Every December there’s a war over Santa, and whether telling children he’s real is magical or immoral. And every year I think it’s rather silly. Some parents want their children to believe in the mythic figure, to behave because he’s always watching, and to celebrate his presence. Other parents consider Santa nothing but base deception, preying on children too young to think critically. Neither group has as much narrative control as they would like.
Parents for Santa think of it as a story, an imagination game meant to keep childish wonder and innocence around another year. They think a Christmas without Santa sounds joyless and dull, perhaps even pitying children who don’t believe. I grew up without belief in Santa, yet enjoyed every Christmas. Presents, family, and food made the holiday plenty magical on their own.
Whay bemuses me is the similarities between very religious and very atheistic objections to Santa presented as truth. I was raised in a Christian-ish cult and we did not have Santa. I distinctly remember my grandma/leader saying Santa was invented to make people believe in evolution and humanism instead of Jesus. She blamed some of civilization’s downfall on the movie “Miracle on 34th Street”, then forgot this injunction and gave me a VHS copy a few years later for Christmas.
Atheists against Santa usually frame it as a lie, not in contrast with the Gospel of Jesus, but equally false. There is no room for stories that straddle the line between realty and fantasy, no small secret hope their Hogwarts letter was misplaced all these years. They, like conservative Christians, take a black and white, truth or lie approach that isn’t very understanding of how children work.
Some children are natural skeptics, of religion, of patriotism, of Santa. These are the kids asking how Santa gets into homes without chimneys, how he reaches every house in one night, and why last year’s secret misbehavior had no discernible iimpact on gift total. This questioning will happen no matter what their parents do or don’t say.
Likewise some children are natural dreamers. They concoct elaborate imaginary worlds and sweeping sagas involving every stuffed animal in their pantheon. These children have imaginary friends, pray every night, and open wardrobes hoping to find Narnia. They believe in wishes made on stars, and in a generous benevolent Santa, no matter what their parents say.
You can use or discard the Santa story however you want, and in the long run it probably won’t make a tremendous difference. If parents are honest about the big stuff, then even a child who feels betrayed can get over a well intended Santa fib. If joy and wonder are nurtured throughout the year, passing up this one tradition won’t rob your child of holiday spirit. What we all can agree on, I hope, is teaching our children to respect the dreams of their peers and younger kids, and to not be the jerk who ruins someone’s Christmas.