Tuesday, December 24, 2013

You Can't Handle the Truth about Santa


A child asks me, in earnest, "Is Santa Claus real?"

How does one respond?

Personally, I can't remember a time in my life when I ever believed in Santa Claus. It's not how I was raised, which is not to say that my family doesn't get festive during the holiday season. But, when I was a child and my parents were buying me Christmas presents, they would always ask me directly not simply what I hoped to get but what specifically I wanted them to get for me. Then, when they went to the store to buy the presents, I would accompany them to help make sure they picked out the right ones. So, no, Santa was not a part of my family's traditions when I was growing up.

I honestly think it's better that way. Kids don't come out of the womb believing in Santa by default. It's probably not even until they're about three or four years old, at the youngest, that they're able to process this idea of a jolly fat man from the North Pole, who rides around the globe on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, and comes down the chimney to deliver your Christmas presents while you sleep. It's not an intuitive concept, and I don't know what it serves to teach children this elaborate lie. When they inevitably discover the truth, most likely in traumatic fashion, the only lesson there is that no one can be trusted, not even the people closest to them, their parents, whom they were supposed to be able to count on most, but who, it turns out, masterminded this grotesque falsehood, perpetrated for years precisely to fool their own children.

I asked around a bit to see what other people thought.

A friend of mine, D, a single mother who works as a bartender, insists that the correct response, when asked by kids about Santa, is always to answer that he is real. With a five-year-old of her own, she perpetuates the myth in nearly its entirety—presents under the tree, letters to the North Pole, "naughty or nice" list, cookies for Santa. But she's careful to make the distinction to her son that the "Santa" at the mall, with whom other kids are taking pictures, is a fraud. Likewise are any Santas on TV. After all, if her son started observing multiple Santa actors and catching on that they were not all the same man, it might blow the lid on the whole operation.

When I shared with D my opinion on the matter, she argued that, not being a parent myself, I wouldn't be able to understand. I wouldn't be able to understand how a mother would do anything to guard her child. Now, I would never tell a parent how to do their job, but I wasn't sure what D was "guarding" in this case. She said it was her son's "sense of wonder."

"Let them have that, while they're still young," she said, "before they have to grow up and learn how crappy the world really is."

I still stood by a policy of truth, and I maintained that teaching kids the Santa lie would only make reality that much more devastating for them when eventually they learned the truth.

I suspected that, rather than serving the kids, the Santa story existed more to help parents to get their kids to behave well. Children are warned not to get on Santa's naughty list, or else they might not get what they want for Christmas. My friend D even keeps an "Elf on the Shelf" in her home. For those not in the know, this is a more recent invention, a doll of a Christmas elf, which parents place up on a high shelf, telling their kids that the doll is actually alive and keeping tabs on their behavior, serving as Santa's eyes and ears in the home. You can move the elf around the house when the kids aren't looking, in order to aid in the illusion that this limp doll is alive, but many parents are content just to do the bare minimum of putting the elf on the shelf, explaining its job to the kids and warning them that they must not try to touch it (or else it will lose its magic and get very sick!), then letting it passively go to work keeping the kids on their best behavior. I find it all quite cynical, and I'm not sure if even the very young kids are really fooled by this elf doll, or if they just play along, thinking it a game.

As far as guarding the kids' sense of wonder, I say that we ought always encourage children (and adults) to wonder and make serious inquiry when confronted with tales that offend their faculty of reason, especially when it is coming from those who would assume authority over them. I say, if a child has attained the intellectual honesty to question, then perhaps they deserve to be rewarded with an honest answer in response. If they're asking whether Santa is real, then it must mean that they already have doubts, in which case I might consider them ready to know the truth—that all they have been told is lies.

Another friend of mine, C, a lawyer and anarchist, has a different opinion on the matter. Although her parents did the "presents appear overnight under the tree" thing, she says they would always give her coy answers whenever she asked where the gifts came from, or whether Santa was real. The idea of Santa, which came to C from her classmates and from media, was something that was neither encouraged nor discouraged within her anarchist household. Rather than tell her what to believe, C's parents taught her to investigate and make up her own mind in all matters.

I had to think about this one. Although I feel it would be rather irritating for a child to never be able to get a straight answer from their own parents, maybe there is something more to be gained from earning one's own truth.

I asked one more friend, A, a young Jewish mother. Her response: "I'm Jewish. We don't have Santa Claus."

I'm not sure how accurate that is. Santa has only, at best, a tenuous connection to Christianity. Here in the U.S., he's more a commercial concoction and seasonal icon, open to being celebrated by all materialistic Americans. But, yes, the traditional Santa story does revolve around Christmas, and if one is determined not to observe that holiday in any way, then probably Santa is a no-go.

Thus, even at the age where a kid is most susceptible to the Santa Claus myth, there will be some who have already been taught explicitly by their parents that Santa is not real. The key point there is that, if parents want their children believing one way or the other about Santa, then it's the parents' own job to enforce that. The kid who asked me about Santa was not my kid, so it was not my responsibility to tell him what to believe.

Mr. G, who works as an elementary school teacher and consequently has to deal with this question all the time, tells me the trick is to ask the kid back, "What do your parents say?" Then Mr. G simply tells that kid to listen to their parents. It's a diplomatic response that is meant to ruffle no feathers (i.e. covers his ass against angry parents).

There was one more dimension to this dilemma that I perceived. As already established, the lies told one kid at home may not be in harmony with what other kids have been taught. And, this being the United States of America, kids also talk to one another, sometimes across cultural lines. They might even get into playground debates over whether Santa is real. In that case, it's really not desirable for an adult, who is not a parent, but who might nevertheless be recognized and cited by the children as an authority on the matter, to even be seen as implicitly supporting one side over the other, and then have that inadvertently fueling the fire of this schoolyard argument, ultimately multiplying your problems, when the news gets back to the kids' parents.

In the end, I think the best response is precisely the one I gave: "I don't have time for this."

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