Do you believe in Santa Claus?
Dear Kerry, We don’t do Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy in our family. But my sister-in-law now refuses to visit during the holidays because she’s afraid that my kids will ruin the “magic of Christmas” for her kids, by telling them there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. What do you suggest? What do you think about Santa Claus, anyway? A Dad in Ann Arbor
Dear Ann Arbor Dad, People might think that Santa Claus is not a big deal for grownups, but I know differently! You are raising a big issue, one that causes surprisingly intense feelings in lots of people. In your post you describe the dilemma well - for you Santa Claus and such figures make no sense, so you haven’t introduced them to your kids. But your sister-in-law really has an investment in her kids believing in these fantasy characters. I guess it’s connected to each person’s childhood experiences and most of us feel pretty strongly, positively or negatively, about childhood things. Everyone tends to choose on purpose whether to do what their parents did or to do something different. Holidays are a time when traditions are observed; those who want to maintain them care a lot about their own family traditions, wanting their children to have the best of what they had when they were little.
But let’s think harder about childhood experiences around the idea of Santa Claus - not all memories of Santa Claus turn out to be so rosey. Often after starting off with general remarks about the fun, mystery and excitement of the holidays, parents have shared some stories with me over the years that paint a darker picture of this automatic holiday feature.
One mom talked about being the last child in her class that believed in Santa Claus. She was teased and ridiculed on the playground for being a baby. She was angry with her mother for exposing her to that humiliation by not helping her let go of the Santa Claus illusion.
A dad, who grew up to be an engineer, realized at 5 that there was no way that big fat man could fit down their chimney. But his parents seemed so committed to it as a reality. He felt sorry for his ignorant parents and felt he had to protect them from their own foolishness by pretending for another few years that he believed it too. That wasn’t good for his relationship and respect for them.
Another dad talked about his pain when he learned that his parents had lied to him. How could he trust them about other things?
A mom of 5-year-old twins alerted me to another problem. She said she was already feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole Santa Claus myth, but then realized also that she was using it to discipline, or even threaten, her kids. She said, “I didn’t like hearing myself say that Santa wouldn’t bring any presents if they didn’t brush their teeth!” When another mom, who was having the conversation with us, heard that, she remembered being scared when she was little that there was this guy who knew what she was thinking and knew if she didn’t go to sleep right away. It made her feel guilty and then it was even harder to go to sleep, much less feeling that she had no privacy in her thoughts.
I have had parents question, though, whether it is really a lie to talk about Santa Claus as if he is real. One parent likened it to religious concepts, where we talk to children about things they can’t actually see, that may be beyond their understanding or unrealistic on the face of it.
There is a crucial difference, to my mind, between sharing values and beliefs of your own with your children, as you do with religion or morality, and telling them something is true that you don’t actually believe. If you believe in Santa Claus too, then you aren’t lying to your child. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, and say that he is real, you are lying to your child. I’ve stated this bluntly, for the sake of the logic of the situation, but I do have a solution to suggest that is based in the history of the Santa Claus idea.
The historical Christian Saint Nicholas was noted for his care for the needy and his devotion to children. In other words, the story is one of loving and giving. That is a beautiful story, filled with important feelings and messages for people of all ages. And there doesn’t have to be any magic around loving and giving, since that is what we all really do at this time of year, for our families and our communities.
You might say to your children that “Santa Claus is a beautiful story that many people all around the world tell at this time of year, when we especially show our love for each other. When we tell about Santa bringing gifts, we are talking about the gifts of love and caring, which we also show with presents to each other.” In this way, you are pointing out the underlying meaning of Christmas and de-emphasizing the material. In an ongoing way, you are also teaching the difference between real and pretend and enriching your child’s mind with an understanding of symbols and metaphors.
You can tell your children that “everyone loves that beautiful story. Some people love it so much that they want to believe it’s true. We respect other people’s beliefs, so we won’t disagree or make fun of them. You and they can each think what you want, and everyone can enjoy loving and giving at Christmas.”
Perhaps if you explain your position that way to your sister-in-law, she will be able to visit with pleasure and have both families share the holidays joyously!
Enjoy the holidays, everyone! May this dark time of the year be filled for your family with the lights of Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and memories of Diwali! Best wishes as we move into a Happy New Year!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns.