One night a couple of years ago I was sitting in a bar (what, not how you expected a family Christmas story to begin?) when I casually mentioned to my group of friends and acquaintances that I had recently told my kids there was no Santa.
I might as well have said that I like to eat live baby bunnies dipped in ketchup. One guy in particular, an author and dad of a young boy, was incensed.
“You’re co-opting their childhood,” he said, not teasing but actually angry, drawing accusatory stares to me from around the bustling pub. “You’re not allowing their imaginations to flourish. Children need to create worlds of pretend in order to develop. It’s wrong.”
Yeah, yeah, just take the letter ‘n’ from the middle of “Santa” and move it to the end of the word, and that’s me.
Before you take his side, let me explain how it really went down: The kids, 3 ½ and 5 at the time, had asked me — as kids are wont to do — “Is Santa Claus real?”
We’re a very pragmatic household. A long time ago, my husband and I made a pact not to lie in our family, not to each other or, whenever feasible, not to our kids.
You’re co-opting their childhood, people told me
I want my children to understand, within the confines of their safe and very privileged existence, that there is a reality out there that is not always a fantasyland of perfection.
Also, did I mention the kids are half Jewish?
But whatever our reasons, I’m not a “killer of worlds of pretend.” We pretend all the time: We tell stories; my kids create elaborate plays and shows and make-believe worlds; we read fairy tales and fantasy books. They have a laundry basket of dress-up clothes, for goodness sake.
But when they asked me, their little eyes searching back and forth across my face, I found that I could not outright lie.
So I fell back on a mantra that I repeat often, and that I really do think has truth:
“There’s not a man who flies around the world in one single night delivering presents to every child,” I began gently.
“But I think that when you really believe in something in your heart, then it can be true for you.”
And what happened next, you ask? Did the kids cry out in emotional trauma, shriek, fall to the floor in grief, forever damaged, their growth and development stunted?
No. They just patently refused to accept it.
Santa, they agreed, shaking their heads and looking at each other gravely, was absolutely and most definitely real, end of story.
So, as I said, a couple of years passed, and now the kids are 5 and 7.
This year, the kids are old enough to really be aware of the full commercial circus that is American Christmas. The toy catalogues, the themed media, the cheap clothing, the decorations and advertising and holiday hype everywhere.
A couple of weeks ago they huddled together with a red marker to write their Christmas lists, which they then presented happily to us and which read something close to:
"Dear Santa: We would each like approximately 48 American Girl dolls each (the ones that cost more than $100), associated furniture for American Girl dolls (Julie’s bed, $125; Caroline’s parlor, $300; Rebecca’s Sideboard and Sabbath set, $198 — plug for the Jews!), new books, new clothes, new art supplies, and a bunch more expensive things which are just new iterations of stuff we already own. Love, L and T."
Still remembering the sting two years ago of being labeled a dream killer, I waded in delicately this time, choosing instead to play the fairness-in-economics card.
“I think you need to ask for less,” I said, gently. “It might be other children’s turns to get the big things this year.”
“There is no Santa,” my husband threw in.
Being the wise old ages of 5 ½ and 7, my kids were the ones who were incensed this time.
They knit their brows, clenched their fists, and ran off upstairs.
“Now we’ve done it,” I said to my husband. “Permanent damage. Innocence lost. Imaginations de.to.na.ted.”
But 20 minutes later, the girls marched haughtily back into the den, clutching a freshly written letter, which read something very close to: "Dear Santa: We are very sorry some peple dont beleev in you. We know you are reel and you live in the North Pool with elfs and raindeers and you will bring us all the pressents. Love L and T."
Dear Santa: We are very sorry some peple dont beleev in you. We know you are reel and you live in the North Pool with elfs and raindeers and you will bring us all the pressents. Love L and T.
My kids refuse not to believe in Santa. No matter what we say, we just can’t kill their dream.
They Believe, with a capital ‘B.’
Which, I am deciding, is perfectly fine. After all, my original goal in being honest about the jolly fat man was not to force them to refute Santa, but to avoid lying to them.
Maybe they know in their hearts, as probably many children do, that it’s unlikely a so obviously out-of-shape man flies around the world in one night with a sleigh of unlimited gifts.
Or, maybe their view of the world so far is that we live on a planet so small, so magical, so full of common human dreams, that anything is still possible for them.
Bottom line, they believe because they want to, despite the odds, and not because we told them a warm and fuzzy story.
And if they believe in something, who am I to say it’s not, in some way or another, true?
The only problem this stubbornness on the part of my kids raises for us, as their parents, is how now to teach thankfulness in the face of such unlimited Claus resources and frenzied materialism all around them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, readers. That’s Part 2 of the story.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2013.