“Do you want to go see Santa?” I asked my kids, standing outside the mall Christmas display. My one-and-a-half year old shook his head vigorously, while my four-year-old (nicknamed Sprout) just said, “No” in the same tone he gives me at bedtime. But that doesn’t mean they dislike Santa – just the mall version. And that’s just fine with me. Instead of forcing my kids to sit on some dude’s lap, we’re finding deeper ways to maintain Santa’s beauty and magic.
In our household, Santa is a complicated person.
On one hand, I love the stories and magic of Christmas. From the book the Polar Express to images of Santa feeding animals, the idea of a person devoted to generosity and holiday cheer is lovely. On the other, the idea of Santa bringing presents to “good” kids and not “bad” ones reinforces a lot of our society’s classist ideas of who deserves to have nice things or not. Also, while I love a good story, I dislike the idea of straight-up lying.
The Balance of Santa
So around our house, we walk a fine line.
When the kids open presents on Christmas morning, most will be from us, but there will be a few from Santa. The “real-life” Polar Express that we rode in upstate New York is a cherished memory for my older son. We read plenty of books with Santa as a character, from fluff like Pete the Cat Saves Christmas to the heartbreakingly beautiful Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. We sing songs that include Santa, like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
On the other hand, Santa is only a small, understated part of a much larger Christmas season. We don’t do Elf on the Shelf or connect my son’s behavior to the number of presents he will receive. In fact, we just don’t talk about Santa much at all. If Sprout brings a “fact” about Santa up, we say, “Yep, that’s what the stories say.” If he asks questions, we answer them in a minimal and straightforward way. For example, he already asked me if the Santa in the mall was “just someone in costume.” I just said “yes” without elaboration.
What Truly Makes the Difference
But you know what’s going to make the biggest difference about maintaining Santa’s magic?
In our house, the magic of Santa doesn’t depend on him being “real.”
That’s because there’s plenty in our house that’s magical without being “real.” Sprout adores his bunny, Snowball, but also knows she’s a stuffed animal. He knows his imaginary friend Bun doesn’t exist outside our imaginations, but loves hearing stories about him. We don’t travel back in time when we go to the Renaissance Faire, but we revel in the music, costumes, and activities. Even though Sprout knew the characters at Sesame Place were people in costume, his excitement about meeting them was palpable.
Similarly, we don’t limit make-believe to kids. While we haven’t done it in a long time, my husband and I tabletop role-play (like Dungeons and Dragons). We’ve gone in full costume to Baltimore Comic-Con. Imagination is alive and very, very well in our household.
On the flip side, our family never denigrates things that are “made-up.” To us, there’s no such thing as “just” a story. Stories, whether historical or not, are what humans use to pass on our values, belief systems, and triumphs. In fact, research shows that some hunter-gatherer societies value storytelling as a skill above hunting when ranking community members.
After all, even if something is made-up, it can still have deep truths. Fiction can teach us about other people’s experiences, evoke deep emotions, and help us make sense of our own experiences. So many books have helped me understand who I am; what’s more real than that? As the Doctor in Doctor Who says, “We’re all just stories in the end. Better make it a good one.”
What Happens After “The Santa Talk”
So when it comes time for my kids to learn Santa isn’t “real,” I think that it just won’t be that big a deal. Rather than dragging out an extended farce, we’ll work to show that the magic is about the power of generosity rather than any particular old dude in a red suit. Instead of them seeing it as an elaborate lie, I hope they will hold fast to beautiful stories about a vibrant character.
To further enforce that view, I love how one mom introduced her kids to the “secret of being a Santa.” Basically, you take your kid aside and explain that Santa isn’t a material being – he’s a way of being. One that the kid now gets to be a part of. It wraps so much of what I believe about generosity, giving, and the power of story into one tradition.
The great thing about Santa being a character is that anyone can play him – including you and me. And a story that you get to be part of – that you get to make your own – is the very best kind.