“How can you lie to your children?” one mom demanded of another on Facebook last week.
“How can you deprive your children of the magic of Christmas?” came the retort.
It happens every year – let the Santa Wars begin!
On one side, we have the Die-Hard Believers. These are the folks who panic when a 6-year-old asks why Santa at the mall had blue eyes this year when last year they were brown. They can be found crawling across snow-covered rooftops on Christmas Eve – creating sleigh marks and reindeer hoof prints with their bare hands.
Don’t mess with them.
On the other side, we have the Truth-Demanders. These are the parents who believe that teaching children Santa is real is a bald-faced lie. They teach their children about Saint Nicholas and grow indignant at his likeness being used to hawk everything from Bratz dolls to power tools this time of year.
Don’t mess with them either.
It has been my experience that intelligent, well-intentioned people fall on both sides of the Santa debate. Ultimately, I think that how you feel about Santa Claus is largely determined by how you were raised.
If you were raised believing in Santa and it was a beautiful, magical experience for you, you are going to want to share that with your own kids. If you were raised not believing in Santa (as I was) you will likely find the idea of telling your children Santa Claus is real to be absurd.
I once asked my mother why we didn’t “do” Santa in our family when I was growing up. I expected some kind of philosophical answer about the importance of not muddying religious holidays with secular traditions, but what I got instead was a sobering story of practical parenting.
“We tried to do Santa,” my mom told me, “But the day your brother came home and told me that his friend must have been a better boy than he was because he got more gifts at Christmas, that was the end of Santa.”
In my family today, we don’t teach our kids that Santa Claus is real, because well,… (spoiler alert!) he isn’t. We do teach them about Saint Nicholas and celebrate his feast day, but they know that we are the ones who fill their shoes with goodies on December 6. There are presents and stockings on December 25, but they know that we and their grandparents are the ones who make that happen.
But we don’t shun Santa Claus either. In fact, he’s a rather jolly fellow to have around this time of year. We read about him in storybooks, watch him on television, and joke about how he might manage a midnight entrance at our house, where the chimney leads directly to our wood stove.
I can assure you that not believing in Santa Claus need not spoil anyone’s Christmas experience any more than believing in Santa necessarily secularizes it.
When I was growing up, I had a real sense of Christmas being about Christ’s birth and the gift of salvation. The fact that my parents saved their money to buy secret presents, baked special treats, and brought a tree into the house to cover with lights as a means of celebrating God’s great gift of love was all the magic I needed.
Though I had friends who believed in Santa, I never felt deprived of the experience. On the contrary, as I fell asleep each Christmas Eve, listening to my parents fussing with presents in the living room, I felt loved and secure just knowing the care and sacrifice they put into preparing Christmas surprises for my brothers and sisters and me.
I loved the warm glow of Christmas tree lights and I reveled in the “magic” way our Advent wreath’s pink and purple candles were replaced with beautiful new white ones in time for Christmas morning. I watched Christmas specials, played with Santa dolls, and read secular Christmas books with a great sense of joy and anticipation.
Today my children do the same. I like to call it “pretending to believe in Santa.”
We believe in the jolly old elf in much the same way we “believe” in Curious George, Winnie the Pooh, gnomes, or fairies. We tell their stories in great, magical detail. We discuss the logistics of Santa getting around the world between sunset and sunrise. We wonder about the number of elves he must employ and what Mrs. Claus might be cooking for his Christmas dinner.
But we stop short of telling anyone he is real.
In the end, I think our approach to Santa Claus is best summed up by something one of my younger brothers said years ago when he was just a little boy:
“I know Santa isn’t real … but how does he get into our house?”
Yes, let’s talk about that. Forget the Santa Wars this year, and let’s just talk about that.
This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.