Everywhere I look, I see parents immersing their young children in Santa mythology. They play elaborate games with elves on shelves, tell convoluted stories about “real” Santas versus mall Santas and follow a script containing the sometimes-desperate admonition to their children to just believe.
Santa may have started as magic for my kids, but by the time they were in school, it turned into anxiety — and very real questions about poverty, physics and time zones.
It feels more over the top these days than ever, but maybe that’s because I’m past it as a parent (my kids are now 11 and 13). Or because I’m so acutely tuned in to the damage that disinformation does, I’ve lost my ability to just have fun. Or because I happened to write a book about honesty last year and, for the first time, noticed how easy it is for parents to lie. (Takeaway: We lie a lot but still think we’re honest.)
Maybe it’s all of the above. But whatever the reason, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do Santa. At least not in the same way.
Santa may have started as magic for my kids, but by the time they were in school, it turned into anxiety — and very real questions about poverty, physics and time zones. My kids wanted to believe, since I had been the one telling them to. But they were also starting to feel silly for believing in something the logical part of their brains knew couldn’t possibly be real. The contradiction stressed them out.
I wound up telling each of them at age 8, but even then I felt like I was doing something wrong by clueing them in. In retrospect, I feel that I did something wrong in ever going along with such a weird and dubious lie — especially one that totally glosses over income inequality. How many opportunities for important conversations did I miss because I was so focused on telling them to believe in magic?
It turns out, how parents handle Santa is a rich area for honesty research. When Thalia Goldstein of George Mason University and Candice Mills of the University of Texas at Dallas asked parents to fill out December diaries and reflect on the conversations they had with their kids about Santa, they found that well over half of parents — 57 percent — said they felt some discomfort, negative feelings or tension, including the sense that they were outright lying. And 20 percent were specifically troubled by the conversations around the idea that being “naughty” meant disappointment on Christmas morning, whereas being “nice” meant lots of presents.
I distinctly remember feeling icky about that dynamic myself, and though I would laugh along with other parents when they talked about putting a piece of charcoal under the tree for a misbehaving child as a practical joke, it felt disingenuous. I’m glad to know now I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I think if I had seen stats like these long ago, I would have taken a different approach.
In fact, a central goal of Mills and Goldstein’s research is to understand the range of approaches parents take, from those who deliberately choose not to tell their children Santa is real to those who take their children to see multiple live Santas (which, interestingly, Goldstein’s research has found only strengthens kids’ belief in him instead of making them suspicious).
For better or worse, parents have amazing abilities to explain things away. I certainly did in the case of Santa, mostly in the name of preserving childhood wonder. But the more distance I have, the more I’m the one wondering: Why did I go along with the idea that an ancient and portly white man with an army of spies is always watching you and brings a haul of material rewards for good behavior? Why was this the particular brand of “wonder” I promoted, instead of, say, the miracle of stars shining light from millions of years ago?
It’s not like I grew up steeped in the Santa myth. As the youngest of seven kids, some sibling told me the truth at one point, though I couldn’t tell you who or when. And my husband never believed as a child, always seeing the illogic of it all, so he wasn’t pushing it.
Santa just seemed to happen, and I regret that I didn’t think more critically about the messages I was sending by going all-in on this problematic but culturally accepted story — and reconsider my decision along the way. What makes a 2-year-old’s eyes twinkle can make an 8-year-old feel ashamed and confused, and I didn’t anticipate that.
Why did I go along with the idea that an ancient and portly white man with an army of spies is always watching you and brings a haul of material rewards for good behavior?
So if I could talk to younger Judi, pregnant with my first, I would advise myself to minimize the story early on — and definitely to avoid the naughty/nice thing, the “you’re being watched” threat and the tradition that Santa brings loads of stuff.The most eye-opening essay I’ve ever read about Santa is from writer Bobbi Dempsey, who implored parents to stop making the “big ticket” gifts from Santa because it only leaves poor children (of which she was one) wondering what they did wrong to not get the extravagant presents of their more well-off peers.
This younger version of me might ask if this means I can’t recite “‘Twas the night before Christmas” from the vintage, beautifully illustrated edition that my dad used to read on Christmas Eve, and that I inherited after he died. But I’d reassure myself that of course I could still read it to my kids. We should continue to share stories of Santa as part of the Christmas tradition, just keep him in the same place as Clifford and Barney, Elsa and Anna, Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo: in our imaginations.