Occasionally my beareded husband Daniel drops in with a post. But they don’t typically highlight how intensely
awesome nerdy he is, so you’re in luck with this one! Enjoy. – Haley
This isn’t a post about whether you should do Santa or not (disclaimer: we don’t). I want to get that out of the way since this has curiously become a very heated discussion. Instead, I want to critique an element of the modern Santa tradition that I find problematic.
Parents who tell their children about Santa usually find it necessary to ensure the child literally believes the myth. These parents will often go to great lengths to ensure the child’s continued belief (again, I’m not criticizing this practice). They do this, they say, because the “magic” of Santa depends on the child believing in him. I’ve often heard parents lament the loss of the magic once the child learns the Santa story is, in fact, a fantasy.
The lost magic of Santa has become a well-accepted part of the fantasy and is now even a groan-worthy cliche in holiday films. The plot of such a movie usually hinges on an incredulous child or jaded adult finally returning to their belief in the good Mr. Claus, somehow saving Christmas in the process. This all relies on the understanding that Santa is for children. They are supposed to truly believe in Santa and all his accoutrements because only in doing so can they enjoy this fantasy. Once they learn the jolly man is actually a myth, the fantasy is no longer enjoyable. Many parents will describe the revelation as “ruining” Santa or even Christmas for their children.
In this necessity of belief, Santa stands alone among fantasies. The enjoyment of other magical creatures – unicorns, dragons, elves – is not dependent on our belief in them. Our four-year-old loves the world of Tolkien and is extremely interested in trolls and dragons even though he knows that it isn’t “real” in a scientific sense. He will pore over bestiaries of mythical creatures, draw armies of orcs, and pretend to fight the Goblin King even though we have gone to no effort to convince him the fantasy is actually real. For him, the magic of this fantasy is very much alive.
At this point, I want to confess that the magic of Tolkien is still very much alive for me even though I didn’t grow up with the books. In fact, for me, the magic of other fantasy worlds is still alive as well. Star Wars has probably been with me the longest. I have a vivid memory of the video rental store where my dad first picked up a VHS tape of A New Hope. I can still remember the first time I saw the dunes of Tatooine on our small screen. I grew up with the movies, joined the fan club, and read deeply into the expanded universe. I never believed Darth Vader’s galaxy was literally real. I never made plans to ask Yoda for force tips. But that didn’t lessen the enjoyment for me. This distant galaxy was still very real and magical to me. And it still is. Sharing the original films has been a highlight of fatherhood for me.
The enjoyment of fantasy has never been more pronounced for me than when new Harry Potter books and movies were still coming out. The excitement, happiness, and joy Haley and I experienced waiting for the midnight movie premiers and book releases was, I wager, stronger than anything experienced by a child on Christmas Eve.
The fantasy series I’ve referenced so far are relatively modern. But the pattern I’ve described is truly timeless; the pattern of a story enjoyed from childhood through adolescence, young adulthood, and parenthood without a disruption of disappointment due to collapse of belief. This has been a feature of vast numbers of ballads, sagas, and folklore both written and oral, formal and informal.
None of this is meant as an argument against telling your children about Santa. Instead, it is a call to appreciate a deeper, more compelling magic which endures past childhood; the magic of stories that takes root in childhood and continues to grow with us. A magic that isn’t lost at adolescence but only deepens. A magic which doesn’t die when its secret is revealed but still produces wonder and awe in the oldest of us.