Oct 2, 2012

The Santa Dilemma

My kids are in Grade 1, and almost 7 years old. Recently at school, A. spent a lunchtime vigorously defending the reality of Santa because "everyone" was saying that "if you still believe in Santa you're a baby." She sort of looked at me quizzically, but not too quizzically, because she's still very solid on the idea that Santa is real. Mostly her expression was like "Isn't that weird, Mum?" So she wasn't really asking me.

But man, I almost came clean. Almost.

I've been thinking about this for some time. The kids are getting older, and with kids in general being exposed to more and more information younger and younger these days, I don't expect belief in Santa to survive more than another year at best. I've mentioned before that I'm sometimes a bit conflicted about Santa et al. Mostly I love it - I love the wonder and the magic of it, and how our whole culture conspires to provide this magic for children. But sometimes I feel a bit guilty about the deception of it all. Logic tells me I'm not doing anything wrong but my "heart" isn't always convinced.

On the couple of occasions my kids have asked why some kids don't believe in Santa, my mind has automatically thrown up the following possible, but inappropriate, responses: 

"Mate - you still believe in the tooth fairy. You're asking me about Santa?"
"Of course Santa's real, would I lie to you?"
"Dude. Think about it."

So at what age will I tell my kids the truth about Santa?

I'm 43 now - is that a good age?  (boom-tish!)

The Loch Ness Monster and Santa 

I recently read the excellent article 'Loch Ness Memoir' by Tom Bissell in the Virginia Quarterly Review, in which the author recounts a trip to Loch Ness and remembers his childhood belief in the monster.

He is clearly my own generation. My heart jumped as he mentioned the 'generation-defining television show In Search Of...' which 'managed to sound both skeptically sober and insanely irresponsible' and which 'suited the mood of that blurry, nameless time (1979-1981)...' 

Yes! Way to capture a moment - and my childhood. I LOVED 'In Search Of...' (and I have the book from the series).  Like 'all children' I too loved 'dinosaurs and the paranormal', and yes, I'll agree that that era seemed well suited to those passions. Bookstores abounded with stuff on 'unexplained phenomena', and my pocket money was regularly spent on books on ESP, astral projection, dreams, cryptozoology and UFOs. I am sure I am not mis-remembering when I think that there was less knowledge and therefore less skepticism in those days. More sober and intelligent people were open to the possibility of 'unexplained phenomena', because we did not have the knowledge of the human genome, the brain and the nervous system, nor the public and devastating debunkings of Uri Geller and psychics in general that were to come later.   

Tom Bissell posits that the Loch Ness Monster is enduring and is loved because it is friendly, or at least benign, and it combines those two childhood interests, 'dinosaurs and the paranormal' . To his childhood self, 'The Loch Ness Monster made the world a little stranger, a little more wonderful.'

Do you remember the day you stopped believing in things you believed in as a child? I do. I remember the day my mother answered my question "Santa's not real, is he?" with "No," and a smile. I was shocked. And upset. I really expected her to say yes!  But, you know - I was nine. It was definitely time.

I remember believing in the Loch Ness Monster until I was a teenager, and then reading in a Sunday paper a feature article that included the fact that Loch Ness was only formed 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Pleisiosaurs, of course, died out with the other dinosaurs 60 million years ago. So that settled it. Oh well then, that's that, I thought, surprised. I was a little deflated, a little sad... but mostly surprised. The loch is only 10,000 years old. That's a very important fact. That's the salient fact. How had I not read of this before, in all the years of all the print on the Loch Ness Monster I had devoured?  

How strange, I thought. Why is there even a debate about this? The thing simply cannot exist. It was my first realization that people could write books that were skewed to leave out certain inconvenient facts. 

Tom Bissell compares this to the realisation that Santa does not exist:

I finally remember, for the first time in a long time, the day in third grade when, during recess, Chris Burkland announced that Santa Claus did not exist. His brother had told him so. I stepped forward, rationally explaining how the man had been eating the cookies and drinking the milk I left out for him for years now. Chris Burkland would not back down. Neither would I. It came to blows. When my teacher learned of the cause of our fight she visibly blanched. Even though it was the middle of the day, my father was called. I was still crying when he picked me up, still infuriated. On that short, very long ride home, something about my father’s silence kept me from asking the question I suddenly knew the answer to. And how strange that was. The people I loved most, the entire culture I lived in, had systematically set out to deceive me, and I had no idea why. The confusing, unfamiliar way in which this hurt, my desire to believe in something that part of me always knew was not real and could not be real—I remember it so clearly.

BAM. There's the kicker. That sense of betrayal, and the confusion and hurt around that betrayal. I hate the thought of causing that.

But kids get over it, right? I don't think I felt that hurt/confusion for more than a few minutes, and I don't think I felt bad about it for long. 

But it was as if suddenly the world was very different. It's a strange feeling, to suddenly realize the world is not what you thought it was. When I was 13 I knew I didn't really believe in God any more. When I was older than that, I reluctantly put away my beloved beliefs in UFOs, out-of-body experiences, ESP, telepathy and divining the future. If anything I think the paranormal stuff hit me harder than Santa or God, but in each case the feeling was the same. The world was different. It was clearer, it was suddenly dazzling and new. But it was also just a little less wonderful... for awhile. 


  1. When the kids older than me said 'It's ya parents' I wrestled with it, because I didn't want to ask my mother and have my joy at the mystery shattered, even though I had my suspicions at a very early age.

    They said nothing, so neither did I. I liked the mystery and even if it was play-acting on all our parts, I wanted to maintain the illusion for all our sakes.

    But there comes a time when it's right for the revelation, and your Mum explains that Santa is about giving and not expecting a reward, and that it's a game to share and don't spoil your little sister's fun. Take part in the game for her sake.

    Look, I'm 65, and I believe in that Santa. Stuff the guilts, and the angst that my kids may grow up thinking I'm a liar and they'll be irrepairably betrayed. They'll find out soon enough in a hundred other ways that you lie, when parents tell one to avoid some embarrassment over something else.

    But you'll all still love each other. I see not the slightest trace of damage. In a way it enhances the relationship to have that sort of trust.

    The visible Santa will slip away when he serves no further purpose [i.e., when the illusion has lost its appeal], to be replaced by the invisible, more meaningful Santa.

    Sadly, Christmas will still be just as brutally commercial without the charade. Look at Valentine's Day!

    1. Denis, thank you so much. You've not only (a) confirmed my dimly formed belief in why we do Santa, and (b) made me feel better, but also (c) given me a good way to tell my kids about Santa when that time comes.
      I really think that Santa is absolutely and only A Good Thing, and despite my occasional guilt/misgivings I agree with you - kids don't appear to be 'damaged' by this 'lie'.
      Thanks for reading me waffle on about this subject yet again!

    2. There's a vast difference between a game and a lie. One is a joyful family drama. The other is a lie intended to deceive, with an entirely different intent [usually self-serving, or in some cases, intending to protect the person being lied to].

      I know there are some who say you should never lie under any circumstances – people like Gandhi and Confucius, whom I respect enormously. But that doesn't always work, I think.

      So to me, 'Santa' is a game appropriate to the age and temperament of the participants, with a lesson for life at the end.

      When it becomes a silly charade none of the participants believe in, it's time to call it off.


    3. That's perfect - I love this (and I think you're right).
      Thanks Denis!



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