Having “The Talk” about Santa

medium_4188008601There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don’t want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.

As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.

But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?

Our middle child asked for “the truth” about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she’s acting as if the conversation never happened. There’s not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there’s a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that’s OK.

Still, if you’re truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don’t insist that the guy at the mall is the “real” Santa. Don’t answer a kid’s critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.

When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, “Well, the story goes that…” This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they’re inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they’re ready to push further, they will.

In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me—to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you’ll know when it’s time for this conversation). I’m recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations—in fact, it continues to unfold.

The story of Santa is just that—a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas’s generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church’s way of honoring him.

And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.

The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it’s a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the “truth” about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.

Yes, the story goes on—it’s just that you’re in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you’d like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)

There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That’s OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the “truth.” You can choose to do that if you want. But then you’ve taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won’t take that choice away from them. They’ll come to another place in the story when it is time.

When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that’s not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus’ story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That’s OK too.

Over time, you will have questions about Jesus’ story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus’ miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go. It’s the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.

~

photo credit: cuellar via photopin cc

10 thoughts on “Having “The Talk” about Santa

  1. Karen

    My parents stoically stood before me looking down solemnly. It was December, our tree was up and decorated. It was cold and I was standing in front of the bedroom space heater trying to stay warm. I was in the second grade and wildly hopeful of and excited about Santa. Santa, like my teacher at school, was a stable, predictable presence in my childhood that I believed in and held onto. The look on my parents’ faces communicated to me that someone had died. I had never seen them look so worried, scared, and downright full of dread. They actually held hands as my mother rather briskly informed me there was no Santa Claus. That was all there was to it, she said. In a snap, he longer meant or offered anything. I was 7 years old and did not want to hear this! I was not ready…at all. I cheer for those parents who wait until the child asks and wants to know. Some of us need to hang onto him a little longer than others. Love your message! Can’t imagine a better way to address this ~ your children are so blessed to have you.

    Reply
  2. Bob Braxton

    When our young “only” child would ask some question, I would respond “Let’s go find out” – to teach looking up in a dictionary, for example, and basic research. In my university philosophy major, I learned A.J. Ayer (in theory of sense perception) who around the year of my birth maintained that the MEANING of some statement of “fact” is contained essentially in a thorough description of what steps one would take to go about demonstrating the veracity of the statement. Also something about how when you put a stick at an angle into the swimming pool clear water, the stick looks like it is bent at a sharp angle – but you pull the stick back out and see it is actually a straight stick.
    When Thelma was very young (six, maybe nine) her elders admonished, “Thelma, do not TELL STORIES” (the same word my southern parents used to denote “lies” the Untruth. Fortunately Thelma (Biblical Storytellers) paid them no mind. (Also, think of “Why the Caged Bird Sings” and other … http://www.thelmasplace.com/Biblical.html

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  3. anne

    i’ve shared this post widely with family and friends and have gotten rave reviews from many on your thoughtful approach to ‘the story.’ thanks for sharing this!
    when our daughter realized i was the tooth fairy, my son (2 years older) said to her, ‘and that’s not all. she’s the thanksgiving turkey.’ love that remembrance.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Ha!

      It’s funny, I think the Tooth Fairy was the last to go. You’d think the scales would fall away from the eyes all at once, but no, it came in stages.

      Easter Bunny was first, because c’mon, that really IS ridiculous.

      Reply
  4. Laura

    Commenting on this 6 months later, but looking for Advent ideas.

    Since our family celebrated December 6, St. Nicholas Day, we worked hard for our children to NOT think that Santa and St. Nicholas were the same “person”.
    Instead we said that Santa got his idea from St Nicholas.
    Our St. Nicholas celebration consists of everyone leaving out their shoes, Nicholas leaves the traditional gold coins, a gift reminding them of the birth of the Christ child (we began a nativity set which culminated with a stable at age 18) and a letter from St. Nicholas which praised their character development and pointed out places where they could improve. It is also the day we set up the family’s stable and prepare it for the coming event and Mary and Joesph begin their journey around the house. This is much anticipated because it is the first hint of Christmas in our house.
    The most difficult part of the celebration was the St. Nicholas cookies which came from an old family recipe from Germany/Austria. These had to be made in total secret which became harder as they grew older.
    We have never given up this practice, although the children are now in their late teens and early 20s (high school and college).

    As to Santa Claus – the rule in our house was — either “believe” or he will not come. My older children liked the surprise of Santa, the mystery. So they never were been tempted to “blow it” for the younger children and have even told the younger that at our house Santa comes and they just aren’t going to question it.
    My children never had a problem discerning between God and other legendary characters..
    The biggest problems we had were the story “The Night Before Christmas”, changing the words to Santa Clause instead of St. Nick. And some seasonal songs.

    Reply
    1. Bob Braxton

      I like very much your take on parenting. We are about 70 years of age and our one offspring already reached 42. Now we have the next generation (of two).

      Reply
  5. Manya Lisse

    My oldest, now six, loves the Santa story, He wants to sit on the lap of every Santa he sees. This is sometimes awkward because we don’t celebrate Christmas, there are no stockings, and no gifts from Santa. The mall Santa said to him last year “What I’m I bringing you this year? Ho ho ho!” D. said, “You don’t come to our house, but thanks.” The mall Santa said promptly “Your family may give you presents, but I still come to your house, “Santa” is just another word for love and happiness.” I thought that was a wonderful answer.

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