I’ve written before about why we aren’t doing Santa in the traditional sense. We love and appreciate him and want to maintain his spirit through both his real Saint namesake and through his fairy tale, but we won’t be insisting that he delivers our children’s gifts on Christmas Day.
I am a bit unique in the camp of families that do Santa differently. Many are here because of their own poor personal experiences with Santa, such as the tradition leading to a crisis of all faith or disappointment with their own parents. I experienced the very opposite. Santa mostly deepened my Christian faith and my trust in my parents’ love.
So this was not an easy decision. I had to ask myself, “Why was Santa such a positive experience for me– one I’m afraid of depriving my children of?”
Many people will say it is because Santa is magical and believing in magic fills children with hope and wonder and delight. By magical, they really mean typically unbelievable. Santa does things that shouldn’t seem possible and so therefore he is magical.
But I’m not sure it is primarily the unbelievable things that make Santa so wonderful. In many cultures, he comes in much simpler ways, without magic, flying reindeer. The traditions change; the person remains the same. Under Santa’s white fur trimmed red suit, I think the real idiosyncrasy that makes him so wonderful is how much he delights in delighting others.
I don’t ever remember not somewhat doubting Santa’s story, even as a little girl, although I chose to gladly participate in it well into my preteen years. I think what actually made the Santa experience so wonderful was the sweet little hint I had that my parents were putting it all on for me. That hint meant that my parents really wanted to charm and enchant me, in a special, over-the-top way. It meant my parents delighted in delighting me. But that feeling that comes with someone delighting in delighting me, though precious, wasn’t actually that unusual or unique.
I felt that same feeling on countless birthdays. I felt that same feeling when my husband proposed to me. I felt that same feeling when I walked into the fairyland reception hall at my wedding. It is the feeling that somebody loves you above and beyond your basic need for love and protection. Somebody wants to indulge you with things you don’t need, but things that make life delightful. Santa is wonderful because he is an old man who obsesses about seemingly superfluous dolls and trains, and laughs more gleefully at the reception of such gifts than the children do. Santa is wonderful because he represents completely unnecessary love.
Sadly, I think Santa stands out so much in our culture because, in many homes or offices or schools, he is the only example of this unnecessary love. Despite the rampant materialism in America, there is also this strange Puritanical paranoia about “indulging” children. There is an idea that if you are too sweet, too affectionate, too loving in the unnecessary ways, you will spoil the child. Santa becomes a welcome respite in places where this paranoia exists, because the human heart’s appreciation for unnecessary, over-indulgent love always exists. I’m reminded of the father in A Christmas Story, typically gruff and detached, who finally lights up with delight-in-delighting his little boy with a very unnecessary gift from Santa.
We don’t have to rely on Santa so much. The traditional Santa narrative doesn’t have to be the only opportunity for wonder, joy, and indulgent love in our children’s lives. While too many material things combined with too little discipline can certainly spoil a child, too much love will not. Children are so easily delighted. We just have to make sure that we, as parents, seek to delight in our children’s delight.
Perhaps the reason memories of Santa are tinged with a combination of joy and bitterness for so many people is because he stopped coming far too early. He stopped coming when the children stopped “believing” the narrative of reindeer and sleighbells and chimney entrances. But the narrative was never the most important part. The important part is knowing that someone loves surprising and indulging and enchanting you, no matter how old you are.
We don’t need to fear; Christmas, childhood, and life in general can be deeply magical, with or without literal adherence to the American Santa narrative. Just ask my oldest son what he thinks of Nativity scenes, Christmas lights, or snowmen.