How Should We Tell The Santa Story?

This piece was originally posted on Yahoo Parenting and The Good Men Project

I snuck into the bathroom while she was still taking a shower. I didn’t want my younger brother to hear what I was about to ask her. My mom was getting ready for work, but I was on a mission to resolve a nagging question that’d been spinning in my head for days. I can still remember what it felt like when I sat down, with my legs folded, on the small blue bathroom rug that lay across the cold tile floor. I was scared and vulnerable, afraid for what the answer to my question might shatter and reveal.

Above the sound of the shower and muffling of the cloudy, fogged-up glass door I shouted nervously: “Mom, I need to ask you something…”

She shouted back, “What? Honey, I can’t hear you! Can you wait until I’m out of the shower?”

Without an ounce of restraint I blurted out, “Mommy, is Santa real?”

Suddenly the water turned off, she reached for her towel and stepped onto the blue bathroom rug with me. Her eyes were wide, kind, and a little bit sad. She heard the worry in my voice, revealing that I already had discovered the answer to the question on a playdate last Sunday afternoon. There in our little  hallway bathroom, she confirmed the kind of info that would inevitably change my childhood forever. I learned that the jolly red North Pole-dwelling toy maker was actually my mom shopping at Costco and Toys-R-Us for toys and treats to fill my stocking.

What a sham, I thought. What a facade. I felt lied to and was depressed, as I considered this a loss. Life for the next several years without Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny was frustrating. Holidays lost a bit of their luster, and loosing a tooth? Who cares. Instead, I was preoccupied with trying to discern what and whom I could trust and what might be another fantasy constructed by adults “so that kids could have fun."

I mused how nice it would be if God were real, but what if he wasn’t? Perhaps it was all too good to be true. I shouldn’t risk it again, should I? I tried to disassosiate the connection I found between God and Santa, truth and fiction, but it was not all that easy at first. Jesus, God and Santa= Christmas. If one was out, were the others too?

Still, my mom had been right when she said that Santa had been a story told to add whimsey and magic to my childhood. I had enjoyed believing in Santa, it was a good run while it lasted. I spent the next several years trying to protect my younger brother from losing his belief too. I frantically muted brazen TV commercials advertizing “stocking stuffers” for K-Mart. I worried he’d connect the dots: if the elves were making toys at the North Pole, why did Burbank, California need to sell stocking stuffers?

Strangely, I still wouldn’t trade in my fun years with Santa to eliminate the doubt discovering his true identity had caused. Discerning fact from fantasy is a part of child development, it was the all the outright lies about Santa that I could have done without.

I’ve reflected on this dilemma often as an adult: Santa or no Santa? I’ve moved from one conviction to the other, but landed somewhere in the middle. Which way is the best way to raise children so that they can trust, but also enjoy the whimsey and imagination of childhood? Does the current Santa narrative have to remain the story going forward? Or can we create a more authentic story, so that our children will trust us, while still preserving this tradition of holiday whimsey?

Here are a few tips for keeping Santa in good perspective, preserving trust and fun:

1. Don’t Lie.

You don’t have to lie to your children and proclaim false certainty so that they will believe in Santa. Tell the story as a legend passed down about a very kind man. You can go into great detail and read stories about him, but continue to regard Santa as the subject of a great story. When your kids ask you direct questions, answer what they are asking. St. Nicholas was a real man, so there is a way to still honor the spirit of giving and Christmas, which reflects the gift Christians believe God gave the world by sending Jesus to earth.

When your kids ask, “Does Santa live at the North Pole?” you can easily say “I have heard some people say he lives on the North Pole, but I’ve never seen his house myself so I am not sure. Where do you think he lives?” Consider that as a child ages, they will learn more of the story and eventually see the whole picture. The big picture will reveal the way parents have kept the spirit of St. Nick alive by giving children gifts on Christmas Day.

2. Don’t Hold On Too Tight

Be careful not to invent a great lie in effort to preserve this fun tradition for your own enjoyment. I’ve often heard parents say about their 5th grader, “I wasn’t ready for them to stop believing in Santa yet!” When your child begins to ask doubting questions, prepare yourself to show the bigger picture to your child. Every parent knows that it’s essential that their child trusts them. Building their certianity in a lie is much worse than leading them on a journey towards discovery of who the real St. Nick was.

To discover what they’re asking, ask curious questions. Keep asking questions until you understand what is at the heart of what they want to know before you launch into an answer. Questions like, “What do you think?” or “What would you like to know?” can help guide you through all kinds of tough questions with your kids. Lead them from general questions into exploring their specific curiosities.

Trust is one of the most important components of any relationship, especially for a parent and child. Put your child first and tell them the whole story once they become ready to know if the fictional Santa story is real. You’ll make this small sacrifice for the health of your relationship.

3. Promote the Values of Saint Nicholas

Santa is a good guy. He’s a hero. Everyone loves getting just the gift they asked for, right? Though I find his merit system a bit too unforgiving, he still hooked me up with a whole lot of cool toys I really, really wanted when I was a kid. The story of Saint Nicholas is one you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. In short, St. Nicholas was a real man from an affluent home in the third century. He was very generous, giving all he had to the poor by secretly gifting things that met the needs of those around him. The values of St. Nick are worth emulating and integrating into our modern lives.

Once the story of Santa is revealed, use this story as a transition towards a new way to participate in the “Santa” fun. Ask them: “Whose need can we meet? What gift can we give in secret that would change someone’s day around?”

4. Don’t Compare Santa to God

Santa’s reputation for being omnicient and tracking our good and bad behavior can be a bit too “god-like” for my taste. I would encourage you not to make a paralell between God and Santa and to downplay the teaching of my least favorite Christmas song:

“He knows when you are sleeping,

he knows when you’re awake!

He knows when you’ve been bad or good

so be good for goodness sake. better watch out you better not cry…”

For Christians, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ life is characterized by forgiveness. I find it fascinating that this part of the Santa story counters the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus is believed to be a gift of grace, not merit. Our behavior isn’t rewarded by Jesus, Jesus comes to earth because our behavior is in need of redemption that God wants to provide. In studying the spirit of St. Nick I learned that he was extending the spirit of the message of Jesus, grace and forgiveness, with his unexpected gifts. It can grow confusing and inaccurate for a child to think that God is like Santa, waiting for them to mess up so he can give them coal instead of a gift. The story of Christmas is much more loving than this, make generosity, forgiveness and giving your main theme.

Also, If your child asks you if Santa’s real, “even though we can’t see him,” don’t do as I’ve heard some parents boast, saying “We can’t see God, but we believe in him. Santa is the same.” God is not Santa, Santa is not God. Holding onto this distinction will go a long was as you value the process of building trust with your child.

The man in a jolly red suit at the mall does not have to be the enemy of trust, nor is he the “true meaning of christmas” as some have come to profess. Charting a course for a new way to celebrate Santa in your home will build trust, celebrate generousity and still allow the imagination and whimsy of childhood to be found alive and well this holiday season.

By recreating a healthier narrative for the Santa story, we might just pass along a new and better tradition for generations to come.