In researching this week’s column on the fantasy of Santa Claus, I have found this topic may be as controversial as just about any other issue of child rearing. The presence of Santa Claus, St. Nick, Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas is difficult to avoid during the holiday season and it brings up the question, “Should we lie to children about Mr. Claus or tell them the truth?”
The good news is there is a middle ground to approach the delicate topic of the red-suited magician with the white beard and paranormal abilities. But before this middle approach is revealed, we should look at both sides. When I was a young’un, Santa Claus mostly frightened me; however, when I was about 7 or 8, my parents tried to convince me that Santa was real by throwing some rocks on the roof and pretending they had to be reindeer-hoof noises. It didn’t work. Even at age 8 I was a skeptic and not much has changed.
My wife, who is really smart, was taught by her parents that Santa Claus was a real thing. She told me this story: “When I was 3 years old, we traveled from the East Coast to Arizona due to mother’s bad asthma, so we left behind all the family (long distance phone calls and travel were both expensive, so contact with family was limited to letters). When you add a jolly old man who obviously loves and cares about me to this scenario, it gets complicated. Santa’s love was obvious because he was keeping constant track of me, whether I was being naughty or nice and rewarding my good behavior. I sent him letters and left him cookies and milk. Around second grade, my mother sat me down and told me Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t have any grandfather to relate to, so Santa was the next best thing. When I was told he didn’t exist, except as the ‘spirit’ of Christmas, I was emotionally crushed and it was as though my ‘grandfather’ had died. The grief lasted for a long time, and every time I saw a ‘Santa’ outside, it reminded me of his death.”
Isn’t that a nice story?
There is also a story of some parents who went to great extremes to make the myth of Santa Claus into a reality. The Mutchler family (listen to episode 482 of “This American Life”) enlisted the help of friends and relatives to convince their three children that Santa was real. Each year they would have various adult males take on the role of Santa Claus, who the family would find wandering around their backyard or an adjacent golf course. The “Santa” would then involve the children in conversations that would solidify his realness. If this sounds creepy, I think you are mostly right.
This attempt worked all right for two of the children, but the third boy tried to convince his sixth-grade class that Santa Claus was not a legend or myth but really existed. This did not go well with the other kids and resulted in him being teased, and finally resulted in years of not trusting people. This was not the intended or desired outcome of the charade.
Some folks argue that Santa and his elves and assorted supporting cast members are a harmless dramatic device to make the holiday season more exciting and “magical.” It has been promoted by retailers since about the 1840s. Go to your local library or online to see a more extensive history.
There are countless stories that illustrate how this legendary saint has made many children’s lives richer and have perhaps taught lessons of generosity as well as acquisitiveness. My immediate family didn’t “do” Santa, but instead informed our youngest daughter that Santa was a myth. My wife’s grief experience, reluctance to directly lie to our child, and a realization that Santa is mostly a marketing device that puts gift getting above gift giving were ideas that guided our handling of the issue.
The middle ground recommends allowing children to find out for themselves the truth of Santa Claus at their own speed. When they ask, “Is Santa real?” parents can ask, “What do you think?” and say that they know that St. Nicholas was a real person who was the a kindly man who became the patron saint of children. This approach empowers young children to make up their own minds at their own speed.
Here’s wishing everyone a peaceful and joyful holiday season, no matter what you believe.
Kevin Wychopen is a semiretired school counselor and columnist for the Enterprise. Contact him at email@example.com.