As a child, Santa Claus was a huge aspect of my Christmas experience. My parents were firm believers in the importance of fantasy, and though they did a pretty amazing job of implementing it year-round, no season served as a better springboard than the Christmas season. My dad in particular reveled in it: leaving boot prints in the fireplace ashes, having male friends call us on the phone pretending to be the jolly old elf, responding to our Christmas Eve notes by circling letters within our own words and having us piece them together like a puzzle. Hard core Santa stuff here, people.
At 10 years old I'm sure I was the last child in Texas still believing in Santa. Obviously I had had serious questions for awhile but at that point, I couldn't deny the harsh reality and when the facts lined themselves up I specifically remember lying in the bathtub crying dramatically with the door locked. My parents took turns on the other side of the bathroom door, gently trying to coax me out, reminding me that St. Nicholas was a real person and that the Spirit of Christmas lives on.
I didn't care. I was devastated and felt the huge weight of grief as the last of childhood magic passed me by. My older sister and younger brother accepted the truth at more typical ages and with much less drama. I've never understood why it was so painful for me, until this year. But more on that later.
I got older, but didn't have reason to give much thought to what I would do about Santa as a parent until Eric and I married. Funny enough, he had received the news at close to the same age and level of angst as I had. Together, we came to the conclusion that we didn't want to ever lie to our future children. So, clearly, no Santa Claus for us. Additionally we were part of a close knit, lovely but very conservative church community that strongly emphasized that Christmas is only about Jesus. The general consensus seemed to be that playing Santa Claus negates that. I felt like my own childhood Christmases had always had a very strong spiritual foundation, but I could see their argument and was admittedly swayed by the attractiveness of a strong stance.
Yet over the years I've been plagued with the thought that it is an awfully big stretch to say that all this is for Jesus! The cookie baking, the gift giving, the tree lighting... is it really so bad to admit that we do it because it feels magical and beautiful and brings us joy? These holiday traditions certainly contribute to us making much of the season, of taking time to recognize the magnitude of the Incarnation. But is it really necessary to say we do it all for His birthday? I don't think so.
Does it deny Jesus glory for us to give our loved ones gifts simply because we love them, or hang rainbow lights on the roof just because it makes our children gasp, or play Jingle Bells just because it brings us joy although it makes no mention of the Christ child's birth? Call me crazy, but I think Jesus enjoys our joy for joy's own sake. Maybe it's not all so black and white after all.
When we finally did become parents we were also embarking on a spiritual journey of finding our place within Christianity, leaving the nondenominational church and forging on to an Anglican setting. The first few years of parenthood all but makes the Santa decision for you: no 1 or 2 year old really cares who's bringing the gifts, they just want to tear up the wrapping paper and sit in the boxes. It was easy to maintain our no-Santa stance because it really didn't matter anyway. For Alyosha, age 3 was the same. It wasn't until last year that we really were faced with decisions of what words to say and what tales to tell, and by then we weren't so sure we were convinced of anything anymore.
By then we had converted to Catholicism, which for us had opened the door of faith wider and towards more mystery than we had made room for in the past, and that bled over into our parenting as well. So we talked more about St. Nicholas - the historical figure who lives in heaven with Jesus now - and we said that him delivering presents was a pretend game. (But one we played heartily.) It seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time but looking back it must have been awfully confusing, which is probably why Alyosha went into this year's Christmas season remembering very little about Santa at all.
But something has happened this year, his 5 year old year, that has upped the ante on the issue. This year I have realized that this child doesn't believe in magic at all. He is a highly logical kid; one who will spend hours on a makeshift pulley or writing his letters, but cannot sit down and play with most toys in the way they were designed for. I used to try to help him play make-believe games with dolls or dressing up in costume, but it was so uninspired and mom-driven that I eventually gave up. He does baby his stuffed animals sometimes, but is always quick to explain to me that it's just pretend. He is simply wired in a very literal way, and that is absolutely fine.
However, he is also a vey sensitive child. He usually does not enjoy reading about, watching, or playing anything that even smells violent or potentially spooky. Epic battles, traditional types of heroes, bad guys and good guys... he avoids them like the plague. Which again is fine by me, but the question remains: how can we as parents still give him a sense of wonder about the world? A few months ago we were reading Mary Poppins and he flat out said, "yeah but there's really no such thing as magic in the real world". My mama's heart broke. He's 5 years old.
Last year, a blogger I really enjoy posted this explanation of why she and her husband feel that doing Santa is not the best choice for their oldest son, who was 5 at the time. Her reasons seemed absolutely valid to me (many of which echoed some of my own thoughts over the years) and I support their family's decision completely. But I think the real merit of the post is the perspective of assessing the needs and temperaments of your own children. I've been thinking about the specific needs that Alyosha has in this area. And the more we talk about it, the more Eric and I believe that for our particular child a practiced belief in Santa Claus could be the most beneficial thing.
What sealed the deal for me was reading famed child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim's thoughts on Santa this past Thanksgiving. Years ago I had read and enjoyed his work The Uses of Enchantment, but at my parents' house in November I stumbled upon my dad's copy of A Good Enough Parent. Noticing a chapter specifically devoted to Santa Claus, I cozied up and dug in curiously. (I've only read that chapter, so I can't vouch for the merits of the entire book, though I suspect it's a worthy read.)
The best way to summarize what I took from Bettleheim's words is simply this: children need some sense of magic in order to cope with reality. When they reach a point of development where they no longer need it, then they gradually stop using it. Children like me who were devastated to find Santa not real were simply forced (by other children's words, parents confirmation, and other natural happenings) to relinquish magic too soon. Even at 10 years old, I really still needed it to cope with the world.
For me personally, that explanation makes the most sense of any. I have never felt that my parents lied to me. Although that argument could be made, it honestly doesn't feel like a true description of what happened and I certainly never questioned our religious teachings because of it, as is the fear of many parents. It was more like I was being tossed out of childhood, out of fantasy, before I was ready. I was losing a coping mechanism.
Now I fully believe that some children find this sense of magic and possibility in Star Wars, or The Hobbit, or dressing up like a Princess. Those are precious and very real expressions of our human desire for Mystery, for the Unexplainable. For children who can cling to those fantasies on their own initiative, that may be all of the magic they need. My son just can't.
I do recognize that there is a difference in that those children aren't usually believing that those things literally exist, but isn't that an awfully fine line in childhood? Isn't the beauty of childhood in the very fact that possibility and reality are not entirely separate realms? I want Otherness to nestle in to my children's hearts when they're little, so that they want to continue seeking it out when they're big. And if they need a little help with that, well I think that's what Santa is here for.
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and invisible in the world...
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding...
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.Francis P. Church