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Whither Santa

Why do we propagate the Santa Claus myth?  Sure it’s steeped in tradition.  And sure it’s a clever, trillion dollar marketing tool for anyone who can properly tap into its quaint nature.  But given how much trouble it is to maintain a child’s faith in the myth, and the trauma we all remember of discovering it was all a lie, one would think adults would try to discourage it.  Yet, each new generation “dons the suit” and perpetuates the fraud.  Why?

 I have two children, ten and five.  The ten-year old has convinced herself that if she does not at least outwardly attest to her continued faith in Santa, then she won’t get anything from him.  Clearly she has figured it out, but is only up to the Negotiation stage of dealing with the death of Santa.  The five-year old is entirely sure the myth is 100% true, all the way down to Rudolph’s red nose.  I am confident that the ten-year old loves her little sister enough to not let the truth out of the bag.  But watching her dance around the issue has got me examining why we do this in the first place.

I think the myth serves two important values to society.  First, it creates a way for a child to know he/she is appreciated by the world, not just Mommy and Daddy.  Family members give gifts at Christmastime, and Holiday cheer is spread around, but Santa’s presents are something more.  By having an anonymous, unimpeachable judge find that you have been good and not naughty, the universe forgives all the indiscretions of the year.  It harkens the kind of deep, meaningful forgiveness folks seek from God.  Maybe that’s why we have lined up the holiday of generosity with the birth of Christ.  Both Jesus and Santa are here to tell us we are forgiven and loved and everything will be all right.

The second value I see is in raising the bar for parents.  This may be an unintended consequence, but it is still valuable.  If Santa is handing out forgiveness and validation at Christmastime, then Mom and Dad can’t so easily use Christmas presents to buy their children’s affections.  If you allocate the material rewards to Santa, then parents have to demonstrate love with time and attention.  It’s like the Spirit of Christmas that the Whos still have in loving each other when the Grinch has taken away all the trappings and presents.  Of course, parents who don’t spend enough time with their kids are always going to try to buy their way back into junior’s heart with stuff.  But letting Santa have a cut of the credit reminds us that parents are supposed to be more than toy store credit cards.

But even if Santa is good for society, we still don’t have an answer to why we continue the myth.  There are lots of things that are clearly good for society that we cheerfully abandon when it suits our purposes, like not littering or speeding or killing one another.  So, “good for society” isn’t good enough.

Was there something so great about Santa when we were young that we want to give that same something to our kids?  After being lied to for ten years or so, why wasn’t it a bigger shock to find out it had been a deception?  The quick and easy answer to both of these questions is the presents.  But I think there is more to it.

I think the validation aspect alone is enough to want to pass the myth on.  The presents we got from Santa struck a deeper chord than even cooler presents we may have received at birthdays.  The magic associated with receiving a reward from the universe is hard to beat.  And maybe we want that same chord to ring for our kids, whether we understand the validation or not.

The lie is what really intrigues me.  We propagate the myth knowing full well that in time our kids are going to see through it.  Why are we not worried that our kids will distrust us for having lied to them?  When we recall figuring out the truth behind Santa, we typically remember it as solving a great puzzle.  Why don’t we remember it as uncovering a life turning betrayal?  Maybe by ten we have been let down enough times by our parents and our teachers and adults in general, that when we figure out the Santa myth, it is just one more block falling off the crumbling tower of trust we had in grown ups.  Or maybe seeing through this elaborate adult-constructed façade is a right of passage, a truth-finding that we can own as ours.  Maybe we want our children to figure it out, and to have that proud moment of victory that we remember.  Maybe we erect this illusion so that it can be torn down when the child is ready.

I could just as easily have constructed this argument as a proof, but I have purposely left all the “maybes” in plain sight.  I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Categories: Parenting
  1. January 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Now let’s see who’s willing to take action in harmony with your sayings. I presume the majority will remain hyped up for at least couple of days and then go back to their old means of dealing with it.

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