Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Santa Myth

As Christmas approaches this year, we are faced for the first time with the decision of how we will handle what I like to call "The Santa Myth" with our son, Peter. This is his third Christmas, but his first year with a significant comprehension level so it hasn't been much of an issue previously.

Growing up, my brothers and I never "did" Santa but my parents weren't militant about it either; we didn't ignore Santa's mythical existence, we simply knew the truth that he wasn't real. While some of the more radical people we knew shunned such things, we still watched Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and even had some Santa ornaments hanging on the tree. My parents preferred to tell us about the real St. Nicholas, the person who the Santa Claus myth developed from, and we even had a nifty picture storybook about him. So since Santa was never a part of my childhood, I have difficulty relating to the notion that it's somehow mean to "deprive" a child of this experience. And the suggestion that it is deprivation raises the question that if Santa is so important to the holiday, then perhaps our entire focus is wrong. In fact, two years ago I responded to someone on a message board when they stated that "Christmas was less satisfying with Santa out of the equation":

"I want my kids to focus on the real meaning of Christmas, that God loved them enough to send His Son under the most humble of circumstances so that they could be redeemed. That has nothing to do with Santa and if they can't cherish Christmas without Santa, then they would be totally missing the point."

So here are my top reasons for questioning Santa Claus, none of which involve wacko conspiracy theories like how the letters of Santa can be rearranged to spell Satan or anything like that. *grin*

1. This may seem pretty basic, but in case it's not: it's a lie. It may seem like a harmless lie, but that doesn't make it any less false. And it's not that it's just one lie - pretending that Santa exists when he does not - but often an entire package of them. Because once you start down that road, then you have to buy presents that are "from" Santa, then eat the cookies and pretend that it was Santa who ate them, etc. When I was 4 years old, I asked my mom why we gave toys to "Toys for Tots" if Santa brought toys to everyone. Instead of trying to spin it, my mom told me the truth (and apparently, I had already been told that Santa wasn't real the year before, but had forgotten).

2. Believing in Santa can take the focus of the Christmas season off of Jesus, and on to the more materialistic aspects of the holiday. Sure, presents are a fun part of the holiday, but should not take center focus. Santa tends to emphasize the "me, me, me" aspect because it's all about what he is going to bring you. This also detracts from the concept that gifts are about giving, not receiving.

This doesn't mean pretending about something is always bad. When I was little, we didn't believe that the Tooth Fairy was real but we still had fun with the idea. We'd put our tooth under the pillow and get money, which we knew had been left by our parents but we still would tell people, "Yeah, the Tooth Fairy left me a dollar!" But the difference with that was there's nothing inherently spiritual about the tooth-loss process and our fun make-believe involving a tooth-stealing fairy wasn't distracting us from something more important.

3. Mixing truth with myth can cause confusion in the mind of a young child. We live in a country where Christianity is continually questioned. Then we have Christmas, which is supposed to be about Jesus' birth, but instead is largely secularized. (Just watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and count how many religious references you see compared to secular.) To a child who had believed in Santa, learning that he is actually not real could cause confusion. That child might then wonder what other things about Christmas are not real, maybe the nativity story or even Jesus Himself. In a world where the real meaning of Christmas - the celebration of Jesus Christ's human incarnation to redeem sinners - is often ignored in the name of political correctness, why have another figure competing with Jesus?

Noel Piper in Treasuring God in Our Traditions observes "...celebrating Santa and manger will postone a child's clear understanding of what the real truth of God is. It's very difficult for a young child to pick through a marble cake of part truth and part imagination to find the crumbs of reality.... Santa is so much like what we're trying all year to teach our children about God."

She then goes on to list the similarities that Santa has:
"He's omniscient--he sees everything you do.
He rewards you if you're good.
He's omnipresent--at least he can be everywhere in one night.
He gives you good gifts.
He's the most famous 'old man in the sky' figure."

For my own children, my conclusion is that it is simply not worth it to perpetuate a myth that adds nothing to the real Reason we celebrate while having the potential to take much away. Instead, there are plenty of meaningful Christmas traditions such as Advent wreaths as well as harmlessly pointless ones (baking sugar cookies!) that will build lasting memories with our little ones.


  1. I think you make some really good points about this. We have been debating about whether not to do Santa or not with our future children. I think mainly we are focusing on the 1st one, it's a lie. I distinctly remember being told that Santa wasn't real and I was upset that I had been lied to, I thought it was unfair. Your tooth fairy analogy was really good too. Great insight!
    (Found your blog off CFPN)

  2. Thanks for commenting! Interesting that your experience as a child was to actually recognize you had been lied to. Kids really are smarter than we realize!