Santa Claus: or, There and Back Again

Before I became a parent, I was sure of one thing:  No elaborate lies about this guy named Santa Claus.  I generally “believed” myself as a child, but I don’t remember my parents telling me he was real.  I had presents under the tree “from Santa” and enjoyed all of the traditions and stories about the North Pole, reindeer, etc.; but Christmas was about spiritual matters and the other stuff was just fairy tale fun.

This Christmas my daughter is 2 1/2 years old.  She is prime time for the jolly old elf, and I saw on her face something I never expected.  A few times when I started to explain that it is all just tradition and a fun story, she gave me a look that I can only describe as please don’t take this away from me.  In that instant I realized this period of magical thinking is truly brief, and while I had no interest in some elaborate ruse for myself, she was interested.

Conundrum.

I have known too many people who complain bitterly about being tricked about Santa Claus.  They use words like tricked, lied to, fooled,  and deceived.  They say things like, “I realized I could never trust my parents again.”  That, my friends, is serious business.  I don’t think there is any sure way to know if one’s child will end up feeling this way if you lead them along the merry path.  All I knew, or thought I knew, was that I was not about to risk it.  I mean for heaven’s sake, I need my credibility there for things like sex, God, and paper or plastic.  I can’t be burning it up over some fool elf.

But like I said………there was that face.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t real, and I found myself enjoying the game in spite of myself.  The look on her face when she saw Santa soliciting donations for a children’s charity in town was incredible.  She was just speechless in his presence, but couldn’t stop talking about him at home.  She talked about the elves, the workshops, the North Pole, the flying reindeer, all of it.  Where it started to change was when she processed the stories about “keeping a list.”

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Santa Claus without getting into the lists of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.  The worst are picture books that show him keeping lists of names of “the good little girls and boys.”  My child’s face would cloud over and she looked very unhappy.  Truly, she should have nothing to worry about.  She’s a well-behaved kid.  But I knew she definitely did not like this part of the story.

One evening as she was falling asleep I heard her say, “Santa will be upset with me.  Santa is going to be upset.”  I assured her Santa was just fine with her, that he didn’t get upset with anyone, that it was all good.  But the next episode sealed the deal for me.  As we were talking about Santa in general and the fact that Christmas is coming, she cut her eyes away from me and said flatly, “I don’t love him.”

My girl is one of the most loving children I’ve ever known.  This was a red alert that the big man had to be kicked to the curb.  After talking it over with her father, I told my daughter, “You know, Santa Claus is just a character in a story that people like to tell this time of year.  It’s for fun.  It’s all about magic, and giving, and imagination.”  She looked at me with wide eyes.  I went for it.  “He’s not real.  He’s made up.  Momma and Daddy are real.  We love you.  You never have to worry about Santa, he’s just pretend and for fun.  If it’s not fun, we can just not talk about him.”

That child’s face lit up like a you know what.  She smiled a beautiful smile and hugged me with all her might.

What can I say?  If it works, it works.  If it doesn’t, it’s truly no loss.  Yesterday we lost a fat guy in a suit we were going to lose eventually anyway, and we kept a tighter grip on unconditional love.  That is for real.

Image credit: Norman Rockwell

8 thoughts on “Santa Claus: or, There and Back Again

  1. I had no idea your daughter is the same age as my son. He, too, is 2 1/2 and processing the stories. I don’t know that he is a “Santa-believer” in the true sense. I think he understands that this game is an interesting part of the culture, but I don’t think he processes the big guy in an all-or-nothing way. Which is fine with me. I always said I wouldn’t lie to my son, that Santa would not be a part of his holiday story. And then I realised how much I love fiction (in literature, film, and good old fashioned story-telling). I think well crafted fiction is often more relevant to our lives than non-fiction. In that sense, it IS real. And we have decided to treat Santa as we do my son’s favorite story characters. They exist somewhere between the real and non-real, and it seems this works just fine for our son. I’m glad your family has also found an excellent way to deal with this connundrum. I don’t really but that it is that traumatic for folks, anyway.

  2. Love it. Your daughter seems to have inherited a lot of your clarity. Also, I imagine that was one of the parenting moments when you said, “yeah, I definitely did the right thing.” (I hope to one day know what that feels like).

  3. Wow. What a powerful piece. I could feel the emotion in that room as your daughter struggled and as you reassured her with gentle reality. You’ve given her room to still play with the idea of Santa when she’s ready, but not to invest so much in him as a moral compass. Beautiful.

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