[Spoiler alert: Children who believe in Santa Clause shouldn’t read this post.]
The other day, one of my Facebook friends wrote a post that was critical of allowing children to believe in Santa Claus, suggesting that “Santa Claus encourages magical thinking, creates trust issues, delays perfectly capable little people access to the psychological realities of life, discourages their healthy skepticism, and sets them up to be bitterly disappointed.” I asked in a comment to his post he really believed he did his own child a great disservice by letting her believe in Santa Claus for a few years? He responded that he wasn’t sure but that, in retrospect, did not think they did her a great service, positing that “we could have generated at least as much love and joy, without lying.”
My friend is not the only person to criticize the Santa Claus myth. Many atheists dislike it because of its Christian origins. Many Christians dislike it because it diverts attention from the appropriate focus of the holiday.
I’ve spent some time thinking about my friend’s comments. As I have, here are some things that came to mind.
Every year, for as long as I can remember, there comes a point during our family’s large Christmas Eve gathering when Sana Claus appears. He either comes down the stairs (as though coming in from the roof) or in the front door, carrying a large sack with a present for each of the children. I can still taste the joy and wonder I experienced as a child when I was one of the ones who still believed. And in the years since then, I’ve seen the same joy and wonder on the faces of my younger siblings and cousins, my daughter, nieces and nephews and so on. (There has never been a year when we haven’t had children young enough to believe in Santa.) Over the years, almost all of the male adults have taken a turn being Santa – my father, my uncles, cousins, nephews, brother, my husband, even an occasional neighbor. (When Christmas Eve was at our house in Port Washington one year, my Jewish neighbor Roger was Santa.) It was always a joyous occasion.
The second image that comes is one I only know from hearing it told to me. It is the image of my father staying up half the night on Christmas Eve getting things ready for us. We’d come home late from the big family Christmas Eve celebration, my parents would finally get my siblings and me asleep – no small task for four children excited about Santa coming. When we finally settled down, my mother would fill the stockings as my father spent hours putting together kitchen set or bicycles or the like – everything seemed to come unassembled in those days. (I recall him telling me of the frustration of spending hours putting together those kitchen sets and finding himself with a leftover nut or washer, wondering where in the process he made a mistake.)
Other images come. I remember helping my younger siblings writing their letters to Santa after I no longer believed. I remember my brother-in-law eating the cookies my daughter had left out for Santa, so she would wake and see only the crumbs. I remember the discussions about the department store Santas not being “the real Santa.”
In all of those memories – all of which still make me smile, I see incredible love and desire to bring happiness. I see a spirit of joy. And I see a shared sense of wonder and amazement.
In time we all stopped believing in Santa Claus. It wasn’t traumatic, didn’t create bitter disappointment, and didn’t leave us with trust issues; we just, each in our own time, came to realize that the Santa who appeared on Christmas Eve was Uncle Bob or Michael or Dave, and that the source of the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning was our parents. We stopped believing in Santa, but we never stopped believing in the love, the caring, the sharing, and the generosity Santa represented.
I don’t disagree with my friend that we can generate lots of love and joy without Santa. But the sense of wonder shared by the children, the magical fun of it all (not to mention the efforts the adults made to make it all come off every year), is not something I would have wanted to be without myself, or wanted Elena to be without. If believing in Santa encouraged a bit of “magical thinking” on our parts, well, I think that is all to the good.