Like most parents, I aim to be truthful with my kids. Truth and honesty are fundamental values in society, and obvious bedrocks for children. But what should one do with the truth about Santa Claus?
When my son entered the “why” phase around age 3, I started overloading him with facts. This was the easiest way to deal with a barrage of unending questions. When he found our wine cork screw I told him quite truthfully that his mom and dad sometimes enjoy drinking rotten grapes. We put rotten grapes in special bottles that have a special opener. All true. He’s convinced grownups are weird. Maybe he’s right.
By the time he turned 5, the whys most clearly articulated themselves before the daily drop offs at kindergarten. One day he began with the age-old, “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why can I see the moon in day?” Both have simple answers, but to stem the flow I decided to go rather detailed in my explanation of astrophysics, ending with gravitational theory and temporal mechanics. I’d just started to touch on string theory when he climbed out, and needless to say, he’d stopped asking questions. Nothing I said was false. Truths all the way.
Like many parents, I’ve been talking a lot about a fat man in red who’s supposedly monitoring my kids 24/7, judging whether they’re naughty or nice, making them gifts, and planning to break into our house sometime after they go to sleep on Christmas Eve. It’s a weird lie, one some experts say is damaging to children in the long run. And forget overloading the kids with truth on this one because the more the kid digs, the more parents scramble to keep the “magic” alive.
Before the whys, I used to walk through the forest with my son, pointing out dragon tracks and spots where they lay eggs. We used to search for the footprints of giants and the remnants of ogres. As a fantasy author, I’ve no qualms blending magic and reality in order to encourage imagination. Yet, by the time my son reached his fifth birthday, he started asking point blank which things were real and which weren’t. I did my best to explain the concept of myths and fantasy. He now realizes dragons and Pokemon are fiction (a year earlier he’d been convinced the Pokemon went extinct during the same event that ended the dinosaurs). However, he still enjoys pretending to hunt for them.
Why then, am I so reluctant to puncture the Santa myth? Why am I getting money ready from the Tooth Fairy? Why am I hiding Easter baskets, supposedly to be delivered by a giant bunny?
I recall believing quite fervently in Santa as a kid. Then one year my parents packed the car to visit my grandparents in New York. On the top of our station wagon were several long parcels, rather “ski shaped” for lack of a better term. And that year, Santa just happened to give us skis. Yup, that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. It’s a sort of rite of passage in our culture, like learning to drive. And for a long time, that was that. Santa was fake, my parents lied, and I was past that phase.
Then I had kids of my own. All the holidays took on new meanings. Holidays as a parent are a chance to relive that magic, and watch that excitement in your children’s eyes. My wife and I talked about Santa. Did we want to go along with the communal lie? Did we want to tell him early on? And what would that do to his friends? If we drew back the veil on Santa for our son, would he then tell all the other kids? Were we robbing others of happiness? Of that innocence? What would we really gain from the truth in this case?
We’ve seen constant crises these past few years: a global pandemic, climate change, political upheaval, racial reckonings and more. We’ve also seen the power of misinformation. We’ve seen that when different parties can’t agree on simple truths that society suffers. Are we setting our kids up to continue this struggle by perpetuating this false Santa narrative, one we know to be untrue?
I don’t have any answers. Yet, my gut tells me maybe it is OK to lie. Childhood is a magical time. A time where the world is good, and a magical fat guy really will reward you for good behavior. Where losing a tooth means a fairy will sneak under your pillow, or a bunny will leave you chocolate. It’s a time where the dragons in the forest, and even the Pokemon, are still alive, just hiding. My daughter, who is a bit younger and hasn’t asked about myths, has been encouraged to look up for flying dragons. I’ll let those dragons hide. Let’s allow them to be real.
The truth about Santa will come out and the magic will fade, as it always does. That doesn’t give the magic any less worth.