"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> urbanMamas

Of the Great Santa Myth, and Faith

There surely was a real St. Nicholas, of course (who would have given very few of our children the things on their Christmas lists -- his assistance of the needy, the sick and the suffering probably wouldn't have included a Nerf Vortex Nitron or the Disney Fairies gift set), but what we have today is all myth. It's the myth that sits our children on his lap, telling him their deepest desires; it is the myth to whom they write letters and make lists; it's the myth that appears in 1,000 permutations on TV shows and movies this time of year. It's the myth that signs his name on packages under trees and fills the stockings (then turns with a jerk...). it's the myth that gives a darn whether or not your kids are "naughty."

I've always been non-committal about the myth of Santa. My parents, despite the religious background that would seem to conflict with the whole idea of an imaginary present-giver, still signed presents under the tree "from Santa" and perpetuated the idea of a guy sliding down the chimney with a big red bag. I remember, one year, writing a letter to Santa and burning it; the idea, that the ashes would float up to Santa in some sort of readable manner, sure didn't make any more sense to me at five than they do at 38. But, I believe it, willing to take a leap of faith if it meant good things like lacy dresses and baby dolls. By my third or fourth lost tooth, however, I was all skeptic; I asked my parents not to sneak in and leave money under my pillow, no matter what! When they acquiesced and, indeed, I woke up to a tooth still in its place, I remember a little disappointment but mostly relief that the world's logic was preserved. I don't remember it being cold or harsh or sad; just helpful. Now I know.

 With my kids, I offer the story like I do Zeus or Achilles or Noah: a story that no one can be 100% sure of. That some people believe, and others don't. The boys are welcome to believe if they like. Most of those guys dressed up on the street certainly aren't the real Santa. Might this one be? Perhaps. If they want to believe it.

Everett, who at eight renounced God, the tooth fairy, Santa and the Easter bunny as myths all (to my disappointment; I still believe in God), is a staunch non-believer, and not quiet about it. This does not affect his brothers' beliefs at all. On Peacock Lane, the boys confronted a Santa Claus together, and Everett informed the others this was a fake Santa. A little while later, with Everett's attention elsewhere, Monroe encountered another Santa. This? The real Santa, he decided, with no one to tell him incontrovertibly that it was not. Even later, as Monroe had not seen Everett evaluate the man (so as to gather evidence for his reality or lack thereof), he remained convinced the second Santa was the real one.

Tomorrow on Think Out Loud, a conversation about Santa and whether or not we tell our kids "the truth" will take place, and the intro to the post and an email about it had me shaking my head.  "Spoiler alert: If you're a Santa believer, you might want to stop reading right now." Really? If you're a Santa believer, even the presence of doubt in others has you disbelieving? This doesn't work for anything else -- take any religion, ever. Even climate change deniers find a way to discount all scientific evidence that works against their theory. Can a radio show shake a kid's faith?

Not in my opinion, especially if a beloved big brother can't even change your mind. The Santa secret is safe, and here's the thing: it was always safe in the minds and hearts of the true believers. Even, if for just a few more years.


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i think that everett is a 'staunch nonbeliever' because he's a kid. it's hard at that young age to believe in something you can't see. we are religious and teach our sons about god all the time. and even though one of my sons says he doesn't really know if god exists, i don't take that as him being a nonbeliever-not yet. at any rate, i'm always baffled about why society continues to perpetuate a big lie about santa clause. i mean, objectively, it's absolutely silly. why not just tell kids that parents and friends buy gifts for each other? why is that so terrible? and even more insane are parents who get angry when a teacher tells their child the truth (the recent news story where parents were outraged that a teacher told students that santa was fake) about santa. and people teach their kids not to lie, but don't think twice about lying about some imaginary man who brings gifts. not to mention it actually has nothing to do with jesus anyway (for those who actually do christmas supposedly for jesus anyway).

I suggest a reading of Bruno Bettelheim's book "The Uses of Enchantment". Bettelheim was one of the greatest child psychologists of the 20th century and while the main thrust of the book is to explore the importance of fairy tales in the forming of children's psyche's much of what he writes explains why stories like Santa are not 'lies' but important tools for the developing child to understand the world and himself in terms suited to the child mind. I don't believe that maigical thinking in childhood is bad or wrong and I don't believe that providing scientifically correct answers in very early childhood is productive since to a child's mind these often make no sense.
As for teachers or others taking it upon themselves to 'educate' kids about the 'truth' I think they are completely in the wrong and it demonstrates that they have little sensitivity to the fact that individual children develop at different rates and while one child may be ready to forgo a more magical mindset, for countless reasons another may not and forcing a child into that space before they are ready can produce confusion, anxiety and sadness. At some point in development children's stories begin to lose their sway and a child will ask for a different interpretation of reality and because this is child led it demonstrates that they are ready to understand differently and enter a new stage of development and will often take pride in the fact they figured it out and are more grown up now. There is a loss of course, Santa doesn't fly around as a benevolent, gift bestowing adult (although he is not that in all cultures), there aren't fairies living in the garden and making the flowers pretty and the tooth fairy does't really collect your teeth but instead there are other explanations that are intellectually satisfying to the more developed mind and open the opportunity to begin seeing the world in a new way with a rich imagination intact.

I know I'm not the only adult out there who wasn't traumatized to realize Santa didn't exist. But it seems like every year, countless people reminisce about how horribly betrayed they felt when the truth came out, how they felt their parents lied to them, etc. Although my family doesn't do Santa with our own kids, I have very happy memories about the magical time when I believed in him as a child, how that magic pervaded this time of year for me. The realization that it was my parents all along was a gradual thing, not a cruel shock.

@kelly, i will respectfully agree to disagree with your ENTIRE comment.

We never told our kids about Santa, but they learned about Santa on their own. We adopted our kids when they were a bit older (roughly 2 and 4). I was ambivalent, but they came home from school one day so excited with the news. My kids had some pretty tough stuff happen in their early lives (losing your birth parents is traumatic, not matter what you feel about your adoptive parents), and so I was glad to indulge in something that was so fun and exciting for them.

Even my 9 year old still believes--I don't spend any time spinning stories about this; it's just that if he didn't believe, he would terrible about lying about it to me--even though he's asked me questions like, "Why didn't Santa bring my presents with my birth family?" That's a wretched question to answer. Thankfully, he came up with a solution on his own: "Oh, my birth parents didn't KNOW about Santa, so of course he couldn't bring us presents!" Poor kid. I was tempted to tell him the truth, but he still really wants to believe.

I think maybe my 9 year old still believes because he needs to. It helps him be a kid and enjoy being a kid a bit longer. He's had to deal with some pretty horrible stuff in his young life, and so I'm glad for him to have a chance to live in a lovely, magical, Santa-filled world.

I'm also glad that our neighbors who don't do Santa have instructed their kids to go along with kids who do believe. I think we only have another year of two of Santa, and, much to my surprise, I really enjoy it.

Kelly, thank you for that comment and recommendation! I see that in my own kids all the time; the preservation of magical thinking despite all reason and argument. I love it. And even now, I find that fairy tales and myths reside inside me; there is something of a belief in magic that never is quite extinguished. It buoys me, and it informs my writing. I don't know where, or even who, I would be without it.

And what is this worship of 'truth'? Even today, I often discover a 'truth' I've always believed is called into question. There is science, surely, but even in science we can only work with theory for many things. Generally-accepted theory is theory still. (at this point in the movie, Santa brings a gift to the one who doubts him most, changing her mind forever ;)

This discussion sometimes comes down to - Is it ok to lie if the lie is harmless and it makes people happy?
Whether a lie is harmless or not is not really a deciding point for me. I don't generally lie to my children even if it would be harmless and I'd prefer they don't lie to me even if these were harmless lies.
I agree that the thought of santa makes children happy. But I can say with certainty, as I was a child who always knew santa wasn't real, that I wasn't any less excited about Christmas than my believing friends.
That said, I don't have a strong need to make a statement about santa. I never will say he is real but I won't go out of my way to state he is not, unless my children ask.

Children do benefit from fairytales told to them as ... well, the fairytales. We don't have to insists on fairytales being true for children to benefit.
Also, it is a real skill to describe the world to a young child in words that they will understand and will not scare/overwhelm them. It is hard but possible. One doesn't have to resort to telling lies.

I for one will never give up the Santa magic. My parents never "told me the truth" but I eventually figured it out, never needed them to divulge one way or the other, and life went on. All of these characters, Santa, tooth fairy, etc., they just speak to some of the magic in the world for me and I don't feel the need to always have everything bump up against reality. For us, they are lovely traditions and one that I will never spoil by brutal honesty.

We are Jewish, and I was open with my daughter from very early on that her friends might believe in Santa, but it was something fun and imaginary and even though we don't believe in Santa and we don't celebrate Christmas, we still have our own wonderful customs, holidays and traditions. She proceded to tell me in the weeks that followed that she knew there was no Santa, but she still believed in Santa. She then went to pre-school and told her friends there was no Santa...she is now 6.5 and doesn't know what to believe and sometimes tests the waters with me by saying that she believes in Santa, but understands that he will not be coming to our house! I have let her know it is within her rights to believe what she wants, and continue to teach her about Judaism. Around the tooth fairy, I have talked to her about it, but never lied. When she asks if there really is one (she has not lost a tooth yet) I turn it back on her and ask what she thinks. I then tell her that I never saw a tooth fairy, but when I was a kid, I would put a tooth under the pillow and in the morning there would be money, so... She seems satisfied with that. I like that she can make up her own mind about what she thinks is real and not. She thinks fairies are real, and likes to read fairy books. She has told me that she and her friends are secret fairies. I don't think she really thinks she is a fairy!

I think it's pretty hard to come up for the perfect recipe for every child. They're all so different and unique. I think as a parent you need to instill the most important values you have; whatever they may be.

My son was terrified at the thought of someone coming in to our house while he was sleeping, so pretty much decided on his own (maybe just to make himself feel better) that Santa was not real. Now he's nine and likes to speculate on how anyone could live at the North Pole since it's so inhospitable. My six year old seems to believe though, which prompts some interesting conversations about beliefs. We have all agreed that we need to honor everyone's beliefs and that seems to satisfy them for now.

I volunteer at my child's school library. A couple of weeks ago, I got to witness the following exchange in a class of first graders who were working "independently."
Little boy. "Your parents are Santa."
Little girl. "Your parents are NOT Santa."
Little boy. "your parents ARE TOO Santa."
Little girl. "They are NOT."
This went on and on. They both looked truly miserable - the girl on the verge of tears.
I agree with part of what Kelly is saying. But a lot of kids don't experience this lightly or easily. Parents shouldn't think they'll be able to control when the letdown will occur or how gentle that will be.

As I have many times before, I agree completely with Kelly (in fact I found her entire post quite beautiful and sweet).

Every child is different and it's all a matter of what works for them. My daughter knew about Santa before we even discussed it with her: at about 18 months she saw a chocolate advent calendar at Trader Joe's and started jumping up and down, squealing, "Cwistmas, Cwistmas!!! Santa, Santa!!!"

So we went with it, hid gifts and put them out after she fell asleep Christmas Eve, etc. 5 years later, now 6 1/2, in first grade and wildly sophisticated--she calmly informed us, "Santa doesn't exist. He's a myth". She even made a visit to Santa that year) (being near Macy's with her Daddy in mid-December, and sat on his lap with the most hilariously imperious expression on her face.

I don't think she ever felt betrayed or hurt by our "deception". As an adult I hope she reflects on how devoted we were to giving her the best childhood we could (along, of course, with our nine billion mistakes).

@jin... I'm with you. I have disagree with kelly's entire post.

I was one of those of those kids who felt hurt, betrayed and had terrible trust issues after finding out that all the neat events in my childhood were phony. If they lied about santa, easter bunny and the tooth fairy .... wasn't their god hokey and made up, too? I became a raving atheist in a fundie household. It was painful. I left their home and their church at 18 and haven't looked back.

For our own children we created winter solstice traditions that have nothing to do with god, gifts or lying. Not only is it peaceful and healing to me personally... it is sort of magical. Each year my house is brimming with like- minded souls eating my soup and welcoming back the longer days as the sun returns.

I find it interesting that people insist that an easily understood personification of altruism, giving without expecting anything in return and a world without borders that children delight in is some terrible "lie".

I have two questions for those whom feel this way (since I've been asking everyone I know since this came up and absolutely no one feels this way)

1. Why do you think adults perpetuate this fiction for generations the world over if it is so damaging?
2. Do you think that lying is wrong in all instances?

One of my favorite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett has written much on the lies-we-tell-children and the lies we tell ourselves and this exchange from one of his books is spot on.

From Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather”:

Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They’re not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?

My children, now older, remember not that Santa turned out to not be a real person but what his character inspired them to believe and feel about the Christmas spirit. They understood it through the personification as small children but have now moved beyond that simple way of understanding to a larger view with the lessons of Papa Noel intact. Most parents do not flat out lie, and in fact when a child comes to you and demands to know if he is a living person you do not perpetuate the fiction but address their questions. I posit that it is from a place of hopeful idealism that most people participate in the fiction; not malicious deceit.

One last point. To the two posters who disagreed with my entire post...
How can you disagree that an adult, unrelated to a child and perhaps unaware of their inner psychology/life difficulties, is wrong to address this question? How can they be right to do so?

I agree with Kelly (both posts)--she said quite eloquently what I was thinking.

I also agree with Kelly. When children feel betrayed and lied to, I think it is often because they begin to question and ask for the truth, but are not given it or because parents make too big of a deal about Santa in the first place. Allowing children their fantasies without imposing our reality is a gift. But, when children start to question, parents should answer their questions truthfully.

As stated earlier, I agree with Kelly's first post and her second post is even more beautiful and sweet. Amazing, eloquent post.

I'll add, when younger, my daughter believed her dolls were alive. I found it adorable and even encouraged it. Her favorite books were stories about what dolls do when people aren't present. Eventually she (of course) figured it out. And was fine with that, too.

For children who were so angry at their parents over being "lied" to about Santa...is it that or were you actually angry at your parents about something else? Cause honestly, if that's all you've got, your childhood was a lot nicer than probably 90% of the world's.

Kelly, using Bruno Bettelheim as an example is probably not the best... This is the same man who ruined countless numbers of lives by claiming that autism was caused by "refrigerator mothers." After he committed suicide in 1990 it was also found that he had plagiarized, caused terror at the school he worked in, etc. In short, he was not only an idiot but his reputation after his death makes sense in terms of why he committed suicide.

However, we're big Santa people here! And my son doesn't believe this year for the first time and is a bit sad about it because he loves the idea of it and wants to make sure that his sister believes as long as possible as it's "such a good feeling." I think it's sad that adults apply adult ideas to what is a childhood fantasy for children. I certainly don't interrupt my child's make believe play and I'm not going to take away the magic of santa either. For those of you that were "hurt" when finding out the truth....maybe look into that as your own individual reaction and not one that is the norm. I can't imagine taking away childhood joy because of one thing that happened. I have hurts from childhood too and I'm just more thoughtful about those things, I don't remove them from possibilities for my kids. If you were hurt about Santa there's always the option of presenting it differently not doing away with it entirely.

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