In an article in the PostEverything section of The Washington Post this morning, novelist Jessica Grose writes about grappling with the inevitable Santa Claus questions from her 4-year-old, with the added twist that she is Jewish and her husband is Christian. Having had no childhood experience with either Christmas or Santa Claus, she offered the lame but completely understandable “He’s magic!” in response to her daughter’s questions. I mean, who among us has not offered that response when confronted with logical questions about a larger-than-life figure that doesn’t actually exist?One of my sons had a friend in Cub Scouts who was faced with a Santa question that might leave many of us at a loss for words. Taking note of the Scouts’ efforts to fill a Toys For Tots box, the boy wanted to know “How come Santa doesn’t visit poor kids?” Her answer: “Well, even though Santa brings the gifts, mommy and daddy still have to pay for them.” I thought it was a pretty clever answer to a pretty clever question.
We did the Santa Claus thing when my kids were little. My husband and I would get up at 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning to fill the stockings, hang candy canes on the tree (a traditional sign in my childhood home that Santa had, indeed, been there), and pile up obscene amounts of gifts. (We even managed to pull it off after a particularly infamous Christmas Eve party at a neighbor’s house one year.)
Meanwhile, our youngest son would struggle to fall asleep. (The oldest never had much of a problem with Christmas Eve insomnia.) I recall one year, Son #2 came into our bedroom in tears, worried that Santa wouldn’t come because he couldn’t fall asleep. I don’t know if that was the first time I asked myself what we were doing to our kids, but I know it wasn’t the last. Here was this child who was inconsolable because he thought some made-up guy was going to pass by our house due the boy’s inability to fall asleep.I, too, was faced with many questions from my kids over the years, from the garden variety “How does Santa travel around the world and visit millions of homes all in one night” to the more pointed, “Tell me the truth, Mom. You and Dad are Santa, right?”
My boys are now grown and one has a daughter of his own this year. She’s too young to know about Santa, but I have no doubt that by next Christmas the myth will be perpetuated in her home, too. After all, it’s tradition, among not only Christians but non-Christians, as well. In our home, Christmas is celebrated as a secular holiday, a time for family and food, and try as I might to curtail the “cornucopia of greed and avarice,” to borrow from two different Christmas videos, we still seem to have mountains of gifts under the tree.In case you thought this post would address the overload of “stuff” our kids have heaped on them on Christmas, that’s not really my issue. Parents far more clever than I am have devised ways to teach their kids the meaning of Christmas and the joy of giving. Mostly for my own sanity, I eventually curtailed Christmas gifts down to a few and instead put the focus on spending time together while enjoying the sights, sounds, and — did I mention the food? — that makes the holiday meaningful.
No, what Grose’s article brought to mind is my concern about how we perpetuate these lies with our kids, to the point where they can’t sleep and they become miserable and suspicious. Mind you, the suspicion is not limited to wondering if Santa is real. Son #1 eventually got wise to his younger brother’s inclination to sneak into the living room before anyone else was up on Christmas morning, so he took to sleeping in his brother’s room. On the floor. In front of the door. (As an aside, this grew into another of the traditions in our home, and as the boys grew older, it became something they looked forward to.)I’m still troubled by the myth of Santa Claus and the effect it has on our kids. Kids are bullied in school with accusations that they still believe in Santa — as if there could be no greater evidence of a kid’s inferiority. We threaten our kids with lumps of coal in their stocking — and nothing else — on Christmas morning if they’re not “good.” We tease them with claims of Santa sightings in the night sky on December 24th. As a public service, I seriously urge you not to do that. My dad tried it with me when I was about the same age as Grose’s daughter, and the meltdown that ensued caused us to cut short our Christmas dinner with my grandparents because I insisted on going home so I could go to bed. Otherwise, Santa would pass by our house.
Is this really good for our kids? Is there any hope of changing the culture to allow us to be a bit more honest with our children? Try as I might to resist having allowing my life to be shaped by “cultural norms” that don’t necessarily bear any connection to reality, one grows weary of trying to swim against the current. I haven’t decided how I will handle the Santa stickler with my granddaughter. I’ve probably got a couple of years to figure it out.