Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Great Santa Debate

I've seen lots of Santa posts coming up in my news feed this last week and while I opened them and even read the first few descriptive lines in my feed I stopped short of going any further and finally closed the links to return to later.  I wanted to write this post and put down the thoughts on the subject that have been swirling around in my head these last few weeks when the subject came up in various groups that I'm in and I wanted those thoughts to simmer on their own so that I could put them down on paper before I read anyone else's take (this year).

Really the title of this post is a tad misleading, because I'm not really debating the pros and cons of either choice.  Still, I know there are parents out there pondering the decision and so I thought I'd share what we've done over the years and how it's worked for us.

I used to say that we "don't do" Santa, but then this year someone asked how we keep our kids from ruining the secret for kids who do believe in Santa by telling them "he's not real" and that made me pause.

You see Sadie wouldn't (at this point at least) think to tell another child that "Santa isn't real" because she's been taught her entire life that he is real.  She knows that Santa is Saint Nicholas and she's always been taught that Saint Nicholas, like all the other saints, are every bit as real as you or me.

When she was four, a grown up asked her if Santa had come to our house.  She paused, clearly puzzled and finally responded that Saint Nicholas was a real person who lived in heaven with God.

But maybe I'm less worried about the hypothetical situation because the child has never met an imaginary game that she hasn't loved.  She came out of her ballet class yesterday chattering about Elves who were getting into trouble.  She knows elves aren't real (because the child constantly asks "is that real or imaginary?") but was excitedly retelling and embellishing the story none the less as we drove around Paul's alma mater looking at Christmas lights.

I should probably have begun this whole post by explaining our Santa Strategy.  Since the kids have been small we've had saint books and children's Bibles scattered around the house.  We've read the stories and stressed that the people we're reading about were real people who loved God so much that they became saints.  We try to celebrate feast days whenever we're able and Saint Nicholas' Feast is one that we've gone out of our way to observe.

On the other hand, we read stories about Santa (the reindeer drawn sleigh version) too.  I have a copy of The Night Before Christmas that I love.  We watch Christmas movies and read Santa stories, in the same way that we read books about princesses and watch princess movies.

Some years we've even taken the kids to see Santa... our discontinuation of that particular tradition in recent years had less to do with believing in a certain version of Santa and more to do with the fact that the kids were considerably less excited about seeing Santa than they were about seeing the various characters at Disney World when we lived in Florida.  Actually, that's an understatement... the last few Santa visits were nothing short of disastrous...

I guess what I'm saying in a round about way is that we treat the image of Santa as a jolly man in a red suit flying across the sky in sleigh pulled by reindeer the same way we treat Princess Aurora or Dora or Oona. We read the stories and make up stories and they play dress up.  They draw pictures and dance around the room and sing songs about Santa or princesses or being a mermaid (or in Patch's case he stomps around the house in snow boots yelling "Guppy!  Guppy!  Bubble Puppy!" to let me know that he thinks it's a grave injustice that he doesn't have dog).

And over the years Sadie's asked me if Princess Belle is real and if mermaids are real and now she loves to ask "Is that really a princess or is it just an actor pretending?" with a smile, already knowing the answer.  

It hasn't seemed to lessen her excitement at all, in fact, like children all around the world she's eagerly counting down the days until Christmas.

As I considered writing this post I couldn't help but think about why this is such a popular topic for posts in the Catholic-Mom-Blogosphere at the moment.  It's almost inevitable in comment sections that defensiveness creeps in as people on both sides seek to justify their choices (at least from the comments I've seen accompanying links on Facebook).

In a way I'm sure this post contains a little bit of that defensiveness, because whatever path you take when you celebrate this holy time of year, whatever choices you make, you can easily find those who are explaining why they've made different choices.  Sometimes the language is kind and sometimes you'll be accused of damaging your children by telling them about Santa or by not "doing Santa." We've certainly been told we're "ruining Christmas" by not playing along with the more popular tradition.

Yet one look on their faces on Christmas morning tells me that nothing could be further from the truth.

As I wrote this post I decided not to delve to deeply into the "whys" that Paul and I considered when Sadie was tiny and we first began embarking on this whole parenthood journey.  I wanted this post to give ideas to those who are considering their options, and to stand as an explanation of one way of approaching a surprisingly controversial subject.

And maybe this year I'll be brave enough to take our four to visit the Santa at the mall... but more likely I won't be quite that daring... I have visions of being asked to leave and not come back!  They're usually really good when we're out and about but I'm afraid the sensory overload of a line to see Santa might be just too much for certain members of our little group!


  1. YAY! I like your logic. My husband and I don't have children yet, but "the great Santa debate" came up before we were married. We plan on doing holy days rather than holidays. Have fun/simple gifts on St. Nicholas day, then keep Christmas holy with church, family and stockings, then the "real" gifts on the feast of the Maji. Much of this comes from the true wedge that finding out Mom and Dad are Santa caused among friends children, ripping to shreds the cohesiveness of the children's bond. It's one thing to lie to a kid, it's another to have your 11yo need to lie and fake happiness for 4 younger siblings.

  2. Man, this whole issue was really not that complicated when I was growing up in the 1960's. All kids at that time were told about Santa. But then, all the kids I knew were also taught more about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Angles and Shepherds, and the Holy Night. Back then, the emphasis of Christmas was on God, no doubt about it. So Santa was just an adjunct to Christmas, the jolly man riding around on Christmas eve leaving gifts, and the message was it was goodness that impelled him. He rewarded good and punished bad. That message was consistent with the Christian message of God, at a time when people still took sin into account. The morality behind Santa bringing gifts that rewarded good boys and girls was tied into supporting the idea of good being rewarded by God, bad being punished, at a level and with a character kids could understand and relate to.

    It's true families and neighborhoods were more insular then. There wasn't the having to consider every other person's culture and traditions and personal beliefs that might conflict with yours and insult them. Back then everyone could pretty much got behind expecting kids to be morally good and having a common understanding of what that meant.

    For the smaller children (under 5 or 6) Santa conveyed the cultural message of being rewarded for morally good behavior and punished for morally bad behavior. In the same way Elsa in Frozen conveys all kinds of cultural messages, Santa was a vehicle to get a point across to children; to teach them something about expectations. Notice no one is too bothered nowadays about if kids believe Elsa is "real" or not, but as you point out, Sadie is already old enough to be hip to the idea that, wait a minute, these characters aren't real. But there are little kids younger than Sadie who probably believe Elsa is real, not imaginary. SO... Do parents go around making sure their young kids understand Elsa is not real? I doubt it.

    So I wonder if the "Santa Debate" is more about whether people can still get behind the cultural message about what morally good behavior is and the rewards that come with it. I don't think this is what you and Paul are doing, but I wonder about what is behind the anti-Santa debate of some others. Because I really can't see what harm it does for little children to believe in a wonderful guy who brings presents in secret and gives them gifts that delight them, and what harm it does to ask their older siblings not to ruin the fun and wonder that the littler ones still have believing in the wonderful giver of gifts; in believing in and participating in the wonder of a fairy tale.

    When someone makes it more complicated than that, I think all it shows is that they are in conflict within themselves.

    God bless. ~ Bonnie

  3. I think what the Santa debate all boils do to is "do you give your kids present on Christmas morning and tell them that Santa brought the gifts," It's not so much about reading stories about Santa or even leaning about St. Nicholas as a real person. I don't think anyone is really debating that. .

    I think the real debate is over if parents tell their kids that Santa brings them gifts. And, I think it's a worthy debate to have, because there are lots of issues involved. But then I genearlly like parenting debates. :)

  4. I don't think of it as worthy as other debates these days (and I did in the past... I've written about it almost yearly) I guess because I don't think it's one of those make or break right and wrong answers where there are definitive answers. I think there are things to consider, certainly, but I dislike how either side tends to act like you're ruining your child;s life if you don't do this or that. I guess that's why I've backed out off on making my point... because while we have our reasons I don't think they're so absolute that I can debate them and tell other people that they're wrong about how they're doing Santa.

  5. I don't even know why this is a debate. Everyone used to do Santa and none of us are damaged by it. When we realized the truth, we got to help Mom and Dad provide Santa for the younger sibs! I don't get why new moms overanalyze it. Santa is fun for kids. He lasts for a brief few years and then like all childhood things is set aside. I loved Santa when I was a kid and I love being Santa for my own. When kids are ready to stop believing, they do, and it's not devastating. This is a New Mommy concern. Those of us with older kids laugh at parents who seriously think Santa and the like is a Big Parenting Decision or that somehow Santa is evil, bad or makes kids not appreciate Jesus. I feel bad for kids whose parents are so hypersensitive and helicoptery that they won't play along with the fun for a few years.

  6. "Much of this comes from the true wedge that finding out Mom and Dad are Santa caused among friends children, ripping to shreds the cohesiveness of the children's bond. It's one thing to lie to a kid, it's another to have your 11yo need to lie and fake happiness for 4 younger siblings."

    In charity, I can't tell if this is satire so please forgive me if I am dense and "not getting the joke." I am the oldest of 5 and obviously figured out that Santa wasn't "real" before my siblings did. I was not traumatized! I was ready to stop believing, as it no longer made sense, and I approached my mom and told her that I thought she was Santa. She told me that she was NOT Santa, but that yes, she was the one who placed the gifts under the trees. That it was a special privilege moms and dads had to make a certain kind of magic for their kids, and now that I was old enough, I was in on the secret. I was thrilled to play along for my siblings! I was thrilled to see their faces light up when "santa" came! I loved being in on the "adult secret" with my parents. And yes, I was still so excited for Christmas to come, still loved my "Santa" gifts, and it was STILL a magical time of year for me, even after I knew the truth. I have NEVER known a family that was "ripped apart" by Santa. Most are just like mine was, where the older kids come to the conclusion after a period of discernment that Santa cannot possibly be real, and then they are let in on gig. I could not wait to provide the same magic for my own kids. And now that my oldest is 12 and no longer believes, she gets to be part of the process for her younger siblings which she adores doing! It's part of growing up. I am not sure what kind of 11-year-old has to "feign happiness" on Christmas morning, even if she no longer believes in Santa Claus? I am in my late 30s and STILL love Christmas morning! So does my daughter who is in on the secret. "Santa" still comes for her, as he always will, and she loves opening the gifts from him. She loves seeing the wonder in her sibling's faces. There is no "feigning" happiness. It is true happiness, not only because of the magic and the gifts and the holiday, but because of the birth of Christ and the magic of our salvation being born of the Virgin Mary. My kids get that, that's what we've taught. Christmas is such a special time of year for kids, trust me, it is NOT normal that Santa causes a rift among siblings. If that were the case, the culture would have long abandoned the practice.

  7. Thanks Anonymous for demonstrating EXACTLY what I was trying to avoid with this post.

    And the entire point is that kids can love Christmas either way. We love Christmas here too. The kids are excited and counting the days for a reason.

    We just do it differently than you do. And apparently that's worthy of your obnoxious tirade?

    Although perhaps I should thank you for such a wonderful demonstration of my point.

    Sorry... I think you may be need to focus a little bit more on yourself this Advent and a little bit less condemning parents who are doing it differently than you are.

  8. Well, Anonymous, I appreciate your point, but the child in question is very much real, and at 11 spent a very real Christmas very miserable, despite getting gifts. She wasn't (and still isn't) an altruistic child and hates secrets passionately, even if she's in on it. It was painful to see. Some children are like that, it's great that it worked out for you, but it doesn't always, and that should be ignored. Now 14, she's much better that her 10yo brother doesn't believe (her 12yo sister still does)...but she still talks to me about how difficult it is to talk to her sister and two littlest brothers about Santa when she knows its pretend. Although I have corrected her she thinks her sister is an idiot for believing. Christmastime the stress of this comes out and they are constantly at each other. Brother 10yo is happy to help his parents...so he's fine. It really does depend on the kid how they handle the Santa thing.

    The other thing we hate is the "be good for Santa" and that another friend of ours with children ended up forgoing Santa when their 3yo was having nightmares about a man who broke in...even if he left presents. We can see nothing good come from Santa in our experience. Of course, we're tried and true New Englanders who are very logical, literal and don't buy into lying or forced make believe.

  9. Can we forget the Santa thing and talk about that obnoxious elf on the shelf that has recently been added to the list of characters kids have to believe in?? You know, the one that is not associated with a Saint, but the one sold by Hallmark and Target??

  10. I don't think kids will be damaged or anything if they don't get to do Santa, just like I don't think they'd be damaged if their parents never took them to the park or the zoo. But, like the park and they zoo, Santa is good and fun and a special part of childhood that is universal across Christian cultures. And yes, part of the whole Santa thing is blissfully getting to "believe" in the magic for a few years. It's not damaging or horrible if parents decide to forego Santa, it's just kinda a sad bummer. I mean - I guess I don't get "why not" unless the point is just to make a countercultural choice for statement's sake.


  11. Hi Peter,

    I've avoided going into the "why's" because it really, really offends people who do "do Santa." And this year that was exactly what I was trying to avoid. I seem to be failing at it. And since you are imagining reasons (and I have to say they aren't reasons I've ever heard or even suspected among the many people I know who don't do Santa) I guess I'll clarify. My reason is pretty identical to most of the parents I know who don't pretend Santa is real.

    I try really hard to be honest with my kids when I tell them something is real. I know that tons of kids believe in Santa and don't feel lied to when they find out he's not real. I also know a number of people who did feel lied to and it caused them to question other things that their parents had told them were real, like God. This isn't just from young people but people from a variety of ages who felt that their faith was damaged and did feel lied to.

    Is it all that common? No. But it's not uncommon either.

    It wasn't a risk I was willing to take... and call it scrupulosity but whenever I say pretty much anything I ask myself if it's true. I'm painfully honest (but pretty good at avoiding hurting people's feelings). So I would feel like I was lying if I insisted on something that wasn't real being real.

    And that's usually the reason I hear given by pretty much every parent I know who doesn't "do Santa."

    It isn't to be counter cultural. I could really care less how my actions are perceived in relation to the culture.

    And again, around here, it's not sad. We have some pretty joyous exciting kids.

    I do thinks it's kind of a bummer that so many people feel that joy has to stuffed into this Santa shaped mold... there's more than one kind of happiness and imagining that your way of doing something is superior and other ways are a bummer comes across as kind of arrogant (I was really searching for another word... because I'm not saying you're arrogant, just the particular mindset in this one instance where there's only one way of celebrating and others are a "kinda sad bummer."

  12. "Santa is good and fun and a special part of childhood that is universal across Christian cultures."

    This statement is factually incorrect. I grew up in a very catholic country where Santa does not bring presents for Christmas. Santa is an American thing that infiltrated other cultures through advertising and globalization. It is a nice story, but it is not universal.

  13. My husband grew up in a country where the "Christ Child" brings the gifts instead of Santa. It's a very Catholic country, and no kids seem to abandon faith when they learn baby Jesus doesn't actually bring the presents.

  14. Anonymous- It's really hard to say that "no kids abandon the faith" for any particular reason since, let's face it, each of us knows just a small portion of the population in our given location and we don't likely know the complex ins and outs of another persons faith unless we're very close to them.

    As I mentioned in my follow up to this post, I don't believe that many children lose faith when they find out about Santa. But some do. I've heard from quite of them over the years. (the follow up post is here and I finally caved and wrote about the why's of what we do: http://awomansplaceis.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-santa-debate-delving-into-whys.html )

    And somehow to me it seems somewhat more appropriate to say that the Christ Child does bring the gifts. After all he was there in the beginning. He brings us all gifts... It's not really a lie.


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