Salty rivers flowed down my cheeks as I began to howl. The shivers invaded me. Mom crouched in front of me, clenching my hand as if she believed that the tighter she gripped, the better the chance that she would be absolved of her sin. Dad stood in the corner shuffling his awkward feet. The day had come when my parents had decreed that I was too old to still believe in Santa Claus. In a year’s time, my grandmother would die and on that occasion I would grieve half as much as I did for the loss of this loved one.
My parents swore that they had heard me complain being bullied for still believing in Jolly Old St. Nick. This purported evidence was their main defense in the court of parenting for years to come. I still know it to be perjury. What I do know to be true, is that they were trying their best, and that all parents are trying their best to avoid ruining the magic of the season (or childhood), but most could use a little help. So, how do you tell your kids that Santa Claus isn’t real?
Are We Sure That Santa Doesn’t Exist?
The character we know as Santa Claus is based on a real man: Saint Nicholas of Myra. An early Christian that lived in what is modern-day Turkey, he was a bishop during the time of the Roman Empire. Possibly his most well-known act, and the one that inspired later incarnations of his legend, is when he tossed bags of gold into the house of a poor man and his three daughters, one for each of them. Legend tells that the three young women were at risk of being sold into slavery or prostitution because the family could not afford a dowry for them to attract a suitable husband (this is in the days before marriage was based on romantic love, probably due to the fact that The Notebook would not be released for a few thousand years). The gold that St. Nicholas threw through the window fell into stockings that hung by the fireplace. The father caught St. Nicholas running away and thanked him mightily, but Nicholas, ashamed, begged the man to keep his identify quiet and tell only that the grace of God had answered his family’s prayers. It was this plea for anonymity that inspired the tradition we recognize today. Parents give gifts to their children, deferring all credit to a man that simply, does not exist. Why is it that we do this?
Through many religious and cultural twists and turns, St. Nicholas evolved into Sinterklaas and Father Christmas and finally into the round-bellied, rosy-cheeked, Coca-Cola chuggin’ Santa Claus we know and love today. And as painful as that fateful morning was when he went away from my life, I’m still young enough to remember that the years I spent expecting his visits from the chimney were well worth the brief moment of anguish caused by the realization that he never visited a single time.
You see, believing in Santa Claus was an early introduction to the uniquely human strength of imagination and the power we possess to transfer the pictures in our heads to each other. Humans are the only species that can create an idea out of thin air and transplant that idea into the minds of other humans, even though they never created the thought for themselves. For thousands of years, storytellers scattered their seeds of creativity throughout all cultures and generations. The reach of the storyteller was aided by the founding of written language, the printing press, mass media, and now the internet. What person does not know the story of Cinderella? And yet, she was born long ago, in the mind of one person lost in fantasy, who never suspected that the princess would grow up in a million different minds, each taking their turn reshaping her story into something new.
Some psychologists believe that we should never tell our children that Santa Claus exists in the first place. They argue that lying to your children is never a good basis for building trust or an emotionally safe environment in the house. I happen to agree. But even though you’re the one scarfing down the milk and cookies and shouldering the bill for all those presents, does that mean that Santa Claus is really a lie?
Other Lies We Tell Our Children
Every day that I trade a few dollars for a cup of coffee, I think to myself: “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.” The pale green paper slips through my fingers, eagerly gobbled up by the cashier that will walk away with her own tidy pile of green papers at the end of the day, a reward for a hard day’s work. Green paper means little to me, it’s not like I had to trade my beloved guitar or something else that, to me, has real value. How did these printings of old white men come to garner so much esteem that people spend their lives trying to collect as much of them as possible?
A lot of people will remark that each dollar is backed by a certain fraction of gold or silver. Not true. And even if it were, do you ever find it odd that a shiny metal with no real purpose is the most valuable substance in the world? Truth is, because humans couldn’t always agree on what was valuable, we agreed on a lie: Currency.
Long ago, when the farmer needed a table, but the woodworker had no need for the farmer’s crops, the farmer was out of luck. So we created something that standardized value for all people and could be easily traded. Today we accept it without a second thought. But in truth, it holds no value unless we all believe in it.
It’s a lie that we have collectively agreed to believe and teach to others, because it is more beneficial in its existence, than in its absence.
Santa Claus is no different.
How Santa Claus Benefits All of Us
Thanks to Susan Walker and Fred Gailey, the heroes of Miracle on 34th Street, who pointed out that if a branch of the U.S. Federal Government (the U.S. Postal Service in the 1947 original and the U.S. Department of the Treasury in the 1994 version) can recognize the existence of someone unseen, so too can we believe in the idea of a man that spreads good will and cheer every holiday season. But, while it’s an interesting argument, the real wonder is how an eight year-old could display such ingenuity. Faced with the imprisonment of her friend, Kris Kringle, Susan (a self-professed Santa skeptic) helps mount a defense to prevent him from being convicted as insane and dangerous to the public. As one might imagine, this is a difficult task for a seasoned lawyer like Fred, let alone an eight year old girl! Susan draws on her capacity for critical thinking to convince a judge that Santa is real.
In the same way, yet opposite direction, children must think critically to unravel the mystery of Santa Claus for themselves. Parents do plant the idea of Santa Claus early on in a child’s life, but it is up to the child to ask the questions as the years go by. And when the day comes when a kid is ready to end the charade, what a wonderful opportunity for an adult to empower their son or daughter by asking “Well, what do you think?”
By giving a child a platform to be heard, to present their points, adults acknowledge that a child’s opinion and thought has value that deserves to be heard. And if it does turn out that a child guesses correctly and you must crush their soul by revealing that Santa Claus does not physically exist, what an amazing mine of life lessons that has just been opened! They may learn not to accept things at face value, that magic is only as powerful as the strength with which it is believed in, and that ideas can be more important than real, tangible things. As the 1994 film version of Kris Kringle puts it best:
I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor. I’m a symbol. I’m a symbol of the human ability to be able to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives. If you can’t believe, if you can’t accept anything on faith, then you’re doomed for a life dominated by doubt.
If, instead of stifling a child’s imagination with absolutes, we can encourage them to recognize that human creativity can be more magical and powerful than a real person, then we have inspired a child to recognize that their own thoughts may change the world. The realization that the symbol of a loving and generous person who grants the wishes of people he does not even know can inspire millions to be more loving and generous, is infinitely more awe-inspiring than the possibility that Santa can travel around the world in one night and fit through a chimney.
The Case For Santa Claus
In a day and age dominated by the screen, when attention spans and imaginations are gradually disappearing, and people cannot define the word empathy, Santa Claus may be more relevant today than ever before. As we store up for ourselves while denying others access to what we enjoy, we begin to look more like a different character from another familiar Christmas tale. Actually, a Christmas Carol. And while these stories are fictional, we must recognize that it matters which of these characters we choose to champion. Do we recognize the cynical, magic-less, purely rational and profit-driven world of Scrooge; or do we recognize that Santa does and should exist? That the spirit of joviality, generosity, and good-will can unite the hearts of people across the world and that he is worth believing in?
“Only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”
So if, this holiday season, you feel the need to tell a little one (or a not so little one, as was my case) that Santa isn’t real, I encourage you to recognize the child’s ingenuity. Let them unravel the mystery for themselves and remember that sometimes an idea, is more important than reality. Stay calm, ask them what they think, and truly listen. You might like what you hear. After all, I went on believing in Santa for a full two years after my parents dropped the bomb. Imagination is a powerful thing.