We haven’t told my four-year-old son about Santa Claus. He’s read about Santa and St. Nicholas in books, of course, and points out Santa decorations around the neighborhood. And my husband takes him to Mass, shows him the crèche, and opens an Advent calendar with him every day, so it’s not like we skip all the holiday traditions and stories. But the story that Santa is a real entity who slides down the chimney on Christmas Eve? Nope. Our party line: Santa is a character in a story.
I want to be straightforward with my kids at all times. They should have no doubt that any question they ask will be answered honestly, with no hedging or weird, age-inappropriate metaphors, like “Santa lives in our hearts.” We don’t use any euphemisms about death, and despite my husband’s Catholicism, we won’t introduce the idea of heaven (or any of the more mystical aspects of Christianity). There are lots of real stories of generosity, kindness, and gift-giving around Christmastime that we can tell in the hopes of teaching him to be generous himself. And I’m sure he has plenty of innocent childhood notions that will inevitably end—his parents’ infallibility, for example, or when he realizes that adults, in fact, aren’t always as selfless and kind as they should be.
I personally don’t think the magic of believing in Santa is worth the moment children realize you’ve been putting one over on them. I don’t think “believing in Santa” equals innocence, and I definitely don’t need to set my kids up for disillusionment.
So that’s our personal stance. I know that other families feel differently and, all things considered, it’s a minor difference of opinion, compared to, say, whether children should be vaccinated or whether children should own guns. I have instructed my son that some kids do think Santa is real, and that he should let them continue to believe that and not argue about it. He said he understood, but who knows? He’s four. He also says he has superpowers in his tummy.
However, this minor difference of opinion gets weird when parents get pissed at other children for spilling the Santa beans.
The New York Times recently published an essay by a mother whose third-grader was disabused of the Santa notion by a classmate. The child was extremely distressed to learn that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.
For this, the mother blames the classmate:
“I wanted to tie his truth-telling classmate to a medieval torture device. Instead, I spoke to Peter’s mother and gave her some casual, friendly feedback that although I completely understood her family’s ideological stance on Santa Claus, for the sake of her younger children’s classmates, they might want to keep their family’s reality within their family, particularly around the holidays.”
The thing is, my family’s reality is, actually, reality. And frankly, I don’t think it’s my son’s responsibility to preserve a fantasy for your child.
The mother goes on to blame the teacher for not reining in this hysterical, free-for-all dissemination of accurate information:
“Ben’s teacher caught the worst of it, however, as many parents felt that she should have been able to control the spread of her student’s revelations.”
Look, you can tell your kids all the fairy tales you want, but it’s nuts to expect other children to be complicit in your family’s personal fantasies. It is flat-out crazy to be pissed at a child for “ruining” Santa. Since when are children responsible for maintaining your fictions? And, by the way, how long do you expect this to go on? Till age 8? 9? 43? How long should the rest of us collude to keep your kid in the dark?
I mean, this is why we don’t tell our kids our bank passwords and how we really feel about our in-laws—because kids can’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut. Some child, at some point, is going to spill the beans. Being ticked-off about something inevitable is a waste of your energy. And if your kid is so distraught that he’s weeping at this disillusionment, maybe you’d better think about your own culpability in the situation.
For little kids, the borders between pretend and real are pretty porous anyway—it’s not like you really need to contribute anything to their pretend play. My son’s little friend Ruby has told him that a witch regularly enters their house at night and eats her parents. The two children have repeated this story back to each other, over and over again, each time embellishing it with weirder and weirder details: The witches eat your tummy! They eat the cat food! They eat the cat eating the cat food! They terrify each other, but in a delighted, ghost-story kind of way. They both—I think—know that witches aren’t real. But their stories are hugely entertaining to the two of them, and I hope that they will continue to be pals and tell each other stories for a long time. That’s a fantasy life I can get behind.