Parenting seems to be subject to all sorts of trends that come and go. People can get pretty worked up about the things they do and don't do in the course of raising their children. I know plenty of people whose lists of "don'ts" run pages and pages long. Without passing judgment on any of them, here are a few examples of things I hear frequently:
We don't do refined sugar.
We don't do vaccinations.
We don't do toy guns.
We don't do baby formula.
We don't do traditional medicine.
We don't do religion.
In my experience, all of these attitudes are pretty common, but there's a big one I hadn't heard in a long time, until I heard it again today: "We don't do Santa."
I feel a need to defend the guy - and the practice of believing in him.
The arguments in favor of eschewing the big fat mythological gift-giver are many. Parents say they don't want to lie to their children, or to teach them that lying is okay. They don't want to give their children the impression that Christmas is all about gifts. They don't want to build them up just to disappoint them. They don't want to use a fictional character to manipulate their children into behaving better. And - this is one of my favorites - they don't want their children to think that God is like Santa: a mythological character who doles out rewards to them based on their behavior. Allow me to address these arguments in turn.
Lying. Somewhere along the way, someone started a story that all lying is bad. I'd like to make an argument that that is simply not the case. There are lies that are hurtful and wrong, because they cover up bad behavior or hurt other people in some way ("I didn't steal the car" / "I didn't kill him" / "Susie made that mess, not me"). But some lies are kind and caring, because they spare the listener from a more painful truth ("Yes, your new haircut looks beautiful" / "I'm so sorry - I'd love to come but I have other plans that day" / "No, your house isn't messy - you should see mine"). Don't try to convince me that it's morally better to tell your friend that her haircut is hideous or that her house is a disaster zone.
And so it is with Santa. Santa, like many religious and quasi-religious stories we tell our children, is a good lie. He lends an air of magic and gratuitous generosity to a season that, according to popular culture, is all about buying and spending. He is a saint - a person who, according to Christian teaching, is to be emulated for his good behavior. The more preposterous parts of the story, like the flying reindeer and the toy-making elves, are simply fun details. Do you let your kids watch Barney or Veggie Tales? Do you feel bad for lying to them about the existence of giant purple dinosaurs and talking artichokes? Of course not. Neither do I feel bad for encouraging my children to believe that a loving soul has bestowed gifts on them for no apparent reason.
I believed in Santa, and so did my sisters and brother, and we did not grow up to become pathological liars. Nor do we distrust our parents or think of them as dishonest people. (On the contrary, actually.) The only lie the Santa myth encouraged me to indulge in: I pretended to believe in Santa for a long time after I knew the truth, because I was afraid of hurting my parents' feelings. Lying to preserve someone else's feelings. That's a virtue my parents taught me through the Santa myth. My children were also Santa believers, and they've grown into perfectly normal human beings, no more prone to lying than their non-believing friends.
It's All About the Gifts. In a way, Christmas really is all about gifts. It's about the gift of redemption, of new life, of hope, and of peace. Our exchange of gifts is symbolic of sharing what we have been given. If you are not teaching your children that Christmas is a time to give and receive, freely, without worry or grudges, and from your heart, then what exactly are you teaching them? And why are you celebrating this holiday in the first place? Santa is a symbolic way to teach children about generosity and kindness - lessons not taught often enough in our modern world.
Disappointment. God willing, your children will live long lives, and doing so will, by definition, acquaint them with the feeling of disappointment. Life doesn't always give you what you want, or what you fantasize about. It doles out disappointment in generous portions. However, life does give you repeated opportunities to be kind and generous to others. When you outgrow the Santa myth, you graduate from being a receiver to being a giver. You become eligible to participate in the magic. You have the opportunity to enthrall younger children, to help your parents with the holiday preparations, and to become Santa-like yourself.
Using Fiction to Manipulate Behavior. We use fiction all the time to manipulate our children's behavior, but it is apparently objectionable only when it comes in the form of a guy in a red winter suit. Our mythology, religious and secular, is loaded with tales of good people who are rewarded and bad people who are punished. The virtuous Cinderella marries the handsome prince and lives happily ever after, while her mean stepsisters get their toes cut off. Saint Peter gets the keys to heaven, but Judas meets a nasty end. It's a common device, and it's so pervasive that it seems ridiculous to single out Santa (or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy), among the more harmless good-behavior motivators, for elimination from the pantheon.
God is Like Santa. Well, of course God is like Santa. That's the point. He gives us mountains of gifts that we don't deserve. He has unlimited stores of love, which are multiplied and spread by the hard work of His faithful helpers. When we reach the age of reason, we are expected to pitch in and do our part, and perpetuate generosity and kindness in His name. We do His work for Him. I'm not going to get all religious on you here, because I never intended this to be a religious blog, but please remember that Santa is a saint. The whole point of saints is that they are like God. Their stories are to be told, and retold, from generation to generation, to teach young people about the nature of love and good behavior. Santa is a great example of a saint whose story is tailored to a specific holiday and whose attributes are both attractive to children and easy for them to understand.
I'm not a fan of baby formula or of toy guns, but I'm a huge fan of Santa. I believe in him and what he stands for. When I shop and wrap and hide gifts, and make them magically appear on Christmas morning, I truly believe that I am teaching my children well. Childhood is brief; the responsibilities and stresses of adulthood follow quickly on its heels. Let's slow down a little, take ourselves a little less seriously, and encourage our children to believe in a little magic. The ability to believe might come in handy for them someday.