Have you seen this story about a ten-year-old girl, Belle Adams, whose belief in Santa Claus was dashed by her mother? My wife texted me little Belle’s letter with the comment that the story “confirms one of our parenting decisions.” That decision, which we made early on (when our oldest son, Bailey, was a toddler), was that we would not lie to our kids about Santa Claus but rather tell them the story while also informing them that it is a popular Western myth. And to reinforce the fictional nature of it all, I would sometimes throw in extra narrative flourishes, such as that: 1) Santa is a chain-smoker and 2) Santa cheats at golf. (These additions were not themselves lies, of course, since we were admittedly dealing in the realm of fiction. When trafficking in cockamamie myths, why not augment along the way?)
Seriously, though, our reservations about participating in the Santa deception (despite the fact that some good friends of ours have done this) boiled down to a few fundamental concerns. First, it constitutes a lie to one’s kids. From the start, Amy and I have been committed to being truthful and as trustworthy as possible with our kids, whether regarding ole St. Nicholas or the weightier issues of life. Being a systematic lie, the Santa deception certainly defies commitment to truthfulness and, when that lie is exposed, parents’ trustworthiness is necessarily undermined. Little Belle Adams’ furious letter to her parents demonstrates just how serious the impact of this can be. We might be tempted to think, “Oh, that’s just an immediate reaction; she’ll get over it.” But, as the testimony of several adults I know confirms, in some cases the recovery is not so swift, and anyway a child’s “getting over it” emotionally is no guarantee that her trust in her parents is not damaged to some degree. And that is a serious thing, no matter how much fun and silliness might be involved in perpetuating the deception.
Secondly, the Santa deception could set a child up for religious skepticism. Consider the mythical attributes of the portly fictional elf. He is omnipotent (as implied by the notion that he can travel at the speed of light and flawlessly deliver billions of presents to children worldwide in just a few hours); he is omniscient (“he knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake”); and he is omnibenevolent (he’s a moral judge, distinguishing the “naughty” and “nice” —“he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”). Notice that these are all essentially divine attributes. So when a child is eventually shown that her “faith” in Santa was misplaced, an unfortunate precedent is set: when it comes to testimonies about a wondrously wise, powerful, and loving being, don’t believe it, even if the reports come from the authorities in your life that you trust most—your own parents. Such stories are just too good to be true, a set-up for disappointment. As they say, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I’m not saying that participating in the Santa deception will necessarily turn your kids into agnostics or even incline them at all in the direction of religious skepticism. But, again, I’ve had adults tell me that their enlightenment about the Santa story did prompt them to consciously entertain doubts about God for just this reason. And this, too, is a serious thing, however much fun parents and their children might have along the way.
But perhaps, after all, I am the one who is taking Santa Claus too seriously! I mean, come on—it’s just a fun story that adds to the magic of the Christmas holiday, right? To that I say: Is the real Christmas story not magical enough? Who needs a goofy cultural myth to add to the joy and wonder of the Lord of the universe taking on human flesh? What good is a remote bearded elf in a funny suit visiting us once yearly when we have an omnipresent Lord who attends to our every prayer? Who needs an imperfect judge to dole out toys or lumps of coal, depending on one’s degree of goodness, when the real Judge of the world is also the way of atonement, the one who suffered, died, and rose again on our behalf? In short, why pollute the greatest story ever told with the most kitschy tale ever told? So, in the final analysis, perhaps the best reason to scuttle the whole Santa story (at least as anything more than a cultural myth) is an aesthetic one: to emphasize St. Nick over the baby Jesus is to exchange a profoundly beautiful narrative for an insipid one. Santa Claus might not be a chain-smoker or cheater at golf, but he’s an incomparably less interesting character than the Christ child.