Last week a friend confided to me that she wasn’t comfortable telling her young child that Santa was bringing presents on Christmas Eve. She recalled the confusion, outrage, and betrayal she felt as a child when she overheard the truth about Santa. Not wanting to repeat that experience for her child, she explained to friends and family that they would be skipping Santa. Her concerns were dismissed and she was accused of taking the magic out of childhood.
I think parents on both sides of the issue often feel attacked. If you don’t do Santa, you’re stealing precious memories from your child. If you do Santa, you’re lying to your kids. Either way someone is criticizing you. I’m not interested in criticizing anybody’s family traditions. But for those parents who don’t want to do the Santa thing, I hear you. And this is why I think your concerns are reasonable.
The other night I was desperately trying to understand why my son was so upset. It began as a pleasant bedtime conversation, but had turned into an attempt to console my sobbing five-year-old. I had been telling him a story about my grandfather and suddenly he had burst into tears.
“What’s the matter, buddy?”
“It’s not fair!” he managed to say through his sobs.
“What’s not fair?”
“That you got to meet your grandfather and I didn’t! It’s not fair that he died before I was born.”
“Well, sweetie, death is not the end. You know that. There is life in Heaven with Jesus.”
But he wasn’t comforted. In fact, he seemed more upset.
“Buddy….what is it?”
“I—I—I just don’t know if it’s true.”
“Yeah. I just–it’s so hard to believe that…I don’t think I can. I think–I think after we die–that’s just it. That’s just the end. There’s nothing after that.” It was clearly difficult for him to voice his fears out loud, but I could tell it made him feel better to confide what had been weighing on his little heart for who knows how long.
“And that makes you feel scared?”
He nodded his head and held on tight to me.
“Sweetie, we can know that Heaven is real because Jesus told us about it. He told us that he is there, preparing a place for us in Heaven. That He wants us to join him there. Forever.”
“But….what if it’s all a trick?”
“What if what’s all a trick?”
“The whole thing–Jesus–God–Heaven. All of it.”
I set him in my lap with my arms around him and Daniel and I talked about why we believe the Scriptures. How Jesus was a historical figure, not just a story. And we told him we were so glad that he asks questions. That he can ask us ANYTHING. To ask questions and think and even doubt…this is a good thing. We must question in order to know why we believe what we believe.
He started to breathe easier.
“You can always ask us questions, buddy. I will never tell you something that isn’t true. Mama and Daddy will always tell you the truth.”
He nestled his head in my shoulder and we talked about Heaven. About how it’s better than anything we could imagine. We talked about whether there might be unlimited LEGO sets in Heaven and whether he could have lunch there with his favorite saint Bl. Miguel Pro. That we really can’t even imagine what it will be like, but that we know it’s even better than unlimited LEGO sets. And eventually he fell asleep with a smile on his face.
But I needed a cup of tea. And after all the kids were asleep, Daniel and I talked about how we weren’t quite expecting those sorts of questions from our five-year-old. A ten-year-old, sure. But five?! But then again, this child has been surprising us since the day he was born.
And I thought about what I had said to him, “Mama and Daddy will always tell you the truth.” I meant that. We are always truthful with him. Always. Sometimes we tell him that he’ll need to wait a couple of years before he’s ready for the answers to certain questions. But we give him age appropriate answers about everything from sex to current events. And, controversially, we don’t “do” Santa.
Now there’s many ways to do Santa. Some parents choose the “neither confirm nor deny” approach–allowing their kids to believe what they will and participating to varying degrees. Others go to great lengths to convince their children that Santa visits theirs home every Christmas Eve–even when the child asks point blank about the plausibility of the tale.
We take the St. Nick approach. On December 6th we honor St. Nicholas–the historical Santa Claus. We read books about him, we go to Mass to celebrate his feast day, and our kids wake up to presents under the Christmas Tree followed by a big, special breakfast. They love it and we love telling them about the generous bishop who was so devoted to the truth that he was once kicked out of a Church council because he punched a heretic in the face. (It’s ok–he did apologize for his outburst.)
But although our kids have seen Christmas movies featuring Santa (Elf is a favorite around here) and pictures of him are everywhere in November and December–the modern Santa Claus has never been part of our family culture. St. Nicholas has always seemed like the holiday heavy hitter (pun intended) and we’ve never seen the need of adding another character to the Nativity. But our primary concern is the danger of losing credibility with our children by trying to reinforce as truth a tale they will later learn to be fantasy.
Although Santa was discussed playfully in my husband’s family, he was not a central figure of Christmas. I didn’t grow up with Santa at all, so trying to emphasize Santa in our family traditions feels forced to us.
My own mother had a crisis of faith as a young girl when she discovered the truth about Santa. Were stories about Jesus just as mythical? Could she trust her parents? While this kind of situation is often laughed off by proponents of the Santa myth, I take it seriously after hearing her experience and that of many friends who were devastated when they discovered their belief in Santa was unfounded. And after observing my five-year-old’s recent existential crisis, I think that for certain kids the danger of losing trust is very real.
Kids are different. No child is the same. This really comes to life whenever a second child is born into a family. Same parents–same parenting method, but night and day different. Our second-born Lucy has never been as emotionally intense and analytical as our oldest. I can imagine her enjoying Santa Claus as a little girl and slowly growing out of it gracefully. If you want to do Santa and believe your children will have no problem differentiating when they can believe the veracity of their parents’ words, perhaps your children are more of her temperament. You know them best. I have many friends who do Santa. They are awesome parents and they are intentional and thoughtful about how they handle Santa with their children.
But I know that if I try to convince my analytical, skeptical son that Santa Claus comes to our house once a year in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and that he can trust me when I tell him miraculous and mysterious truths about Christianity–we will have a crisis on our hands when he discovers the man in the red suit is mythical. You see, I need all the credibility I can get to explain that the God that created the universe was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a human girl–a virgin, no less, and born in a stable growing up to perform miracles like turning water into wine and was executed only to be resurrected. And that not only did these amazing things happen in the past, but every time we go to Mass, Jesus comes again to be close to us (us!) in the Blessed Sacrament and that the bread and wine we see is not merely bread and wine it is truly the Body and Blood of Our Savior.
If you think that’s not confusing for your child, I believe you. I defer to you as their parent because you know your child best. But please don’t tell me that it will not be confusing for MY child, because I know my child best.
Will my children who love to hear stories about goblins and hobbits and magical beasts even though they know they don’t technically exist in our world, have the magic of childhood stolen from them if they don’t believe that Santa brings presents? Knowing that balrogs don’t exist outside of Middle Earth doesn’t stop my five-year-old from drawing pictures of them all day long and researching all the details of their whips of fire in his Tolkien bestiaries. Telling him the truth about Santa has not dulled his sweet excitement and love of Christmas.
Teaching kids to believe in Santa will probably have no negative consequences whatsoever. They may look back on it with fond memories, not confusion, and lovingly pass the tradition on to their own children. It’s certainly that way for many families and having seen it go well for others, it’s a choice I respect. But Santa isn’t something every family has to do. It’s not what we chose for our family and as the big questions come up and my child’s trust means everything–I’m very, very glad.