I love Santa (to be distinguished here from the historical St. Nicholas, who I also love). I don’t mean I “love” him in the way that I “love” the color green or goat cheese. I love Santa in a way that makes me tear up at the thought of him. I love Santa more than any adult I know. I still have and cherish the “business card” he gave me when I once met him on an airplane:
And yet, I’m not going to raise my son to believe that Santa is a flesh and blood, factual person who delivers presents by sleigh on Christmas Eve. I wish I could. Because I love that person, factual or not. I love the story of Santa, the spirit of Santa, the wonder of Santa, and my personal experience of Santa. And though all of that is still beautiful as a myth, it just seems so much more beautiful when it appears to be reality.
But I have read and heard of way too many accounts of Santa merely causing confusion or heartbreak in the end– way too may accounts of children who believed through and through only to report serious inner conflict when they learned the “truth.” It wasn’t just that they mourned the loss of someone they loved and the magic that that someone brought to the world. It was that it called everything else unseen or mysterious into question– most especially, God.
Now, I think that participating more fully in the Santa myth can be done gracefully. All children are different and some may be more sensitive to logical incongruities than others. But given what I know about my own son, I’m concerned he would be one of the children for whom it would cause this sort of doubt.
But along with the issue of trust I fear creating, I’m also concerned about giving an incorrect portrayal of what should happen to faith as we age. When children learn that no adults believe in Santa they may very well start to believe that all faith is childish. The world of our parents and grandparents was simpler. The great pillar of Judeo-Christian faith was so embedded in everything that the realized mythical nature of Santa was not as threatening to it. But times are different now and the world is harsher on faith. I don’t think this means nobody should “do Santa” but I do think it demands that modern parents be clearer in the difference between myth and reality than parents from previous generations had to be.
I want to shower my children in myths. I want to shower them in fairy tales. I want to make fairy houses in the backyard and I want to dress up as elves. I want them to have enough wonder to wonder if maybe perhaps those sorts of things do exist somewhere. I want them to have imaginations. Because the imagination gives us hope. And hope sustains faith. The imaginative hope is what sustains the reality of faith. I think the myth of Santa can support our realistic beliefs.
I said at the beginning that Santa would be better as reality. But I’m not sure that’s true. If Santa were our only hope at transcendence, at the divine, then yes, he is much better as reality. But if there is something greater than Santa that is reality, I’m not sure it’s so bad for Santa to not be reality.
When I was about eight my friends all started having “elves” visit them at Christmas time (not elf on the shelf, just plain old Christmas elves). So I told my mom and soon an elf started visiting me too. His name was Elvin. Like with Santa, I think I always sort of suspected that Elvin might be a girl and that her real name might be Mama. But I liked Mama being Elvin. Not long into the era of Elvin’s visits, an elf started visiting my mom too. Her name was Eliza. By my becoming that elf I revealed to my mom that I knew the “truth” about the elves. But if anything, knowing that truth made the whole experience so much better because I got to fully be a part of it. I got to participate in the imagining with her– and the imagining was a mere reflection of something bigger that we both believed in.
I want my children to have that opportunity to imagine. I want them to have the imaginative hope that will sustain their realistic faith. But I don’t want to ever have to tell them that any of it isn’t “true.”