTai that Santa is bringing him (or anyone) gifts via the chimney.
I think parents are afraid Santa will be absent from their holiday when their kids stop believing (or if they never believed). This is unlikely to happen because Santa is everywhere. When we think about him, he exists in those contained notions. In various ways we see him, engage with him, have experiences with him like any character, whether or not we think he’s real.
In any case we’re never promised a closer relationship with him that that, certainly not one like the bond we have with family and friends. Even as children, many of us suspected something ‘missing’ from the Santa mystery after years of his characteristic elusiveness and intangibility beyond mall meet-and-greets.
Ask anyone who doesn’t formally celebrate Christmas, they will tell you: Santa ain’t going anywhere no matter how many times we blink or wish him away to give us a little peace and lighten the pressure of ever-rising holiday standards.
Frankly, we could probably all do with a bit less of the persuasive present-pusher, don’t you think?
(Let me just emphasize: I’m no Scrooge trying to sap the fun out of Christmas. Anyone who knows me well can inform how I wait ALL YEAR for this season of jingle bells, glittery decorations, and the familiar carols played in every store and restaurant. I mean, not only is my name Holly, but I also have one tattoo of a snowflake and one of a mistletoe. Trust me, I like Christmas just fine).
A Hyper-Focus On Santa
Too often many parents fall into the trap of generating the idea that Santa IS Christmas. As opposed to one of many special things to accompany, say, the decorated pine tree or lights strung up on the house –just accessories to the real heartbeat of Christmas: family.
When their children find out Santa never really visited on Christmas Eve, will they feel sad? Maybe they’ll grieve knowing they’ll miss out on future experiences with Santa, like ones from all those warm and fuzzy memories of Christmas past…
Or maybe they’ll grieve knowing something else had been taking place behind the scenes. A whole ‘legitimacy defense operation’ they weren’t involved in. Is it possible that some children might react with sadness instead because they feel excluded from what was already missed — the Christmas behind the veil, if you will?
Some children believe in Santa’s authenticity by their own volition. Maybe they believe in the existence of animals who speak perfect English like in animated movies, too. That’s cool. That’s being a kid. Experimenting with possibilities, dreaming without limits…
Maybe this is why adults place such importance upon Santa. They see their children’s devotion to him, their confidence in him, their innocent naivete as a guarantee that the youthful qualities of optimism and hope will survive.
On the other hand, many other children are trained into believing, so unremittingly that they usually forget to ask their own questions. And when they do question, reciprocal dialogue is shut down because the adults aren’t ready to give straight answers.
I don’t want my son to ever stop questioning, about everything — even my own words as he sees fit.
I can’t help but feel like this is yet another way we unintentionally test our children. Almost reflexively, parents’ own questions about their children surface:
Are they mature enough to know Santa can’t be real? Are they smart enough to figure it out on their own? Are they emotionally strong enough to not fall apart, to take it like a champ, when they discover the truth?
We don’t realize when we put our kids through these tests, we make subconscious conclusions about them. And they might very well internalize those same judgments.
I’ve begun to see this enactment of the Santa charade as a way to ensure we measure up as parents, too. We want to have the happiest kids, the kids who have the most fun. Many times we forget that kids can be happy and have fun WITH adults, and don’t need to be given ‘something to do’ or given ‘thoughts to have.’
Sometimes we don’t even consider that children can just partake in the same holiday that the rest of the family experiences, without hyper-focusing on the purposefully distracting centerpiece that is Santa.
“Here, go believe in Santa, busy yourself with that fantasy while we work on keeping that illusion alive for you, and while we talk to our adult friends about the tricks and schemes we used and all the close calls.”
We want our kids to have fun and we trust the Santa farce will provide it, but we fail to see the bigger picture, the one that shows fun born from an extended dishonesty.
Parents are really good at picking and choosing what’s important to explain, what deserves questioning, and micromanaging and nitpicking aspects of our family members’ lives. (Actually, this might be one of our greatest downfalls and also one of our best shots at substantial self-improvement).
There is such concern about what people’s children believe on the matter of Santa’s realness, but I find it interesting that no one has ever asked me how I plan to explain to MaiTai about what a menorah is. Or the science behind the winter solstice. Or what’s really in eggnog.
Good For Goodness’ Sake?
When I was a child, I was taught to not trust strangers. But this man I’d never really known and who made me kinda nervous every time I was sat upon his lap to whisper my gift wishes, was allowed to romp around in our house while we all slept? On some level I didn’t feel perfectly safe with this knowledge, but everyone assured me of the man’s jolly good trustworthiness. A stamp of approval granted on my behalf.
Santa was an exception to stranger danger and various other rules. No one explained why or how (magic? Divine purpose? VIP status?). In any case, my increasing excitement over the prospect of waking up to a mass of gifts always outweighed any buried gut feelings of being weirded out. Plus it was thrilling (albeit nerve-wracking) to get to talk to the Santa (er, my dad’s coworker?) on the phone. I loved Santa because who wouldn’t?
At age freshly-six when I was informed Santa ‘isn’t real,’ I wasn’t surprised. I was very gently asked how I felt about this news and whether I wanted to talk more about it.
Not surprising, but still the reality was numbing. I wasn’t sure how to feel other than like I’d been used for some imperative event that children must go through and then recover from on their own. It seemed like a necessary experience, to be tricked into believing something for my own good. (Oh hey, reality). To be prompted to start asking better questions. To learn how to lick my own wounds. To hide feelings of embarrassment when I’m out of the loop. (The Designated Dad clearly recalls feelings of fury upon finding out, but I won’t hijack his memory with attempt to elaborate).
In that moment, I wasn’t worried about missing out on the ‘magic’ of believing this lie or worried that my childhood innocence was ruined. I was worried it meant presents would no longer be part of our Christmas! That was what Santa represented to me: presents, not Christmas or holiday spirit or the love between gathered family.
And he also represented some fear — that children are categorized as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that maybe I wasn’t ‘good’ enough this year or that year. Just children, though — I did notice how adults weren’t being held to the same standard of nice vs. naughty all season in order to deserve their gifts. I don’t like what that says about being ‘good’ — it’s not really for goodness’ sake then, is it? It’s for sake of an inferiority complex.
Many kids don’t even get Christmas presents. Some families are struggling through the holiday. Grieving a loved one. Hiding in their homes because their nation is warring outside their front doors. How can we possibly make sense of the proscription of these kids as ‘bad’? Why do they deserve such neglects and challenges when all the ‘good’ kids are at the same time handsomely rewarded?
I do think those things would require more guts and forethought to explain to a child than whether Santa is as real as his daddy or as real as Mickey Mouse.
The Santa We Know…
Is the Santa we personally knew the same one we try to recreate for our own children?
You’ll find that not only do most people remember the exact moment they ‘found out’ about Santa, but also for many the recollection isn’t an especially delightful one. It usually comes too soon or too late, without sufficient honoring of its significance or with a heavy-handedness better suited to a rational grown-up.
Still, most adults treat their children’s discovery of ‘the truth’ like a youth’s rite of passage. I’m only basing this on anecdotes, but to me it is one with high potential for some degree of trauma or at least, can leave a bruise to the psyche.
The discovery in this moment, it whispers:
“I am Reality, and I am separate from your Dreams, your Hopes, and your Wishes. Now you are capable of rationalizing, old enough to handle living on my plane. You are now responsible enough to schedule visitations to your dream land, but I am Reality and I’m telling you, you can no longer live there.
I lied to you. The world deceived you. All for your own good though, so you’d have more fun. So you could fully experience Christmas, I had to take things a few steps farther. I had to take it to a place where there is ultimately a breaking point, the nature of which is decided by me.
Other kids at school will speak its truth for me and then you will know the value in crumpling your own imagination for the sake of following the crowd. Or I’ll give your parents the itchy feeling that this has gone too far, has dragged on too long, and you’ll know the difference between believing in something versus believing in people.
I did this so you could understand what it means to have faith, don’t you see? Don’t you believe me?“
The story of Santa usually ends in one of these ways: Peers tell a friend ‘the big secret’; a kid finds incriminating evidence unredeemable by worn-out excuses; the internet raises new questions; a parent breaks down in desperate admission if they’ve invested themselves in this longer than expected; a kid quietly outgrows the tall tale and never formally ‘quits’ Santa.
I have a feeling that growing up with Santa won’t be quite the same for near-future generations as it was for me when I was little, or for my parents when they were little. I raise MaiTai keeping in mind that he was born into a much different world than I, one that runs on and is connected in almost all ways to the all-knowing and all-telling internet. With the ease of information-sharing supplied by hyperconnectivity, I wonder how much longer until ‘believing Santa is real’ is reduced to a cultural trope for all ages?
White Lies For a White Christmas
“So, you must think I’m a bad parent for going along with the Santa thing then.”
I know this all probably reads like a whole lot of indirect judgment, but I still hope you’ll accept my words as personal explanation and nothing more.
When it comes to parenting styles, one’s expressed position is usually received as inherent condemnation of opposite sentiments. Parents make very few child-rearing decisions on the sole basis of popularity (I hope!), so I must emphasize I don’t think righteousness has anything to do with “what we’re doing about Santa.”
I’ve told MaiTai white lies before. I told him more than once that his favorite snack was “all gone” because I really wanted the last few bites for myself (rude, I know!). I told him the kiddie car ride at the mall was broken when I realized I had no quarters left, and he was too young to understand the necessity of coins to make the thing work.
But I found myself in the pit of this Santa thing and, from all the anxiety wrapped around it by new parents who seem confused and lost and stressed over it, I realized it must be something beyond a simple white lie. Maybe as benign, or maybe not — but definitely bigger.
I imagined myself telling MaiTai that Santa lives and breathes like us, that when MaiTai sleeps on Christmas Eve this strange man enters our home and leaves presents. The words rolling off my tongue with such ease, bold-faced lies practiced year after year, a deception that would be kept up and maintained even as the young, sponge-brained recipient of such contrivance naturally develops and matures beyond it.
The thought of this whole possibility made me feel a bit sick to my stomach. It just wasn’t going to work for our family.
So that’s my view as it works applied to our brood. I understand not everyone will agree — and they shouldn’t! Traditions should be personal, not followed blindly by social coercion or the prevailing approach by default.
Different Approaches To Seasonal Traditions
MaiTai won’t be the only child who is able to make his own conclusions about the incarnations of Santa. After all, not everyone celebrates the season by implementing the red-suited, bearded old man archetype.
Jews light a menorah for Hannukah, Christians attend mass in observance of the birth of Jesus, African Americans may commemorate the seven principles of African practice during Kwanzaa… Then we have the honoring of deity Saturn during the seasonal festival Saturnalia, marking of the winter solstice with Yuletide feasting, celebrating the Lunar New Year in late winter Chinese tradition… and so on!
This is a good opportunity to discuss respect for others’ customary philosophies.
We won’t tolerate making fun of others’ beliefs (whether that is a belief that Santa is ‘real’ or a loyalty to another conclusion altogether). We can teach respect for those beliefs, which means being careful not to rain on another’s parade with intent to ‘spoil’ their fantasy/belief (“But don’t you know — Santa is FAKE and you’re a FOOL!” Just… no).
So what can we say if we find ourselves in the presence of a child who believes Santa is real?
“Her parents told her the story of Santa and in their family they follow the story as tradition. So we shouldn’t interfere with that. I’m happy for their desire to do whatever makes them happy, so we can just follow their cues and comfortably enjoy their customs in harmony with our own.”
So I Guess This is What We’re Doing…
We’re acknowledging Santa. Enjoying the manifestations of Santa. Inviting Santa and reindeer and the winter solstice and polar bears and spiked cider to produce celebratory energy for us as we gather together in preparation for the new year.
We plan to learn about how others view Santa differently, what they call him, how he entered their culture as Odin or Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, and about our peers who connect with different seasonal symbols more readily.
We’re allowing openness of interpretation beyond that, and freedom to imagine, to pretend, to believe as one wishes and to personalize one’s own experience with Santa.
That could involve perceiving him only as the ultimate, classic logo of Christmas, or as a real entity you can hear rustling around the tree at night if you just listen hard enough, or something in between…