I’m not sure if there was ever a time when I thought Santa Claus really existed. I never came across him directly during my childhood. However, I remember wondering, while looking at the pictures from my brothers’ Christmas parties, whether any of the children, smiling at the photographer from Santa’s lap, ever wondered how real his story was, with so many incongruous and incredible details woven into it.
Whether you have to tell your children the truth about Santa or let them indulge in this appealing lie until they are able detect the myth’s flaws on their own is a topic that worries many parents today. While some are firmly on the side of the truth, others believe that there are certain untruths that do no harm to anyone, but that create and amplify the magic of a special time of the year, and of the child’s life.
Finally, we have the undecided, who are guided by the expectations and reactions of the child, but they, like the pro-truth parents, have another dilemma to solve—what should their offspring do with the information that Santa Claus is a fictional character and not a real person? Given that a child is very eager to spread the word, it is very likely that he or she will want to let classmates know that they believe in something unreal.
Parents, as well as parenting experts, make different arguments for their position because, in the end, when the winter holidays come—with their decorated fir trees, carols, and streets gleaming with the light of the ornaments—every parent needs to know how to answer the children’s curious questions about the generous character who travels the world in his reindeer sleigh.
What do parents think about the Santa Claus whom they choose (not) to introduce to their children?
“Instead of lying to my children, I spend several months of the year actively teaching them to lie”, is the solution adopted by Erin Lennox, which she turned into an entire article in The Guardian. They learn this pretty quickly, as proven by the conversation with her 4-year-old daughter. When asked by her mother if Santa is real, the little girl says no. Asked what she will say if she talks to other children about this subject, she assures her that she will talk about it as if he really exists.
In fact, Lennox does not teach children that Santa is a lie. Rather, she tells them about fiction, play, and imagination, about pretending to believe a beautiful story, which is not, however, real. As Lennox already assures her readers, her decision to tell the truth about Santa is based on the cruel disappointment she experienced in her childhood, when a “bad” child destroyed her beloved myth. She doesn’t want her girls to be a Grinch who robs other children of the joy of Christmas, so she asks them to pretend to believe in a character whom they know to be imaginary.
Although many will be happy to know that other children will not ruin their children’s belief in a character they have been taught to believe in, parents will disagree with Lennox’s (half-) honesty, claiming that it is cruel to remove such a beautiful story from a child’s world.
In general, parents agree that they should not lie to a child, but they have a number of arguments for which myths, such as that of the generous old man, can be perpetuated until the age when the child begins to have doubts about the truthfulness of the character.
Devon Corneal, who works as a lawyer in New Jersey, says childhood is too short, and the bag of adult burdens and responsibilities awaits one around the corner anyway. So Devon makes sure that her 4-and-a-half-year-old son enjoys all the magic that Santa Claus can bring to him, embodied by her own husband, and the multitude of gifts he brings with him.
Jennifer and Ben Whitfield celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with their son, Andrew. They say that Santa’s character is no more a lie “than the magic of those flames lasting for so long”, referring to a Jewish tradition according to which the reserve of oil needed to keep the Menorah burning for a day miraculously lasted for eight days. For the Whitfield family, the story of Santa Claus is a part of folklore that comes to life during the winter holidays.
The agitation around Christmas has little to do with the Christian holiday or any religious symbol, says Rebecca Munsterer, author of several children’s books. Recalling a photo that went viral, showing a police officer offering shoes to a barefoot person, Rebecca claims that “whatever your religion, that officer, in that moment, could have been Santa”. Therefore, not only should we not rob children’s imagination of Santa, but it would be desirable, the author concludes, for the holiday to focus on generosity and on finding ways to be “Santa Claus” for others throughout the year.
While the parents who protect the image and the story of Santa Claus rely mainly on the element of joy and miracle of a holiday adjusted to the wishes of the children, those who unceremoniously abolish its legendary aura have, in turn, reasons to do so.
Andrew’s children have already reached adulthood. He says that he never lied about Santa Claus, and, as a result, there was no need for any explanation following the disappointment. “We just never pretended he was real, in the same way we don’t pretend that Woody from Toy Story or Batman are real,” he said.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is reviewing the reasons why he chose to tell his daughter the truth about the character who easily slips down the chimneys of people’s houses. In essence, it is a refusal to digest untrue things—his own parents refused to pretend when it came to Santa, convinced that lying is not acceptable.
As a result, Gobry thought he should tell his daughter that Santa Claus is a popular story, like, for instance, Cinderella. Usually, other adults are shocked to find that Gobry is one of those parents who chose to “kill” Santa Claus, but this does not make him change his position: “For my part, I’m just shocked that people will lie to their children. (….) Lying is bad. Lying to vulnerable people is doubly bad.”
When dealing with this subject, specialists list—beyond the ethical dilemma of lying to a child—a series of shortcomings that come with the choice of offering the child the image of a living and omniscient Santa.
Experts’ opinions: Why believe in Santa Claus?
Although there are specialists who list a number of advantages of maintaining this enduring tradition, there are even more voices that expose the disadvantages of maintaining this untruth.
People who engage in Santa Claus rituals “are literally memory-making with their children. They’re marking distinct occasions in time to be remembered in the future in a way that helps aid trans-generational family traditions and shared social experiences,”, says Kelly Allen, a psychologist and university lecturer in Melbourne. Christmas rituals strengthen family and social ties, Allen says, and can reduce feelings of loneliness. Consequently, the psychologist believes that it is appropriate to reinforce this myth in the child’s mind and let them discover for themselves, as they grow up, how things really are.
Santa’s story falls more into the realm of lies than fiction, says Rebecca English, a lecturer in education at the Queensland University of Technology. Although the promotion of myths is said to promote the development of imagination, the reality is that children are thus encouraged to consume the ideas of others, says English, emphasizing that she was severely disappointed in childhood to discover the “elaborate deception” fashioned by her parents.
Another argument made by English is that a parent should not use the authority of a fictional character to get the child’s obedience. Parental authority is too serious to be handed over to an omniscient character or his toy-making elves.
Although he does not necessarily believe that perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus is harmful, Justin Coulson, one of Australia’s best-known parenting experts, points out that any benefit of the faith in this character disappears when the child discovers the truth. The advice given by the expert to parents is to use the best strategy, that of honesty, and to tell the children that behind the story lies a real character, who may or may not have done some things that we ascribe to him.
In addition, while labeling the story as “a wonderful lie”, Coulson concludes: “The more we tell lies, the more our kids are going to find out we are deceitful”.
It’s not good to lie to a child, says Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland. Not even when the lie concerns such an attractive subject, or especially in this case. Ellerton points out that the myth of Santa Claus can shape wrong value judgments. If only good children receive gifts, what do poor children think about receiving little or nothing, and how does this story influence their sense of self-worth in the case of those from socially disadvantaged families? Ellerton wonders.
Although he is often accused of destroying children’s magic and enthusiasm, Davis Kyle Johnson, a professor at King’s College, does not cease to write articles against Santa Claus and his elves. It is not these fictional characters that attract children the most, but the gifts they receive, says Johnson, who has even written a book on the subject, Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back).
The philosophy teacher argues that children’s intellectual development can be affected by these stories presented as pure reality, and that a child convinced that an elf on a shelf is alive and watching them is one who has been encouraged to suspend their critical thinking skills.
This is a reality that should not be encouraged in children, as “credulity is a major contributing factor to the decline of American civilization.”
In his articles, Johnson resumes arguments already circulated against the myth of Santa Claus, insisting on parental credibility, which should be protected in any situation—especially when there’s no life and death situation forcing one to distort the truth. The teacher says he collected several stories in which children began to doubt the existence of God after learning that Santa Claus does not exist. A somewhat legitimate doubt, Johnson says, if we consider how many divine characteristics have been ascribed to Santa.
Form this point forward, our discussion will turn to the real issue for those who want to prevent the celebration of Jesus’s birth from being replaced by rituals and characters that have little in common with this event.
Where do the thieves of a Christian holiday hide?
Although many children movies embroider on the negative character who steals Christmas in one way or another, the reality is that in modern society those who confiscated the holiday are much closer to us than the characters in a movie.
Precisely because there is only a limited period in a child’s life in which they can believe the incredible with all their being, this should be approached wisely by the parent, says Rebecca Lamb, continuing the idea of Davis Kyle Johnson.
“I wasn’t afraid my children would no longer believe in Santa, but that they wouldn’t believe the unbelievable, the true story of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins”, Lamb says.
Another article, signed by Roger Patterson, examines how Santa Claus seized the attention that was due to Jesus and suggests that Christian families should consider a change of focus.
Those who regard Christmas as a Christian holiday, and not just a secular one, should meditate on the fact that the most popular symbol of Christmas is Santa Claus, says Austin Cline, former regional director of the Council for Secular Humanism.
This is a figure who is not very religious, says Cline, and rather “an amalgam of a little bit of Christianity, a little bit of pre-Christian paganism, and a whole lot of modern, secular myth-making.” The connection that many Christians make between Santa Claus and Bishop Nicholas of Myra (Demre), the primary inspirational figure for Santa Claus, is fragile at best, Cline says. Although legend says the bishop was very generous with his fortune, over time, the character has collected more and more secular characteristics.
It is said that Santa Claus, in his modern version, was invented by the American writer Washington Irving, who immortalized in a satirical story alleged Dutch beliefs about St. Nicholas. The image of the cheerful, chubby character going around in a reindeer-drawn sleigh was created by American pastor Clement Clarke Moore in a poem published in 1823. Four decades later, Harper’s Illustrated Weekly published a drawing of Santa Claus wearing a red suit with black buttons, and a leather belt, which would become characteristic. Thomas Nast, the newspaper’s cartoonist, would come to dedicate hundreds of drawings to the character, adding many details to the myth, including his residence at the North Pole.
Since 1931, Coca Cola began to use the image of Santa Claus for marketing purposes. Santa was thus given a jovial air and a respectable belly by cartoonist Haddon Sundblom.
After a short journey through the story of the birth of Santa Clause, Cline concludes that just because there are a few Christian traits in his profile, he can’t be considered a religious figure. Santa has always been a rather secular character, and over time this has intensified. If a secular figure is the symbol of Christmas in America today, it is hard to say that the holiday is still a Christian one, at least for most of society.
From this point on, the parental dilemma is simplified: instead of endlessly debating whether to claim that Santa really exists in front of the children, parents should ask themselves whether they are really celebrating the incarnation of Jesus or a mere secular holiday, imbued with the spirit of consumerism.
If they claim to celebrate a Christian event, the “spirit” or “magic” of Christmas cannot reside in a character who has won all the merits of the One born in the manger, without delivering something to make him indispensable.
Christian writer Tony Reinke says that if focusing on Jesus means killing Christmas, then you don’t really know Him. After all, a Santa who brings gifts once a year, only to a few, has nothing in common with the One who came to us as a man, ready to give up everything just to give us back our lives, the most precious gift of all.
This is the “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” which must not get lost in the noise of a polished feast, the meaning of which we have methodically taken away—starting with its name.