Wednesday, December 09, 2015

"Thank You, Santa"

In response to yesterday's post about the awful truth, several people asked for my opinion about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy . . .

My siblings and I grew up with Santa, as did my wife, and so did our daughter Josephine. It never occurred to me to "rob" her of the magical tradition. It never occurred to me that I was lying to her, although, of course, I was. I was only focused on the joy that this myth, and the myths like it, brought to her. When I was in Iceland recently, a nation in which some 80 percent of its citizens report a belief in fairies and other "unseen people," I had a wonderful discussion with a five-year-old about trolls. I value the magic of these fables and legends, indeed the truth embedded in the stories. It's why the ancient myths have never died, why we still tell the stories, even as we know they are not true in their particulars.

Still, there is the lying, something that some people find unconscionable. Some have even spoken to me of the deep resentment they felt when they discovered their parents had been lying to them. This hasn't been part of my experience, but I recognize that it has been part of theirs. For me there is a difference between lying to hide ugly truths and lying to create magic.

When Josephine was around eight or nine, we were walking together to the grocery store, and she asked me point blank, "Is Santa real?" In turn, I asked, "What do you think?" and she replied, "I don't think he's real." I nodded and we continued for a bit in silence before she asked again, "So, is he real?" and I bounced it back to her, "Do you really want to know?" We walked on a bit, before she replied, "No," smiling to let me know that we were now "in on it" together. If she had insisted upon an answer, I would have answered, but instead she chose to embrace the magic even as she had seen behind the curtain. To this day, I've never told my nineteen year old the "truth" about Santa.

Santa has been a major subject of discussion at preschool these past couple weeks, as he always is this time of year. I don't bring him up, but in the same way letters and numbers always find their way into the classroom without my help, Santa finds is way into our classroom even though we don't have a chimney. As a teacher, I have a different role than do parents, each of whom must find her own comfort level with the whole myth v. lie business.

"I went to see Santa!"

"Is he your friend?"

"No, he's Santa. He brings presents on Christmas."

"Is he your grandpa?"

"No, he's Santa. He flies through the air in his sleigh and comes down the chimney to give me presents when I'm asleep on Christmas."

"He comes into your house at night when you're asleep? That sounds more like a burglar . . ."

That kind of thing. I play the role of skeptic, often quite strongly. I express doubts about reindeer that fly and the fact that he can go to every kid's house in just one night. And the more strongly I play this role, the more strongly the children push back, so certain in their knowledge, their faith, that I cannot budge them even when I say it sounds like the elves are Santa's slaves. Often the kids who don't celebrate Christmas in their family traditions will side with me, sometimes with their friends. Some of our best circle time discussions have been on the topic of Santa, with children sharing their family tradition, mixing it with popular culture and their own imaginations, creating an entire world of possibilities about who Santa is, what he does, and what he means.

I do the same sort of things about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, and even Disney characters who come to visit our school through the conversations of the kids.

People have asked me where I stand on the lies we tell children about Santa. Well, this is where I stand. I have no recommendation for anyone other than to urge you to follow your own heart. If the lie feels like a lie, don't tell it; if you feel like you're making magic, revealing aspects of truth beyond mere veracity, then that's what you should do.

Just as I've never "told" my daughter about Santa, my parents never told me about Santa, which is why on Christmas morning, when I visit my parents' house along with my brother, sister and their families, there will be a stocking there for me. And when I want to express gratitude for the gifts I've received, I'll look at mom or dad and say, "Thank you, Santa."

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Unknown said...

I really do value your insights. Thank you.

Matt & Alex said...

I very clearly remember finding out Santa wasn't a real person who delivers presents around the world and unfortunately I did feel VERY lied to! I heard rumours at school that Santa wasn't real and confronted my mother about it. She was so kind and diplomatic and talked about believing in things for fun and magical ideas, etc but no matter what she was to say after that, I truly believed I'd been lied to and how awful that felt! I was a normal, happy, playful, imaginative, normal child who loved make-believe things and stories but I remember feeling so silly and gullible!