On Santa

I guess I knew this was the year we’d have to figure this out, but I was kind of hoping we could put it off a little longer.

Yesterday, though, Harper came home from school talking about the “Santa from Germany” who put candy in her shoes during nap time. Then we stopped at the library to pick out some Christmas books, and her new favorite is about a little girl who takes over for Santa when he gets stuck in the chimney. And Sunday afternoon, the youth group kids from church spent all afternoon at our house, and there was quite a lot of discussion about a certain visitor from the North Pole.

So, like it or not, I guess we have to figure out how to talk to our daughter about Santa Claus. I think I have a better idea about how to talk to her about God, or sex.

Well, God, maybe.

But it does seem like this is a parenting minefield, as polarizing an issue as the breastmilk vs. formula debate. There’s the anti-Santa crowd, who complain that it’s a lie we tell our children, and the pro-Santa parents, who don’t want to ruin the magic of Christmas for their kids. Not surprisingly, I’d like to be somewhere in the middle.

Rob remembers it as a game his family played. “Isn’t it fun to pretend?” his mother whispered to him as his grandfather shook jingle bells outside his window on Christmas Eve. There were gifts from Santa under their tree, and all the excitement and “magic” of Christmas – but Rob always knew it was both real, and not.

I kind of like this approach, because I am confident that our daughter is capable of holding onto more than one reality at the same time. She knows (I’m sure) that her stuffed elephant is not the same kind of person as her dad and me, but she loves that elephant like it’s part of her. She has an imaginary friend named Emily who shows up quite often. She knows, I think, that Emily is both real, and not. She is well versed in creative imagination.

Rob also pointed out that our kid is particularly steeped in the Christian Christmas traditions as well. She’s known about “baby Jesus” long before she knew about Santa. She was the Star (in both senses of the word, I’ll admit) in last year’s Christmas pageant at church, when she was only two; there were no magic reindeer involved. We light Advent candles and sing “Two more weeks ’til he arrives!” every night before dinner; she knows that Jesus is the one we are waiting for.

Can’t we trust her to hold both these stories?

One thing I’m certain I don’t want to do is to use Santa Claus as a disciplinary tool. Around here, the Elf-on-a-Shelf is a big thing families do. I can’t tell if this is a Southern tradition or something new that developed in the 25-plus years since I paid any attention to Santa (or maybe all the other kids had one then, too?). In effect, the elf sits on a shelf, usually in the kitchen, and moves around every night, keeping an eye on the kids and reporting back to the North Pole. Parents need only to point at the elf to get a misbehaving child to straighten up. (One of the little boys who was here on Sunday was surprised to discover that we didn’t have an elf of our own, and was utterly convinced that there was one somewhere in our house and we just hadn’t found it yet.)

The moving elf does sound a little fun, but it seems to me that all this goes against all the best advice about discipline, most of which involves setting expectations, claiming authority, and following through. What would it say about my authority as a parent if I had to defer to somebody else – who isn’t even there! – to control my kid? What happens in January when the threat of Santa is 12 months away? And what about follow through? No one’s really going to give their kid coal on Christmas morning.

I’ll get off my soap box now, because I can’t quite imagine Christmas without Santa Claus, anyway. As I’ve been reading these Christmas storybooks with Harper, I find myself delighting in this character who makes wishes come true in unexpected ways. So we’ll read A Wish for Wings that Work as well as the Gospel According to Luke. We’ll sing “Up on the Housetop,” and “Away in a Manger.” Somehow, it’ll make sense.

  • I’d say we participate in the Santa myth, but we don’t promote it. So the kids get gifts from Santa, but we don’t go visit Santa at the mall, and we almost never mention him in our house. There’s plenty of Santa propaganda out there.

    I also parse my words pretty carefully when I talk about him. The subtlety is likely lost on them, but I feel like I retain some integrity. I say things like “Well, the story goes that…” I shared the story of Saint Nicholas last Sunday with the children and it was a little bit of a minefield, but I think I managed it.

    Some years ago I read a beautiful blog (which I now can’t find) that was a mother’s letter to her son after he “figured out” Santa. Basically she didn’t focus on what was lost, but what was gained–“now you know that magic can come from other people, and that you can make magic for others.” I don’t resonate with magic language but you get the drift.

    So I’m excited beyond belief that “Santa” is giving the girls American Girl dolls, because it’s a perfect example of this. Sometime after Christmas I will tell Caroline that they came from a friend of mine and her college-age daughter–two people that they don’t even know but who wanted to provide a little magic for Caroline and her sister. When Margaret crosses that threshold I will tell her the same.

    You’ll do great!

  • To clarify–we share stories about him (and I even wrote a poem for Caroline about her fear of the bearded guy) but we don’t talk about him in the sense of sending him letters and so forth.

  • We’re trying to find that middle ground, too. My mom was the kind who made everything magical, so not really believing in Santa wasn’t a big deal. I hope I can be similar, but I don’t want to make such a big deal out of it that my kid is the one who let’s the cat out of the bag for the other kids.

  • Our two boys were a bit older than Harper when we discussed Santa but when I did I read them a story (Readers Digest book of Christmas Stories) about how the idea of Santa started hundreds or more years ago with Saint Nickolas (a Bishop I think) giving gifts to children in Russia in memory of the wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. The whole idea is we keep the spirit of Saint Nicholas by our giving to people and caring about them. They seemed to catch on and I started looking for old depictions of St. Nickolas or Father Christmas to use at Christmas rather than the new jolly Santa’s. I should ask them if they remember the story we read it every year when they were young.

  • It is funny that you mentioned this on your blog. John and I were just discussing this very topic over breakfast preparation. He mentioned the same thing that Rob did about how their parents addressed the idea of Santa. I think we are somewhere in the middle as well, although I did get Kaylee’s picture taken with Santa. My point was that it isn’t just Santa that can overshadow Jesus at Christmas time. If you take away Santa you still have presents and trees and wrapping and holiday shopping. Well you get the idea. I guess the point becomes making sure that Jesus overwhelms everything else.

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