Beneath the mistletoe, cheerful songs and colorful bulbs that herald the Christmas holiday, one nefarious fib trumps all the good cheer — Santa and his reindeer.
Each Christmas, parents around the country string twinkling lights, bake cookies, don reindeer sweaters and share tidings of lies and falsehoods. The story of Santa Claus, that jolly, large man in red felt who comes from the North Pole each Christmas to bring toys to the good boys and girls, thrills most children on Christmas Eve.
But not everyone. “I was vaguely afraid of Santa’s wrath,” my friend Amy tells me. “All year long, he was like a threat: ‘Santa won’t come if you don’t finish your peas;’ ‘Hit your brother again and you will get a lump of coal in your stocking.’ That’s a lot for a kid to absorb.”
I too spent my earliest Christmases huddled under the covers, scared of the obese, white-haired man who would come down the chimney by night and eat the cookies we left out. When I was four, my mother finally told me the truth — not because she was opposed to lying, but because I was so frightened that I refused to go to bed on Christmas Eve.
A month before, we had waited in line for an hour so that I could sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas (a Barbie and some toys). I can still remember his smell, a mix of stale cigarettes and apple juice. He had sweaty wrists and bony thighs. I refused to sit.
“You won’t get what you want then,” warned my much better-behaved and happier friend, Sarah. But at that moment, all I wanted was to get away from that odd-looking man. So, a month later, the idea that I would be excited at the prospect of his visit to my parents’ house was a bit unrealistic. “Is that man from the mall really going to come into our living room?” I asked my mother. She quickly caved.
I slept well that Christmas.
And yet, in the twenty-six ensuing Christmases, I have perpetuated the myth for other children – first for my little sister, who was less skeptical and less terrified; then for my little cousins, whose parents would have wrung my neck if I’d told the truth. But, always, in the back of my mind, there was some measure of discomfort. Why are we encouraged to tell the truth all year round, but then we lie about this? Isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?
Now I am the mother and, with the holidays approaching, I’m faced with a dilemma. What do I tell my daughter?
I know most parents are horrified by the idea of abandoning the Santa myth. These parents encourage their children to send lists of gifts in envelopes addressed to “the North Pole.” Each year, the post office is inundated by such letters, filled with the names of toys hopeful children want to see under their trees on December 25th. These are the parents who trudge each year to the mall, waiting in lines that snake into the parking lot so that their child can get one more photo with “Santa.” And on Christmas Eve, these same parents will take bites out of the cookies their believing children left out for Santa and his reindeer. They will leave notes signed, “love Santa,” thanking their children for being so good.
But I am a woman who likes to give credit where credit is due. I send my thank-you notes to the right people, and I would like my daughter to do the same. I would like to thank my child directly for being good. And if I spend hours finding, wrapping and presenting a series of gifts to my child, then I would like her to know they are from me. We still have a tree and gifts and gingerbread. It doesn’t make the season any less magical.
So what are these other parents afraid of? In our culture, it seems Santa (like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy) has come to represent a time of innocence, a time when children still believe in fairy tales and magic – when the idea that a single man can travel hundreds of thousands of miles in one night, eat millions of cookies, drop off millions of gifts and still get back to the North Pole in time for Christmas breakfast with Mrs. Claus still seems possible.
Somehow being told “the truth,” or discovering it on one’s own, has become the great dividing line between childhood innocence and some kind of jaded pseudo-adulthood, as if the eight-year-old who sees behind Oz’s curtain will immediately grab a bottle of Jack Daniels and some unfiltered Camels to ring in the new year.
For me, finding out at four that there was no Santa was no great loss. If anything, I was relieved. I could thank the right people for my gifts. There was no need to write letters to the North Pole or sit on some sweaty store-Santa’s lap. Best of all, my parents had to come up with better means of discipline than “Santa is watching you.” I never suffered from a lack of imagination. Until I was about ten, I truly believed that The Wizard of Oz was about me. I wore sparkly red flats and made everyone call me Dorothy.
Meanwhile, my friends who still believed were using their Santa-given Barbie dolls to act out the sex scenes from Dirty Dancing and The Big Easy. They watched George Michael scream “I Want Your Sex” on MTV and french-kissed boys on the playground. But still, deep down, we were all innocent.
Now it is my turn to decide what I want my daughter to believe. I know what my husband wants. He believed until he was eight and would like her to believe as well. Of course, I want my daughter to have a good childhood, one filled with dreams, imagination and creativity, but she doesn’t need Santa to have that. And as much as I want her to be happy, I also want her to be a truth seeker, someone who questions what she is told and is always honest. I’m not sure that lying to her is the right way to meet that goal.
She can enjoy the spirit of the holidays, all of the giving, excitement and happiness, without believing in a myth – a myth that is weirdly used both to keep children in line and to symbolize enduring childhood wonderment. So I will tell my daughter the truth. I will sign our gifts, “Love, Mommy and Daddy.” I want her to be innocent. I want her to have an active imagination. But I’m not going to lie to her. And if not lying also means we don’t have to wait in a two-hour line to see a mall Santa, then all the better.