I always knew they would ask eventually. There can only be so many years of innocent acceptance before your children have some tricky questions about the big man in red. And now my daughter cornered me with it: “Mummy, why do people try to make their children believe in Santa?”
I couldn’t answer her, because I honestly don’t know.
In the house I grew up in, we talked about Father Christmas, of course, in just the same way that we talked about dragons and fairies and monsters and magic. Nobody ever tried to pretend that any of it was real or that adults believed in it, but nobody ever told me outright “you know, this is just made up.” It just all belonged to the realm of stories and make-believe, outside of everyday concerns like True or Not True.
As a child, I went to bed on Christmas Eve with an empty stocking at the end of my bed, and I woke up on Christmas morning to find it full of lovely things. I knew my Mum had put them there and eventually I realized that with only me and her living in the house she wouldn’t have a stocking of her own until I offered to fill it in return. Knowing who bought the presents and sneaked in while I was asleep didn’t take anything away from the excitement, that wonderful combination of predictability and surprise.
So I took the same tack with my own children. I’m not sure how I could have done otherwise, in practice. If I see potential stocking fillers while I’m out with them, as much as I try to be discreet, either I run the risk of being spotted or I have to say outright “please look the other way while I buy something secret.”
Listening to other parents, I have been shocked by the lengths to which people will go to convince their children of something that they know to be false. I have met a mum who takes the labels off every single present her child receives and tells her all of them are from Santa, meaning that the child can never feel gratitude to the grandparents or friends who gave gifts. Another mum told me her daughter was getting a doll from Santa, and the girl’s grandmother had offered to buy some accessories for the doll. The mum told her that was out of the question, stating “how would you know what Santa was getting her?”
I have heard people say that belief in Santa gives children an innocent sense of magic. I want that for my children, too, but I don’t want it to come to a crashing end when they eventually, inevitably, find out that I have been going out of my way to mislead them. Christmas is magical for us because of the rituals that we have around this time of year: the decorations that go up, the Christmas books that only come out in December, the songs we sing, the Church services, the trip to see the lights on local houses, the excitement of planning gifts for other people.
I understand the fun of talking about imaginary and magical things with children. When my children built houses out of stones for the fairies in our garden, I sneaked out after they were in bed and made a tiny washing line with miniature clothes pegs on it. They were enchanted, and they still talk about it now, though they realized many years ago that it was me.
I mention this because I want to be clear: I’m not reading Nietzsche to my children and making them watch documentaries about sweatshops so they know exactly where their presents came from. We have the same fun as everyone else reading Christmas stories, writing letters to Santa, and all the rest. None of that is incompatible with our Santa-agnostic position – these are just fun things that we do, with no attempts to convince the children that they signify the existence of a magical man.
I’m just troubled by the idea of working so hard to instill a belief that they will eventually discover was a prolonged and systematic deception by the adults they trusted. A friend of mine has brought her children up to believe in Santa, but when her son started asking questions, she answered questions honestly and asked him to keep the truth secret from his siblings and friends. Hearing about this, another mum told my friend that her son would no longer be welcomed for play dates in case he revealed the truth to the woman’s own children. When my friend suggested that the children might at some point work it out for themselves, the other mum insisted that they would continue to believe, saying “in my house, if you’re not a believer, you’re not a receiver.” In other words, if her children expressed skepticism about Santa, they would get no Christmas presents.
I suspect that those children will keep any doubts well hidden from their parents and will rely on their friends for accurate answers to their questions. I hope they don’t transfer those lessons over into other, more important areas of their lives. I just don’t want to lie to my children, and I don’t want them to feel they can’t be honest with me.
Some people’s rigid insistence on faith in Santa makes me wonder whether, in a world with less interest in religious belief, we are trying to recreate all the aspects of it that we miss: there is a man at the top of the world who knows you and loves you and will give you wonderful things if you ask for them. Careful, though, he’s keeping an eye on you to make sure you’re good ...
That seems to be the other purpose of the Santa story: You can wield Santa’s visit over your children to make them behave better. I’ve got a broader problem with that. I don’t want to say “don’t hit your brother or you won’t get any presents.” I’d rather say “don’t hit your brother because it will hurt him,” but sticking with the purely practical, if you’re only behaving nicely to earn your Christmas presents, do you have a licence to do what you want as soon as soon as you’ve got hold of the goods? Surely parents can’t start evoking next year’s gifts until November, at the earliest, in which case how do you discipline children for the rest of the year?
Don’t even get me started on Elf On The Shelf. Not only does it sound like a whole lot of extra work for parents to do when their children are asleep – when surely there are a thousand other things most of us would rather be doing – but the children I know with Elves on Shelves are unanimous in their verdict that they are “scary” and “a bit freaky.” And talking of scary and freaky, how do children feel about an old man watching them from a distance all year, then sneaking into their houses and rummaging around in their bedrooms while they sleep?
I’m absolutely not saying we should ditch Father Christmas. I love to tell my children Christmas stories of all kinds, including a sanitized version of the St Nicholas story that has evolved into our modern Santa Claus myth (there’s a bit too much cannibalism and prostitution in the original). It’s a good starting point for conversations about thoughtfulness, generosity, gratitude, and sharing what we have with others. We have all that, and Christmas magic, and good behavior (mostly) – so what do we need Santa for?