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?



Kevin said...

Whaddya mean there's no Santa! :(

MamasBoy said...

My oldest is 4 and my wife and I are having our first Christmas at home instead of with relatives around the country (1 out of 7), so we are finally dealing with some of this. Mostly we are just ignoring the whole Santa thing, unless the kids bring us a book to read about Rudolph. Last year, when visiting my wife's sister, the Santa thing was really played up. I almost got into the Santa spirit myself. This year, we will fill up stockings, and probably say they are from Santa. I'm not sure. I enjoyed the Santa thing as a kid, but have a tough time lying to my kids. It seems like stories about the real St. Nicolas are much more interesting and fit better with the Advent/Christmas theme my family is trying to present to our kids. My wife and I should probably discuss this in the next couple weeks so we can decide on what to say Christmas Even when putting the kids to bed.

I did get a kick out of reading this pseudo-interview about one Santa slayer.


MamasBoy said...


When you get this "figured out," you will have to update us on what you decided to do this year.


Reilly said...

Good post, I wish I had something to add, but I think you summed up all of the major points well. I think that deception from a parent is one of the most powerful points. I remember when I heard from a neighbor that Santa wasn't real and I have to say that wasn't a good feeling. We also have chosen to have a Santa free household.

Kevin said...

Alas, I cannot help in understanding the attraction of realizing the myth of Santa. I was told that Santas represent a man who once existed, though my parents did take me to see a Santa and sit on his lap (or so I'm told). I think they didn't want me to feel deprived relative to other kids.

I do however bear the woeful childhood regret of mentioning to a friend who was a couple of years younger than me that there was no Santa. I'm not sure how that was ultimately resolved with her parents, but I felt awful about it. Still do, when I think of it.

Perhaps there is something special about believing in magic and miracles that parents enjoy vicariously? I can imagine that being nice, but the downsides you list seem to outweigh it for me. I wonder if there's also a parallel with telling "white lies"?

MB, that Santa Slayer Q and A was cute; raising a bunch of extremists. He made an interesting point about the isolation of physical from spiritual matters, which I'm still mulling. It does seem that Santa has become a more secular part of Christmas. It sounds like his family has shaped an admirable Christmas.


steviepinhead said...

I remember believing in Santa, through around age seven or so. Though I may have had to actively "work" at maintaining that belief the last year or two.

By the time I sat on Santa's lap I was eight or nine (an actual department store Santa, at Rich's in Atlanta...), so I no longer believed, but understood it was just a "photo op." Still, my first cousin Robbie is in the same picture, so it's a fun one to look back on now from a distance of yeah many decades...!

I can remember waiting up--or trying to wait up--behind the couch one night. Since we had to push the couch out from the wall a ways to try to make this work, it didn't fool Santa at all. "He" just waited until our little puppy-pile of siblings had fallen asleep (or, in the case of the youngest, abandoned our post), tucked us in, and went about his business.

Pushed the couch back in, too, as I recall, just to confound our sleep-hazed recollections even more.

I don't remember any huge moral dilemmas in making the transition from a Santa-believer to being one of Santa's "assistants." I expect my Mom gets the credit for that.

But, then, my parents didn't use Santa as a disciplinary carrot and stick (yeah, we knew the "theory" of it, but Santa was presented as pretty forgiving of ordinary kid foibles...).

Nor was Christmas commercialism quite so out of hand in those vanished days of yore. About the most fantabulous present a kid could expect was on the order of a new Schwinn bike (the red 26-incher I got when I was about eight, and could barely board it, served me well until I was 16 or so).

I'm not sure that most moderate parental behavior of the kind intended to maintain and preserve "belief" in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa and Rudolph can fairly be classified with felonious fraud.

It's the difference between fiction and lying. A story-teller seeks to induce a "suspension of disbelief" for the length of the telling of the tale, not forever and for every context.

In fact, if well managed, the transition out of belief in such childhood fantasies can serve as an object lesson in how we sort fact from fiction of any kind.

No leaps from instilling beliefs in such fairy-tale figures to instilling beliefs in traditional religious figures will be made here.

At least not by me!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

steviepinhead said...

That's it! It's gonna be ashes and switches and lumps of coal for you this year, Mark!

--S. Claus, esq.

Kevin said...

I'd say that the difference between fiction and lying is knowing that it is false ahead of time. But you make a good counterpoint, Stevie. Perhaps such betrayal and perfidy is more ominous to parents than to children.

Do children actually lose faith or trust in their parents as a result of realizing these are fantasies? It seems logical that they would, but perhaps it doesn't tend to play out that way.

Hey, what about me, Santa?

Santa Claus said...

There's plenty of coal for everybody! Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!


steviepinhead said...


(Or as Snowy the dog in the Tin-Tin comics always said, "Wooah!*")

Has Santa Claus himself now become a member of our blog!?!

Dude, that is so kewl! Hmm. Though we'll have to start watching our language more carefully.

And, speaking of watching language carefully--

*Apparently French dogs woof by saying "oauh!" and Flemish dogs do so by enunciating "woef!" Snowy's "woof" seems to mix the two nationalitic doggy vocalizations. (Tintin started out as a Flemish "teen reporter," though his specific nationality was minimized in Herge's later comics.)

MamasBoy said...

So, Mark, what did you do?

MarkC said...


I thought I mentioned in my original post what our approach has always been... our kids know that Santa isn't real, and we make a point not to actively include Santa in anything we do at Christmas. We don't avoid Santa, and we don't malign those who choose to believe in Santa... we tell our kids not to spoil their fun, that it's a game the parents and their kids are playing.

But, wherever we've got a choice, we leave Santa out of the picture.

I was just wondering what other people do, and what the strong appeal of the Santa story is for those who are really into it.


MamasBoy said...


Sorry for misunderstanding. I thought you were rethinking things.

C. and I have taken a similar route this year, being away from family for the first time. We were happy with how it turned out.


purple_kangaroo said...

We definitely do the "Santa isn't real . . . but no need to mention that to your friends" thing. We try to avoid having books, toys and decorations that feature Santa.

Our 6 (almost 7) year-old this year has had a very interesting combination of reactions. Early in the season there was a song on the radio that mentioned Santa, and AJ almost panicked. "Mom! Turn that off right away! It's talking about Santa Clause."

Now, I do know people who would have turned off the radio. But that didn't really seem necessary to me.

So I said, "We don't believe in Santa Clause and we don't include him in our Christmas celebrations, but it won't hurt us to hear a song on the radio about him."

She said, "But if Baby E hears a song about Santa, then she might think he's real!"

We had a nice little conversation about how people's beliefs are shaped by different influences, and how AJ can read fairy tales and other obvious fiction, and still know they are not real. That what's more important than the occasional song heard on the radio is what we teach Baby E by our words and actions, etc. That if we teach Baby E that Santa is not real and act as though it's not a big deal, she will understand the same way AJ and M&M do as she gets older.

It's interesting, though, because as the season progressed I noticed that AJ became a bit more fascinated with Santa Clause--drawing a picture or two that included Santa, talking about him, etc.

She definitely had a clear division between fantasy and reality, but it was almost like that little conversation took her from being "offended" (for lack of a better word) by Santa to enjoying it a bit.

I think that next year we will probably discuss Saint Nicholas a bit . . . we haven't done that yet with our kids, beyond just a brief mention that Santa is a fictional character based on a real person who lived long ago and was just a good person, not someone magical like the fictional Santa.

steviepinhead said...


Something in our purple marsupial's comment caused me to conjure up one of my favorite Christmas books, Tolkien's "Father Christmas Letters," a series of annual illustrated letters which JRRT wrote to his boys over several years back in the '20s and early '30s. When my own three sons were younger, I read to them from this charming collection.

This, in combination with pK's reference to St. Nickolas, led me to google "origin 'Father Christmas'", which led me to this interesting site:
which in turn led me to--
and to--

As with many of the early saints, there is some considerable doubt about the reality of St. Nick. And, even if he was a 'real' person, it sounds like--as usual--various other items of folklore and popular and pagan custom "accreted" or "nucleated" around his personage.

I found this account, from the last site above, intriguing:

"Some people attribute the origin of Santa Claus to the legendary St. Nicholas, who was born in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey, in a wealthy Christian family. He became the Bishop of Myra. He was well known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need and for his love for the children. He had given gifts to children anonymously throwing them through the windows of their houses and helped unmarried woman with dowry, so that she may get married! It is said that he had performed several miracles and also helped sailors at sea and saved them from drowning and brought back to life three murdered theological students!!

"Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, arrested him, had imprisoned him and later exiled him. He died on December 6th in AD343, in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. His tomb in Myra became a popular place for pilgrimage. Because of many wars in this region and also of the religious and commercial advantages, Italian cities wanted to remove the relics of St. Nicholas to their country. It is said that in 1087, some sailors removed his buried bones to Bari and built a church there. St. Nicholas became the Saint of Bari and today pilgrims and tourists visit BariĆ¢'s great Basilica di San Nicola.

"The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration as St. Nicholas day. Sailors claiming St. Nicholas as their patron saint had carried stories about him to various seaports in Europe. As his popularity spread during the middle Ages, he became the patron saint of the people in countries with sea ports such as Italy, Sicily Greece, Netherlands etc. There were about 2000 churches built after his name. In Europe, December 6th is still celebrated as St. Nicholas day, a day for giving gifts to children.

"Even though St. Nicholas was a popular saint, because the Saint's life was so unreliably documented, in 1969 Pope Paul VI ordered the feast of St. Nicholas to be removed from the official Roman Catholic calendar.

"Many religious historians and experts believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human. In fact there are several indications that his life story was simply recycled from the Pagan Gods, which the people worshiped before Christianity. Many ancient Pagan Gods and symbols were similarly Christianised in the early centuries of the church. His legends seem to have been mainly created out of the myths attributed to Greek God Poseidon, Roman God Neptune and Teutonic God Hold Nickar. Russians believed that he is the heir to the God of the harvest, Mikoula.

"When the church adopted the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon's title as a sailor. They also picked up his last name from God Hold Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of the "Grandmother" or Befana from Italy. She was said to have filled children's stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari was also converted to a shrine of St. Nicholas.

"Mythologist Helene Adeline Guerber traced Santa to the Norse God Thor in her work Myths of Northern Lands. Even today in Sweden, Thor represents Santa Claus. Most other Santa researchers also believe that the trait of Santa was borrowed from Norse (Scandinavian) God Thor. Accordingly, Thor was the God of the peasants and the common people. He was a friendly, jovial old man, of heavy build with long beard. His element was fire and his colour red. He drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats. He was fighting the giants of ice and snow and thus became the Yule God. He lived in the North Pole, where he had his palace among the icebergs! The fireplace in every home was sacred to him and he is said to come down through the chimney in to his element Fire!! He is the most celebrated and worshiped Pagan God and a day in the week was named after him as "Thursday" (Thor's day).

"Father Christmas, which is the British name for Santa Claus, also has his roots in Paganism. In the middle of the 5th century AD, during the times of Anglo-Saxons in England, it was customary in winter for an elderly man from the community to dress in furs and visit people in their houses. He was treated as the "Old Winter" or "King Frost" with food and drinks. People thought that if they treated him well, he carried away the bad sprit of winter with him and they will not suffer much in the cold winter. This tradition became strong during the invasion by the Vikings from Scandinavia between the 8th to 11th century. They brought their mid winter traditions with their God Odin, who is traditionally represented by a portly elderly man with white beard. The images of Father Christmas before 1880s showed him as a well nourished bearded man in green fur lined robe.

"The Dutch, when they went to America took their St. Nicholas legend as Sinter Klaas. Sinter Klaas was Americanised as Santa Claus and he gave up his Bishops apparel and was pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green coat.

"Santa Claus appeared in various coloured costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas and God Thor. Present day Santa Claus was created from these figures in America in the 19th century. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist added red robe and white beard with a sack of toys in his cartoon in 1881. In 1822 Clement Clark Moore wrote a Christmas poem, "A visit from St. Nicholas" to be read out to his children and later it was published and became very popular. Christmas cards published in 1885 showed him in red robe instead of green robe. God Thor's goats-driven chariot was replaced by reindeers and a sleigh. The festivities were also moved away from the Pagan background to a more Christian date of the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ!"

I was aware of some, but not all, of the foregoing. The tie-in between the relocation of the saint's bones to Bari, Italy, and the subsequent "accretion" of the stocking-filling propensity of Grandmother Befana to the saint, at the same time as he "succeeded" to her shrine in Bari, was a particularly telling tid-bit.

Likewise, I had simply assumed that Father Christmas and Santa Claus were equivalent, in the same way that "chips" and "crisps" are equivalent English and Americanisms. The above account suggests, instead, that they had rather distinct origins which only became entwined in the 19th C.

If I had it to do over again, it might be interesting to run this rather-typical pattern of almalgamation by my kids as they "grew out of" Santa...

purple_kangaroo said...

Hi, Stevie! That's fascinating information, and very relevant, but I'm pretty sure you're trodding on on copyright law by posting such a large chunk of the article. Maybe you could cut your quote down to a paragraph or two, or paraphrase it?

steviepinhead said...

Well, if I get into trouble, I can certainly say I've been warned!

Though I did post a fair amount of the contents of one page, the page is part of a much larger publication's site. Given that the quote here was specifically signalled as a quote, and correctly attributed to the original site, and also given our fairly miniscule traffic and lack of any commercial purpose or remunerative intent, I'm comfortable that I'm within fair use.

In university courses I've recently audited, where the course materials are copied and "bound" together (i.e., spiral binding) for the sole purpose of study and education within one fairly small classroom group, and the charge to the student is only the cost of reproduction, it's not uncommon for entire articles from magazines or chapters of texts or other publications to be included. Were the same sort of reproduction and binding to be done for wider distribution and sale (with the sale price set above the cost of reproduction), obviously "fair use" would be exceeded. Yet this appears to be a common and acceptable way of drawing together college course materials, even though it puts at least a small dent into the potential publication profits from the original materials, were the students required to go out and purchase the original magazines and texts in full format...

But, just to be safe, let me add that the decision to quote that proportion of the "original" Santa article (which actually seems to contain a fair amount of the verbiage from one of the other links, without attribution, IIRC...) was that of the individual poster, Steviepinhead, and was not the responsibility of the blog Embracing the Risk as a collective entity, or of any other member of or poster on the blog.

[/legal boilerplate!]

But, again, pK, thanks for bringing this "fair use" issue to my attention, leading me to go through an actual thought process to reach a formal determination (as opposed to the utter lack of thought which went into my initial decision). I will at least hesitate before quoting so much of such a short article in future!

steviepinhead said...

And, needless to say, should we receive a polite complaint from the Asian Times's solicitor, I would give serious consideration to deleting some chunk of the quote...

But I won't be holding my breath whilst awaiting that eventuality!

purple_kangaroo said...

Fair enough. :)

Thanks again for sharing the information. I hadn't heard (or hadn't remembered hearing) it before, though it doesn't surprise me much. I grew up in a family that didn't celebrate Christmas at all for exactly the reason that the day and many of the traditions came directly from pagan tradition.

DH and I now celebrate parts of it, but we don't tell our kids that it's actuaslly Jesus' birthday or anything like that.

We explain that, although Jesus most likely wasn't really born at this time of year, this is the time when many people in our culture choose to set aside time to remember Christ's birth. We also try not to just focus on the event of the birth, but to also tie it into Christ's life and purpose as a whole and tie it into God's plan for redemption.

steviepinhead said...

You packed a powerful lot of wisdom and parental savvy into your last paragraph, pK.

And, if I had any sense, I probably should've just let that stand as the perfect summation to this thread!

MamasBoy said...


While I can understand those who reject many of the stories of St. Nicholas as false, to say he didn't exist is quite a stretch. He was bishop of Myra, arrested by Diocletian and unlike many of his comrade bishops, priests and laity outlived the poor devil (surviving long enough after Diocletian to see the legalization of Christianity and attend the council of Nicea).

Regarding whether he was removed from the Roman calendar by Pope Paul VI, he was an eastern Christian, so who the hell cares? Assuming some people do, while he was never officially canonized (like nearly all saints back in the first millenium AD, this was done through common acclamation), he is still on calendars today and was never removed. Personally, I'm skeptical of the scholarship of any article that would make such an egregious factual blunder. Such articles tend to treat later (post Bari) legends the same as other earlier accounts of his life: a serious mistake in my mind.

Regarding whether or not any of the particular stories about him are true, probably many of them are false in the details, but it is reasonable to believe that he was a generous man, famous and well loved among the people of his diocese for his piety, zeal and miracles. For a non-martyr to have gain such popular prominence in both east and west, he had to have been someone very special.


MamasBoy said...

I just reread my comment and it might not be clear that the "who the hell cares" phrase was meant as a joke. Just a clarification...

steviepinhead said...

Hi, mb!

Well, my source said that, not me. My interest was not so much in whether or not Nicholas actually existed, but--assuming some such person existed--in the process whereby "harmonious" or "resonating" attributes associated with other personages and pagan deities gradually became attached to the "nucleus" of the Nicholas legendarium/biography (as you wish) to generate the mythical figure of Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/Father Christmas from the, er, quasi-historical figure of St. Nick.

And I agree with you that whether of not some pope of some faction of the church as institution did or did not expunge the feast of St. Nick from some calendar is of little moment.

MamasBoy said...


I know you were quoting extensively from articles and the opinions expressed weren't necessarily your own. Personally, if an article can't get the recent and ancient history straight in the details, it makes me wonder if they got the stuff in the middle right, too. Looking at the big picture, it seems obvious that probably got much of the second half of the article right. Given that it was written by a journalist and not a historian, I'm probably being too picky about the details.


steviepinhead said...

Heck, if we can't pick about the details, what's left to pick!

Now, simply because time does march along, and Feb. 14 is much closer than Dec. 25, let me pose the nest question for our colloquium:

How do you explain St. Valentine to your children?

More pointedly, perhaps, when dealing with your spouse, gf/bf, or SO as THE DAY approaches, do you go along for the expensive ride--card, gift, restaurant, romantic evening on the town--or do you get into an, ahem, detailed discussion of the over-commercialization of this saint's "day"?

And, if the latter, would you prefer a personal visit at the hospital?

Or just a delivery of flowers?

MamasBoy said...

Regarding Valentine's Day, romantic love is the only point, so emphasizing that concept up the wazoo doesn't diminish the celebration of an important religious doctrine, like the incarnation or resurrection. That said, I still personally try to avoid over commercializing love via a home-made card, gift or meal.


steviepinhead said...

sounds like we're pretty much on the same page: I usually do a home-made card, sometimes prepare a home-made meal (we take turns in real life, so my fixing a meal isn't as big a deal as it might otherwise be, though on one occasion my gf was getting home fairly late from a long drive over the Cascades and back, so the perfectly-timed spaghetti went over big-time!), and I usually DO shop around for a gift (which is usually NOT chocolate or, ahem, lingerie--though I'm keeping all my options open!--but might well be earrings or a bracelet or something less "traditional").

Flowers I usually get from a florist, since even in Seattle the selection in the garden in February isn't the best.

And then this year, there's The Conflict: the opening of the movie "Jumper." Which looks like a whole ton of fun (and, fortunately, my gf--though more of an indy-movie fan than a gunz'n'splozhunz fan--did enjoy the Bourne movies, the opening installment of which was done by this same director). So maybe we'll go to the movies and I'll give her a raincheck on the romantic dinner...!