The Santa Myth
This Christmas will be our last with Santa. Anyway, since my son will be 9 this year, the age my oldest two quit believing, I hope it is the last. If I had it to do all over again, there would have been no Santa in the first place. I never would have perpetuated the myth, because, quite frankly, in the 14 or so years I've had to deal with Santa, he has turned out to be more trouble than he was worth.
For example, last year my son asked for a roller coaster building set. I told him no, explaining that we simply didn't have enough room. He insisted that he didn't mind it in his room, even if it meant his room would be incredibly cramped and finally had the last word when he told me, "Well, then I'll just ask for it from Santa."
This was not the first time I've had to deal with the "Well, I'll ask for it from Santa" reply. My daughter used it when she was younger as well, back in the days when she decided our cozy little suburban home simply wasn't complete without a pony in the backyard.
Fortunately, the excitement of Christmas was always sufficient to squelch any possible disappointment. However, avoiding disappointment and disillusionment, either at Christmas or later, when the child finds out there's no Santa, some experts say, is one reason not to encourage the Santa myth in the first place.
When Santa Doesn't Bring That Pony
If I did have it to do over, I would have done what my friend Kathleen Ganster did. She told her kids from the very beginning that Santa was a nice myth and nothing more. She's gotten some flack from it, but also a surprising amount of support.
In her case, the decision to nix Santa was part religious – she wanted to keep the focus of Christmas on Christ's birth – and part practical – she didn't want to have to face the type of "Santa will bring me that pony" dilemmas that every parent faces eventually. But she also wanted to avoid the inevitable disappointment that her children would face when they found out she had "lied" to them.
"One of my friends is a college English teacher and has her students write an essay every year about their biggest disappointment in life," says Ganster. "It blows her away how many kids write about how disillusioned they were when they found out there was no Santa. Some really express anger at their parents for lying."
Cecilia Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Counseling Center for New Direction in Seminole, Fla. She also writes a weekly column for the St. Petersburg Times wherein she collects input from a large selection of teens, then combines it into a first person look at events or life.
Earlier this year, based upon input from her teen panel, she wrote a column on the disappointment of finding out that Santa isn't real from a teen perspective. It's an interesting one because they are a lot closer to the memories of childhood than we parents are. Here is an excerpt from the column:
"Then the magic was taken away. Christmas became like every other holiday ... nothing magical or extra special. I still get stuff, but I am having trouble dismissing the magic. I know now that my parents have to pay for everything I ask for, so I ask for less. When I get up on Christmas morning, I know there will be gifts to unwrap, but the childhood excitement has waned, even though I have a little sister, and I still must believe in Santa around her."
Telling the Truth
In spite of that input, Tucker doesn't think Ganster's approach of completely nullifying the Santa myth is the right one. She has a 20-year-old son who she says would be devastated if they didn't have "Santa" gifts. Obviously, he no longer believes in Santa, but he loves the element of surprise, which is a big part of the excitement of Christmas.
However, Tucker does think that when they do ask, children should be told the truth – that although there is no person, Santa is a spirit of giving – and that parents should not continue to "lie."
In fact, Tucker likens answering questions about Santa to answering questions about sex – give them answers to what they ask. For example, if a child asks, "How does Santa get down the chimney?" The answer could be "magic." However, if they come right out and ask if there is a Santa, the answer should be an honest one, but a kind one. She calls it "reframing Santa into the spirit of giving."
Colleen Young of Buffalo, N.Y. has already faced this dilemma. Her oldest child, Richard, now 8, has always had a very logical mind and had problems with Santa since he was a toddler. He took the statement "Santa is coming" very literally, and for several Christmases, cried bitterly when Santa didn't personally show up to hand him his gifts.
Then, at age 5, he began to realize the unlikelihood of this fat guy going down the chimney of every house in the world in one night and giving everyone toys. That's the year he came right out and asked his mom if there was a Santa. Rather than continue trying to convince her skeptical son, Young told him the truth. However, she added the caveat that he had to continue "pretending" because of his two younger siblings.
"Knowing the truth made Richard much easier in his mind," says Young. "He still gets very excited about Santa, along with the other two, but that element of disappointment has been removed."
Ganster, too, made sure from the very beginning that her three children understood that they were not allowed to share their knowledge about Santa with others. Since they also opted out of the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, that rule went across the board, and it was never broken – except once.
"One day we were at a friend's house, and her little girl was showing my son the money she'd gotten from the Tooth Fairy," recalls Ganster. "My son, unthinkingly, told her there that her parents had given her that money. She looked at him incredulously and said, 'Oh, right. As if my parents would be smart enough to think up something like this.' I had a good laugh, but then I did have a talk with Kenton later and reminded him of our rule."
There's certainly no harm in the Santa myth. Centuries of Santa have proven that – but there's no harm in not perpetuating it either. However,it's an issue that is best decided upon very early – preferably before your children are even born. Whether it's for reasons of religion, practicality or honesty, believing in Santa may – or may not be –right for your family.
Santa, The Real Story:
Saint Nicholas is the national saint of Russia and Greece, and churches named after him number in the thousands – more than 400 in Great Britain alone. He is known as the friend and protector of all those in trouble. He was born in the Middle East in the fourth century and grew up to become the bishop of Myra. Legends tell of his love for children, his kindness and the miracles he brought about.
The most famous story, and the one that led to his enduring legacy as a giver of gifts, tells how he helped three unfortunate young sisters who all had suitors but could not marry because their father was too poor to give them dowries.
Nicholas wanted to help the family, but he did not want to give them money directly. Instead, one night, he tossed a bag of gold into the house. He repeated it when the second daughter was ready to marry.
When his third daughter was ready to marry, the girls' father was determined to find out who had been so generous. He kept watch and saw the bishop drop another bag of gold into the house. Legend has it that Nicholas climbed on the roof and dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney where it landed in a stocking that had been hung there to dry, which has led to our tradition of stockings by the fireplace. Other versions of the story have it landing in a shoe, which is why children in some countries leave shoes by the fireplace.
The father spotted Nicholas, and, although the bishop begged him to keep the secret, the father wanted to give credit where it was due. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Nicholas. After his death, his legend spread linked to kindness, giving and generosity.