When I was a kid, my least favorite song in the world was “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town.” The lyrics made me feel sick and guilty: “You better watch out/ You better not cry/ You better not pout I’m telling you why/ Santa Claus is comin’ to town!”
Every time I heard them, it felt as if they were directed right at me. I had certainly cried. I had certainly pouted. And it didn’t help that relatives liked to joke that if I was bad, I’d get coal in my stocking. I mostly-sort-of knew they were lying. But what if they weren’t?
What if all the people who told me, when I was badly behaved in December, that Santa was going to “skip your house” or “give you coal” or “take your presents back” were actually right? What if Christmas — the most wonderful time of the year to any kid — really could be canceled? I believed them. And I believe, today, one of the meanest things you can do to a child is to use Santa as a threat.
We don’t do Santa in our house. In fact, we don’t do Santa for this very reason. Santa is supposed to be the embodiment of Christmas love and joy. I can get behind that. I can get behind the magic of Christmas, of some guy who might look like The Dude in Big Lebowski flying around the world delivering presents, of eight tiny reindeer and the NORAD tracker and all the rest of the “I Believe” stuff.
But I can’t get behind the guilt.
A friend had a random lady tell her tantruming 3-year-old, “You better be good. Santa is watching you , and you won’t get any presents.” To a normal 3-year-old acting like a normal 3-year-old. What the fuck. The Santa-guilt is so ingrained in our culture that strangers feel empowered to shame children they don’t even know.
So, our family chooses to avoid Santa altogether.
I do think you can do Santa without guilt (my friend does, and told that woman off). We just decided we didn’t want to deal at all. Moreover, just as my oldest was becoming aware of this thing called Christmas, this other thing called The Elf on the Shelf got big. Its job: to stare at you all day then report to Santa if you’ve been naughty or nice. The implication being, of course, that if you were naughty, you wouldn’t get any presents.
Some people just use the elf to do silly things, like get into the toothpaste, but lots of people take the “report to Santa” stuff seriously. And that’s kinda cruel, when you think about it. Kids have bad days, just like adults. Kids have overwhelming days, angry days, sad days. Their emotions get the best of them. On top of all that, they’re supposed to worry that some dead-eyed elf is going to rat them out to the man with the bag? How awful.
No matter how I act, nobody threatens me with the joy of Christmas.We know that if we have a big fight with our spouses, they’re not going to forgo buying us a present. Why do we do this to our kids?
When we use Santa as a threat, we turn the spirit of Christmas into conditional love. It’s no longer peace on earth and goodwill to all, but love only to the deserving. There’s a big difference, and the implications, beyond who gets presents, are pretty icky. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you believe that you yourself are not worthy of love. And that means believing that no matter how bad you are, they’ll be presents under the tree for you. Because it’s Christmas. Not because you earned them. Not because you deserve them. But because they’re freely given out of love.
To say otherwise is sheer cruelty. To threaten kids with Santa says, “I only love you when you’re good.” To threaten kids with Santa says, “No one loves you when you’re bad.” To threaten kids with Santa says, “Christmas is conditional.”
The real spirit of Christmas is never conditional. If you’re Christian, you believe that Christ was born to save all men, and that comes with no caveats. If you’re not Christian but celebrate Christmas, you probably believe it is a time of love and giving, a time of reaching out to your fellow human — no matter how poorly behaved. And let’s face it, children can be pretty damn poorly behaved. It’s our job to love them anyway. They can’t learn to be otherwise if our love for them is contingent upon some arbitrary standard of behavior we only drag out of the closet when we’re at our wit’s end.
Because, admit it: that’s when you threaten with Santa. That’s when Christmas might be canceled. That’s when coal might appear under the tree. When you’re out of better parenting options.
You’re an adult. Find one.
And stop telling your kid that Santa’s going to give them coal/take their presents/cancel Christmas/skip their house. He’s a Jolly Old Elf, not some kiddie version of the Spanish Inquisition. He’s love and happiness, not guilt and meanness. The holidays can be stressful for adults and kids alike. But step back. Remember being small and excited and feeling the wonder of Christmastime. When you do, you’ll realize how mean your threats really are.
And you’ll stop making Santa the bad cop.
This article was originally published on