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.