The Big Lie? Not hardly

On Facebook, Paul Oakely asked why parents tell children the Santa story and reveals that he was one of the kids on the playground who insisted there was no Santa. “Why would we ever choose to decieve our children?” he asks, in part. To which I responded: “Paul, you have met the enemy and she is me.” I promised to find a column I once wrote on this very issue and when I went looking for it, my eldest daughter asked what I was doing. I didn’t want to tell her, and then I did. “Did you ever feel,” I asked her tentatively, “that we lied to you about this?”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m so glad you did.”

As a Unitarian Universalist parent, there is a sense that what I should be telling my children is the imperical truth–that if it cannot be proved then it does not exist. I should not be propagating the lie of the dominant culture that there IS a Santa Clause when there so clearly is not. Clearly?  Hmmm. I guess I’m not convinced about that, because, well, I do propagate the myth.

I do it for the fun; I do it for the magic; I do it for the story and the lesson at the end. And I do it because, as a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t believe that there is a single truth about much of anything.

I wanted my children to believe in Santa not because I wanted to willingly deceive them, but because I wanted them to believe that if there is any one person in the world who loves so much as to want to deliver a gift to every child that one day that person could possibly even be them. Like I want my children to believe that Jesus was a man first, a man who chose to live a hard life of trying to provide comfort to “the least of these.” Because I want my children to believe that they, too, can provide comfort to those who need it–that the choice to live thusly is no more god-like than the choice to provide gifts is “mythic.”

Ah, but those are my larger goals–ones I had not even formulated 17 years ago when my eldest had her first Christmas as a baby of less than three months. I just wanted Santa Claus to come to our house. If you asked me then why I would have had no bold reasons. I would have just answered as truthfully as I could: Santa is fun.

Did we tell our kids that Santa exists?  Maybe. Did we imply it? You betcha. Did we go to great pains to assist in the belief?  Let me just say there were pans of water and carrots left for reindeer and tepid cups of chocolate and fudge galore (tip to kids who may be reading this: Santa LOVES fudge).

There are so many pitfalls to the Santa story: some kids get lots from Santa, some (like our kids) get the majority of their gifts from their parents and one or two things from Santa. And, as Paul points out, rich kids get better gifts from Santa than poor kids who may not get anything at all. Which makes the belief so much harder for kids who believe in justice. But to say outright that there is no Santa is something I can’t bring myself to do. Am I lying? Am I ruining my children?

I look at my kids and I think that the best answers I’ve ever given them is this: “What do YOU think?” And you listen to your kids wrangle with the idea of it and come up with either a definitive or an unsure answer. Most kids CAN and righteously do live in a world cascaded by both certainty and ambiguity. And some kids are like me and mine, who would rather wallow in a good story than twist on a literal string.

Truth? It is in the heart of the beholder, and some hearts can hold more than one truth at a time: i.e., that there is no way that there CAN be a Santa AND there is no way that there CANNOT be one.

And as for those kids on the playground who insist that there is only one truth and it is theirs (whether it be about God, Santa or the Solstice Gnome–another myth busted by truthers!), I’m not sure they haven’t also been raised by people who are sure they are doing the best and right thing for their children. Just like those of us who choose a generous understanding of truth are sure we are providing a multi-layered yet still-firm ground upon which our children can stand.

I’m not saying there is a better way. There is your way and there is mine–and a myriad of others between the two of us. It’s just my way is dressed up in red velvet and white (faux) fur.

The truth is: I can justify why I do what I do, but it won’t matter. I remember interviewing a Lutheran minister who had been excommunicated because of a book he wrote that basically denied the trinity. (Yes, he is a Unitarian!) But what really shocked me about this story was when I read his book and right up front was an entire chapter on metaphor. Metaphor! In order to make others understand why he came to the conclustion that he came to, he had to explain to his audience what a metaphor is and how it works.

This is how I stand on the Santa issue–if you can’t grasp the importance and necessity of imagination and metaphor, if the only options are truth and deception, I chose the latter. I choose fiction and fancy because more often than not, there is more human truth in the story of a fat man with flying reindeer and what can be known with the heart without proof than can be garnered by the eyes, ears, mind, and hands, alone.

I don’t ask you to do what I do, I only ask you to widen your stance and accept that truth is not always fully true and deception is not always evil.

I gave my children the Santa experience, but I also gave them much, much more. They’ve heard stories from other countries and other religious traditions that are steeped in the understanding that the gift of the season is giving, itself, and that giving and sharing love is much more important than giving things.

This, Paul, is only a part of the reason why this person willingly “deceived” her children about Santa and why I don’t think it has ruined our relationship in any fundamental way–because human relationships are much more complex than can be distilled through the telling of one story.  And, besides, we all have had a lot of fun in the “deception.”

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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About TinaLBPorter

I write poetry and blog at www.tinalbporter.com. And I'm thrilled to be writing with you.
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17 Responses to The Big Lie? Not hardly

  1. Paul Oakley says:

    Dan Harper’s alter ego Mr. Crankypants weighs in on Christmas with a Bah Humbug!. 😉 Mentions shopping but not Santa…

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  2. UUnderstand says:

    When I was three or four, I became a Santa skeptic. Santa Claus had left me some Fisher-Price toys and I thought but did not ask, “If Santa has his own toy factory, why does he bring Fisher-Price toys?” The Christmas I was five, I solved the Santa question by myself: my parents made the mistake of leaving a small “Santa” gift for themselves, which I remembered seeing near the fireplace the night before. . .

    I don’t remember being traumatized by learning that Santa (or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy) isn’t real, and because I am childfree, I’ve really only had to deal with the Santa issue on one occasion. When my nephews were younger, one of them asked if Santa had brought ME any gifts. I first replied “No, because I was bad,” but was then asked what I did to get on the “naughty” list! Finally I explained that once you’re an adult, Santa doesn’t come any more because he expects you to have enough money to buy your own gifts. End of discussion!

    If I had children, I don’t think I would encourage them to believe in Santa for various reasons: first of all, I’m not Christian and no longer celebrate Christmas. However, even as a child who attended a mainstream Christian church every week, I was somewhat troubled by the excessive consumerism of the season. Like many middle-class children of my generation, I could definitely be bratty and demanding about two or three gifts I wanted and usually received. There were, of course, also “surprise” gifts that I hadn’t requested but loved. However, 1/3-1/2 the packages I opened every year were things I didn’t want or even need. If I could have donated them without hurting the givers’ feelings, I would certainly have done so.

    As a UU adult, I admittedly miss several things about Christmas: yes, gifts (in moderation), the abundance of homemade cakes, cookies, and candy (for health reasons, I no longer eat dessert), the tree, the church candlelight service, and most of all, delivering small gifts to friends and neighbors with my father on the first night of winter break. Even as a child, what I REALLY loved about Christmas was the relative kindness and goodwill people displayed during the holiday season: if only we could share it 12 months per year, instead of just one.

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  3. I remember well when I asked my mother one question too many about Santa, and she finally admitted there was no Santa. I was furious and angry and devastated. My parents NEVER lied to me, but that was no longer true. The trust was destroyed, and it took awhile for it to be built up again. How do you explain that you lied for the fun of it? How do you explain that something so important to your child was an elaborate deception? Obviously, not all children react this way, but some do. I did. As a father, I found that we had fun sharing the story of Santa as make-believe story, and there was no need to pretend it was true. My three children had joyous holidays, and we didn’t need to build it on a lie.

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  4. Lea says:

    I can’t remember how the subject came up, but it ended up with my now 29 year old daughter at around age 5 telling me that she knew that Santa Claus wasn’t a real person. She touched her chest, near her heart and then reached over and touched me in the same place. She explained that Santa Claus was a feeling of love and giving and that he lived in peoples’ hearts.

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  5. Times & Latte says:

    Add me to the list of Santa lovers. Santa makes Christmas magical.

    One habit that I started early with my son was being one of Santa’s helpers by picking out a gift a boy his age from our church’s giving tree. This is the first year that he openly admits to knowing the secret (he’s10) and we have been talking about how we are going to be Santa this year. Santa is real, because we are Santa.

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  6. Pingback: Giving what we want « uuMomma

  7. ogre says:

    Friends, I write in a post-T-day stupor…

    First, I’ll describe what we did–and what we do. Our kids are now 18 and 16. We filled them with wonder and story and myth (=/=truth or fact). Our experience of Xmas was that it was a frenetic consumer-fest… but that it was (and is) such a cultural mandate that it can’t be ignored. I’ve observed that most of my Jewish friends/family at least observe the social holiday in some manner. The religious holiday is another issue–and since we’re not Christian, it wasn’t part of the picture when the kids were young. Given all the baggage that goes with those particular stories, I wanted our sons to engage them later, when we could talk about them on multiple levels.

    So our first choice was to spread the holiday out, so that the kids didn’t have a massive build-up to one insane and overwhelming morning (reality here; whatever *we* wanted, there’s still family–some of whom are Christian–and our kids were my parents first grandchildren. There was no possibility of doing it without the gift-giving and commercialism and Santa, because I knew that was all significant to my mother (at least).

    So we started with the winter solstice. We talked about the wheel of the year, and the eb and flow of the seasons, and the yearning humans have had for the return of the light, of hope and of the promise of another year… and family. And just in our little family, we gave a gift (or two). For the boys when little, that meant that the excitement of presents was fulfilled (some) early. And we did Xmas. For Barb, there was a family custom (German) of getting to open a present from under the tree on Xmas Eve. So we did that. Clearly, none of that had anything to do with Santa, because Santa was yet to come. And then we left cookies and milk and carrots (for the reindeer, of course), and sent the boys off to bed after a while.

    Xmas morning, there’d be (usually), one or two gifts from Santa. The rest were from us. We weren’t pretending that we weren’t involved in the gift giving. But we made an art of Santa leaving evidence. There were a couple bells that had frayed cords that were found in the front yard–must have torn free. There were gnawed bits of carrot (reindeer are messy). And there’s no question that the boys believed… when they were young. Of course, there were conversations about how normal reindeer didn’t fly, etc.

    We also adopted a modern version of the Italian custom (my family being part Italian), where gifts didn’t come from Santa at all. Nor on Xmas. They come on Epiphany, and they come from the Befana–a witch figure who’s existed for a long, long time in Italy. In the Christianized version, she’s imagined as a sort of fourth wise person, the one who should have come from the west, but something went wrong, and so she’s been looking for the child of promise, bring gifts to good children (and leaving ‘carbone’–charcoal… which is an Italian black sugar candy as well, particularly for naughty children). She leaves them in shoes that are left on the hearth. (I strongly suspect that these customs were in some manner adopted into the St. Nick mythos…) For us, these gifts were small, usually a small game, some oddments, and a book–always a book.

    The arc of holiday giving thus tapered up and off and we spread things out.

    The kids also had the Easter bunny (who left puzzles with clues that had to be figured out and followed to find the baskets that were left), and the Tooth Fairy–who always left a small faint trail of very fine sand and glitter and dust (fairy dust, of course) from the window sill to where the tooth was left–and that’s where the cash that was traded for it was found.

    We never imagined that they’d always believe. It was a thing for childhood. Myth, magic, wonder.

    And when our younger son was… seven, going on eight… he popped the soap bubble of it. He asked if we were Santa, and Barb told him–and then he went down the list. Saturday morning, and the massacre of mythical figures was gruesome. But he forgot the tooth fairy, and so she made it to the next morning….

    When he figured it out, we told his brother as well. He’s not a morning person, so he sort of grunted and shrugged….

    Later we sat down and explained it all to them. What we’d done, and how, and why. And that it was about the spirit of the holiday, and a sort of game–sort of like Tag–where once you know, you’re now on the other side, and you get to play the game of helping make it magical and wonderful for other little kids. And they’ve done some of that for my nephews, their cousins, who are several years younger (the eldest is now nine, and very sharp–if he hasn’t figured it out yet, he will soon… or has, and hasn’t let on, yet…)

    Kele, thanks for that Gaiman quote. It’s relevant to my story as well. 8-10 months before my son exterminated the childhood myths, we drove somewhere (he and I) to go get something. It was evening and just about this time of year. And he talked about some of these figures–particularly Santa and Befana. And what was striking to me was that in a couple cases, he made connections and assertions about those figures… things we’d not gone into, ever. And they matched up with things I knew about the mythos there. With Santa, I might have just assumed that he’d heard or seen something of it in some movie or program. But Befana is obscure, and 10 years ago, even more so. No one else was telling him things about where she lived, etc. So at some level there’s some deep consistency to these things that makes some deep sense and logic of its own.

    The boys were never upset with us about having us play out this protracted masque. I suspect that some of it is that we’ve always played with them, games and things where we might tease them by claiming things that weren’t true, playing small tricks, and having fun together. For a long, long time, they thought I had eyes–somehow–in the back of my head, because I knew things they were up to, or could tell when they were sneaking up on me. And it was a similar delight and amusement for them (and me) when they debunked that, and we talked about the things that I’d known, and how and why. They know that they won’t be lied to and harmed. But they also know that they are subject to being led up the primrose path if they’re gullible and the opportunity to take them for a ride comes along.

    It’s served them well. They have acute BS detectors. You have to work hard and fast, and be exceptionally consistent to sucker them.

    So, on a very pragmatic level, those story figures helped to serve to teach them a number of things. Wonder, delight, participation, kindness, critical thinking, metaphor… roles that adults play in society….

    And yet… I know that in their rooms, there are still two small containers that they studiously collected fairy dust in for those years, saving it against some need for magic. They don’t believe. And yet, there’s a deep-down kernel of that sense of possibility and magic in the world.

    And I think that’s a good thing.

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  8. Much to think about here, Momma. Our kids left out cookies and milk for Santa – lots of cookies (Santa also loves cookies). They also happily opened gifts on Christmas Eve at their Catholic grandparents’ home – at our own home on Christmas Day – and at their other grandparents’ the day after, with different traditions honored at each. The magic of Santa and the magic of Jesus can coexist happily – and at some point, they all figure out that Santa is the part that the youngest can understand, while Jesus’ message of loving and giving is much more encompassing. I believe each story holds a piece of the truth. As one of my colleagues once told me (probably quoting someone else): “All the stories are true, and some of them even really happened.”

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  9. Sara says:

    As a UU DRE, I have to leave SC out of it. We do all sorts of stories and holidays during this season in church, but we won’t touch SC with a ten foot pole. Mainly because of the danger of the kids arguing with each other and reducing one another to tears (it has happened, sadly). Plenty of difference of opinion in my church, but no need for the kids to come to blows over it! (Not really, they would never hit each other – it’s just a turn of phrase, folks!)

    In my own home, though, we do Santa Claus. This year I even encouraged the kids to write letters to him. My oldest has already “figured it out” a few years back, when he was in a very rational stage and asked me point blank, but now he seems to be willfully playing along and pretending that he still believes whole hog. It’s an old pagan tradition – the Holly King – recreated into a more commercially friendly fat man. If asked, I will say that I believe in the Spirit of the Season, and I think Santa Claus is a fine representation of that spirit. But it’s a fine line to walk, to “believe” in the spirit of the thing and not in the actual physical manifestation. I loved how you said we could happily exist in a cascade of both certainty and uncertainty, fact and fiction. Very nicely phrased.

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  10. kari says:

    I love this blog. LOVE IT! We’ve been trying to decide whether or not to have a visit from a large friendly elf at our new Family Friendly Christmas Eve service in our new church home. Will we? It’s not for me to decide. But this helps us think it through. Thanks so much!

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  11. Chalicechick says:

    I don’t see it as a huge deal either way. I don’t ever remember believing in Santa, but I didn’t mess with the kids who did and I didn’t rat my parents out to my brothers. I didn’t feel lied to about it, but my folks had raised me to believe that bible stories were metaphor, so I took Santa as a metaphor.

    My best friend’s kids didn’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny, but until they were 9 and 10 retained a weird belief in the Tooth Fairy and liked to discuss the logistics of her operations, or at least pretended to believe to humor their mother.

    CC

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  12. Kele Ivey says:

    Because others sometimes speak more eloquently than I:

    “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten.” – Neil Gaiman

    This is akin to what I try to explain to people (including my own husband) when I tell them about my brand of Paganism. I believe in a God and Goddess (sorta). And I don’t really think they exist. I do not believe in a deity with an actual personality and motives, yet I pray to a Mother Goddess whose presence I feel. I do not believe in omens and portents, yet I recognize the Trickster when I see Coyote stop and stare directly at me.

    Yes, my beliefs are contradictory and oxymoronic (which spell-check assures me is NOT a word), and they may change as my world views change. I’m not sure how such wild dichotomies exist within my brain and allow me to remain functional. But it works for me and that is enough.

    We will tell our child(ren) about Santa Claus. And we will discuss why some people get more than others. And we will discuss a baby that may or may not have been born a couple of millennia ago and what he did or did not bring to the world. And we will discuss how the sun stops moving on the solstice, but not really. And on, and on.

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  13. Paul Oakley says:

    Thanks for fleshing out your position for me, Tina!

    I’m all for metaphor and fantasy – though I must say that there is no other story (or set of stories if you include the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, et al.) that contemporary parents recognize as metaphor or fantasy that they invest so much in encouraging in their children.

    And I am bothered by the implications of the old stories (SC stories, at least) linking gift to behavior and the fact of inequitable gift distribution. But if the individual parent consciously works solutions to those problems into their family’s Christmas, that is good.

    Truth be told, my biggest problem with SC and with Christmas is not the SC fantasy, which can certainly be handled many different ways by families. My big problem is with the consumerism that has accreted (and whose accretion continues to grow) around the holiday since the onset of the industrial revolution. SC was nothing much, comparatively speaking, until merchants realized how much the image could be used to sell stuff.

    And that is why, though I am not a Christian, the fantasy I choose for Christmas is a newborn in a livestock feeding trough, a temporarily homeless family accompanied by magical star light and metaphorical choruses of angels,l wings flapping in the midnight sky, and recognition by the magi that every nobody has infinite worth.

    I ain’t no Christian, but that’s the Christmas I’m interested in.

    And as for families who by default or choice center the season on SC narratives, I pass no judgment. I just hope they make conscious choices in ways that counter the dominant culture’s focus on seasonal consumerism that pretends to “magic”.

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  14. Respectfully, I am with Paul on this one. I could not bear the idea of lying to my kids for fun. I also remember feeling like my parents had let me make a fool of myself when I found out I have been on the wrong side of the classroom arguments.

    Not being a total scrooge, I stayed neutral on the subject on Santa until they asked me. It is important to me that they know I have always been honest with them. They still like to pretend about Santa because, as you say, it is fun.

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