Last week in the grocery store I overheard two young parents discussing the Santa Claus question. Over the years I have watched many families – friends, relatives, students – and their experiences with the Santa Claus question, some of which were very difficult for the children and the parents. I believe that the difficulty comes from asking the wrong question. “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” This frames the question in terms more appropriate to matters of religious faith, and limits us to Yes and No. The implication of “Yes, I believe in Santa Claus,” is that we believe that Santa Claus exists as a living entity in the physical world. The implication of “No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus,” is that we believe the whole idea of Santa Claus to be a falsehood.
Could we change the question? And in so doing, could we change the framework in which we either do or don’t include Santa Claus in our holiday celebrations? I have seen so many deeply sad children who have just been told by another child that Santa Claus doesn’t exist and that their parents made the whole thing up. Those children had been told this by their well-meaning parents, who thought that their blunt disillusioning was a necessary piece of information and that pretending to believe in Santa Claus was perpetrating a lie.
What if we thought of ways of talking about Santa Claus with our children that are consistent with young children’s magical thinking and with our obligation to be honest? What if we acknowledged that young children, the greatest pretend-players on earth, love a good story, love to act their role, love the thrill and wonder of taking part in a good story, and based our approach to Santa Claus on that? When your children pretend to be cats, they do not want you to feed them cat food, but they do love you to pet their heads and talk to them in meows. Can we make peace with understanding that Santa Claus is a great story, and that we can participate in that story in ways that feel honorable? Can we give children both magic and truth?
I know it is possible…