16 December 2011

In Defense of Santa

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.


michele said...

jen.... i've never read your blog before. but i will subscribe after reading this. i always knew you'd grow up to be amazing....
thanks for this... its made me smile on a day when i've mostly cried. so thank you

victorias_view said...

I love your rebuttal! I believe being a kid is a magical time and I think it is important for them to let their imaginations run wild to believe in Santa.

thefamilymath said...

Hey, there. I'm the author of the post you wrote this in response to. I just wanted to say I appreciate your honest thoughts on this, even if I don't necessarily agree with everything you said.

For me, I think this is something that's up to individual parents to deal with. I don't have a problem with other parents deciding that they will tell their kids about Santa in a thoughtful way. I plan to tell Noah the story of Santa and what it's about, but just not lead him to believe that Santa's watching, that a 'jolly ol' man' leaves gifts for him one day per year or that a bunch of flying reindeer pull a sleigh.

I don't think he'll miss out on the magic of the season at all. It'll just be different in our household from in yours, and I think that's OK.

Thanks again for sharing. You had some great thoughts!

Jennie said...

Thank you for your gracious response, "Family Math." Looking forward to keeping up with you and Noah!

Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

Thank you for this post. You've nailed it. I love you.

As parents, we have the power to make magic for our children. I'm not saying that parents who don't do this are bad parents; I just don't understand why a parent wouldn't want to.

Subscribing immediately.

Artfulife said...

Love this! Kids grow up to quickly these days. Let's let them enjoy being kids for as long as possible. I'd never criticize anyone who didn't do Santa (I have a dear friend who hasn't with her kids). I love that I now get to be Santa to my kids. Just like my parents were to me & their parents to them & so on & so forth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on such a special holiday tradition. Hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

Ludicrous Mama said...

My sister chose not to 'perpetuate the Santa myth' with her kids because she says she never felt she was able to trust our parents again after she found out. But I think a lot of how a child handles finding out 'the truth' is in how the PARENT handles it. If you just tell your kid that, in fact, there is no Santa, but wasn't it fun? the kid might be a little resentful, depending how old they were when they found out. Because I did such a good job maintaining the myth for my siblings, they believed at far older ages than many kids.
But a parent who explains about how Santa is part of the magic of Christmas, and that Santa IS real - but he isn't just one person - helps ease a child out of a sense of betrayal and violated trust.
Every parent who puts presents under the tree in Santa's name is Santa. Santa IS real, because we make him real. And adding that extra bit of magic and wonder to Christmas for my children is worth it to me.
But I also understand and respect other parents' decisions to not have Santa be a part of their holiday. Just like people have reasons for breastfeeding, or not, or for how long, I think we as parents (for the most part) try to do the best we can for OUR families. I'm not you (or you, or you,) so I have no business judging your parenting choices, even if they're not the ones I would make for MY family.
Unless you're my sister. Then I can judge all I want. I earned it for having to grow up with you! :)

Susan Fox said...

I still believe in Santa. Truly. Santa lives in all who give -- we are all "Santa", every day -- or at least, we have the potential to be. Sadly, it tends to be the end of the year when we most realize it. When my 11-year-old finally admits to being a nonbeliever (may that day never come), I will congratulate him on, as you so beautifully put, growing from a receiver to a giver, and charge him with preserving his piece of Santa's spirit, all his life.

Wishing Jennie and all her readers the very happiest of holidays from New Mexico! Viva Santa!

Anonymous said...

this is great post. what really gets to me are the parents whose choose not to do the whole Santa thing....... and then their kids come to school with all their " wisdom" and big mouths and end up ruining it for the kids who do believe.

Tina said...

Very well said!!! (insert applause)

Debbiedoo's blogging and blabbing said...

Well this came at a good time. My son is 10 and this is the year he finally found out there is no Santa Claus....lots of stories in between of course but too long to get into. We have a family member who chose to go the no Santa route. The problem I had, is that she told me in OUR own home not to talk about it or him. WELL...that did not fly with me at all, my home, my beliefs etc. Do what you want in your own but do not dictate what others do in theirs. Oh boy that brought back a memory for sure LOL. Merry Christmas to you. Thanks for sharing with my newbie party.