Friday, December 14, 2007

The Santa Dilemma

With Christmas approaching, I've been giving some thought to Santa Claus. Having young children, and being surrounded with friends who have young children, I am looking at the Santa Claus story in a new light... and it is disturbing to me.

First, let me set the stage a bit. I cannot remember a time when I believed in Santa. I grew up surrounded by older siblings (eleven of them), so I was filled in on the real situation very early on. I can't remember ever sitting on the lap of a mall Santa, and if I did I certainly knew that it was a silly farce. I never wrote a gift list for Santa, even in pretend... I wrote my list for my parents. So, I have never personally had the experience of believing in Santa that most American kids seem to have.

I have also chosen not to sell the Santa story to my kids as a reality. They know about Santa, they know that Santa isn't real, and we incorporate the Santa story as little as possible in our holiday celebrations. So, I have never had the experience of watching my kids believe in Santa.

A close friend of mine also has young children close to the ages of my children. He fondly remembers believing in Santa as a child, and loves perpetuating the story with his children. He loves to see the excitement in their eyes and the joy they experience thinking about Santa. As he describes it, giving up Santa would be to give up the "magic" of Christmas.

I don't know the experience of that feeling of "magic", but the more I think about the Santa story, the less I want to share it with my kids. I have a few reasons.

* If I sell my kids a lie at this age, if I am adamant that Santa is real and go to lengths to deceive them into thinking that Santa is real... but later they inevitably learn that it's all just a society-wide deception (just as they're entering their years of growing intellectual independence)... then why would they stop there? Why would they trust me about the other things I'm trying to teach them that they can't see, touch, and feel? Why would they think my religious views have any credibility? Why would they believe me when I say that immoral behavior will have negative consequences down the road? It seems that it would throw my credibility out the window.

* Much of the Santa story seems like a gimmick to trick kids into good behavior. As parents, relying on gimmicks like this is a cop-out that doesn't serve us or our kids well. We need to do the hard work of teaching our kids to care about others, and to live well for the right reasons. I hope I never use the "Santa's watching" line (or similar gimmicks) to get my kids to behave.

* Santa's role in Christmas (as it is currently understood in American folklore) encourages kids to be intensely selfish and materialistic. They can make long lists of stuff they want, and expect to get most of it. If they behave because of the Santa story, it will be in order that they can get more stuff. The highlight of Christmas day is seeing what stuff they got. Nobody GIVES gifts to Santa... it's not an exchange. You only GET. It seems to me we're training our kids through the Santa story to care far more about what they can get than what they can give.

* This may seem silly, but the Santa story really undermines teaching fiscal responsibility. How? The stuff kids get from "Santa" is from some magical source that has no cost, and requires no sacrifice (from the kid's perspective). Kids don't see the after-Christmas credit card bills... until they grow up and become parents. There is a sense of entitlement, that if you want something you will somehow be able to get it (wthout working for it), that seems to carry over into much of the rest of American society. (Which is the chicken, which is the egg? Who knows.)

I don't begrudge anyone the fun they have with Santa. I work hard with my kids to make sure that they don't spill the beans about Santa to their Santa-believing friends. And, really, I have a feeling I must be missing something important. I'm hoping someone here can help me understand. What is the value of the Santa story? What is the "magic" that makes it worth while? If you have (or have had) young kids, how do (or did) you handle the Santa story with them?