Should You Tell Your Kids The Truth About Santa?carolyncastiglia
Two days ago, Babble published a feature by Krista Pfeiffer, titled “In Our House, There’s No Santa Claus.” So far it’s garnered 112 reader responses, both in support of and rallying against Pfeiffer. (Jezebel has highlighted a few comments from both sides of the debate.) In her piece, Pfeiffer argues that “encouraging my kids to be good in order to make Santa’s nice list… not only undermine(s) my authority, but it’s pure extrinsic motivation.” Furthermore, Pfeiffer declares that “Santa Claus represents, for me, all that is not Christmas spirited: receiving instead of giving, greed instead of gratefulness, idle wanting instead of active contributing.” (I can’t help but agree with Sadie Stein at Jezebel, who calls Pfeiffer out for her “superior” and “condemnatory” tone.)
Pfeiffer sounds a bit haughty when she writes:
Encouraging my children to write letters to him or make Christmas lists or be good because he’s watching encourages all the wrong things for me. I want whatever goodness does come out of my children to be for the right reasons. I want them to be people who are simply good and kind and honest, as I try to be (well, most of the time…).
As if those of us who let our kids believe in Santa don’t want them to be decent people of their own volition? Hardly. I don’t tell my daughter that Santa is “watching” her, because that’s just downright creepy. (I’ve never told her God watches everything she does, either. That’ll give anyone a complex. It’s one thing when your animals decide to creep in the bedroom while you’re getting it on, but Jesus? No thanks.)
In fact, I’ve told my daughter more about God than I have about Santa. I’ve talked to my daughter about the fact that some people don’t believe in God, and that those who do have different ways of believing and/or worshiping. But Santa? Most of what my daughter has gleaned about Santa she’s absorbed from pop culture, Christmas movies, books, store displays, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Of course I’ve encouraged her belief by exposing her to those things, and by giving her presents from Santa. For the last two Christmas Eve’s, we’ve left Santa a plate full of cookies, and (s)he has eaten every one of them.
My mother, like the friend Pfeiffer mentions in her piece, does claim to have direct access to Santa, which she used to great effect last year. My mother was able to curb my daughter’s intense tantrums by having a conversation with Santa on the porch. As soon as my mother said, “Yes, I’ll tell her there won’t be any Christmas if she doesn’t stop,” my daughter stopped throwing tantrums – for good. Say what you will about extrinsically motivating your kids to behave well; it’s better than pathologizing their bad behavior. I’d been feeling terribly guilty that I’d gotten divorced, thinking I’d screwed my kid up for life. Meanwhile, all it took was a knock on the door from a fictional character to solve the problem, not years of talk therapy. Best present ever.
I don’t mind that Pfeiffer doesn’t want to bring Santa into her home – as many others have said, that’s her business. What I don’t like about her take on the jolly old elf is that she ignorantly concludes that believing in him precludes being a charitable person. She insinuates that it is precisely because Santa does not come to her house that her children will “give gifts to the less fortunate, say thank you for what gifts they receive and continue to be kind and do the right thing.” But my daughter believes wholeheartedly in Santa, and she also does all of those things. Giving and receiving are not mutually exclusive.
There are other reasons not to bring Santa into your home, though. I had a friend who used to say, “It’s a lie. Do you really want to lie to your children, even if it brings them joy?” Many people think Pfeiffer is on to something, that focusing on the commercial aspects of Christmas are ultimately wasteful and bad for the environment (though Pfeiffer doesn’t use environmentalism in her reasoning against St. Nick). What about Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists? How do they feel about Kris Kringle? After all, Santa Claus, despite having Christian roots, has been subsumed by the secular sect and stands as the face of American consumerism this time of year, so you don’t have to be religious to enjoy a visit from Father Christmas.
I asked my fellow bloggers what they’ve told their kids about Santa and whether or not he’ll visit their house this year. The answers they gave me run the gamut from wishing they’d never agreed to play along with the charade to still believing in Santa, even as an adult.
Our friend Paula Bernstein told me, “I never told my kids about Santa, but they absorbed the idea (or at least Jesse did). Now, at nearly 9, she no longer believes in God, but she continues to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy! We never talk about Santa (e.g. “Santa is coming soon…”), but I also haven’t made a point of telling her there is no Santa.” Santa visits Paula’s house, even though her family is Jewish.
John Cave Osborne wondered to me whether or not “it was fair to play him as the fat, red trump card he clearly is with regard to keeping your kids in line.” He told me, “Our daughter is 9, and this is probably the last year, if, indeed, she even still believes. She has every incentive to pretend like she still believes. You know… presents.”
Which brings me to an interesting point. Another reason someone once gave me for not allowing a child to buy into the Santa myth is because she wanted her children to know how hard she had to work to buy all of their presents. Why should some non-existent fairy get all the credit? As a single mother, I can relate. My mother’s way of handling the Santa debacle when I was a child was to give us some gifts from her and my Dad and some from Santa. That’s how I’ve decided to go about gift-giving as well. As I mentioned on my personal blog, because my daughter is spending Christmas with her Dad this year, my side of the family had our celebration this weekend, so I gave my daughter the presents she was getting from me and told her Santa will come here Christmas Eve morning, his first stop on his trip around the world. I don’t mind encouraging the fairy tale. Pfeiffer herself admits that as a child who believed in Santa, she felt “a certain magic about Christmas Day and the night before.”
John continued, “Santa, to me, is like those classes that help you on standardized tests. If everyone would quit taking them, no one would have to take them. If everyone would just stop the Santa thing, we’d be able to, too.” But the magic Pfeiffer describes is the sole reason, I think, that the Santa myth remains. No one tells their children about Santa because they’re delighting in some kind of perverse lie; we tell our kids about Santa because we remember what it’s like to believe in magic. We’re not exploiting their innocence, we’re allowing them to be blissfully duped, to revel in naivete while it’s still safe for them to do so. Children learn, eventually, that Santa isn’t real, and no one is worse for the wear.
Well, almost no one is worse for the wear. Our friend Sandy Maple shared a story about her older brother and sister, who broke the news in a rather harsh way. “They delighted in telling me there was no Santa when I was five. I distinctly remember sobbing to my mother in the kitchen, begging her to tell me they were lying. She didn’t,” she said, adding, “My own kid, who is 10 and an only child, pretends she still believes in Santa and we go along with it.”
Robin Aronson, who is also Jewish, told me, “I didn’t ever believe in Santa, but I did believe in the tooth fairy. We don’t celebrate Christmas at all, but we haven’t said anything to the kids about whether Santa exists or not. It’s kind of DADT around here on the subject. I don’t really want to talk about it because my kids DON’T go to a Jewish school so it’s not like all the kids are in on the same secret. I want their classmates’ parents to make the decision about when to break the news.”
And that’s probably the most important thing about the whole Santa situation, as Sadie Stein at Jezebel points out. She writes, “Whatever you believe, don’t encourage your kid to be the superior killjoy who ruins it for the other kids.” Sierra Black was supervising a playdate between her daughter and an older friend, when the older friend turned to her daughter and exclaimed, “You know Santa Claus isn’t real.” In response, Sierra wrote:
All I know is that Santa Claus buys crazy shit for you that I would never buy. He rides all over the world finding you the perfect gifts, and wraps them up in bows and shiny paper and stuff that is *so* not my style. Santa shoves about a pound of chocolate into your stocking every year? Would I do that? Right.
Maybe my hands carry out his work, but I am not that guy. Santa Claus is as real to me as he is to you.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself, especially given the fact that I am about to wrap – as Santa – an American Girl Doll, something I swore I’d never buy for my daughter. Yes, Santa’s handwriting may look a bit like mine, but he’s his own spirit, indeed. The spirit of giving, wrapped up in a bow of magic and tradition, sprinkled with the glitter of delight.