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Don't Let the Santas Keep Us Down

Cal is peeking their face through the hole in a Grinch cardboard cutout, sneering skeptically
Cal Cates, Grinch

I love joy. Love. It.

Surprise? Bring it!

Magic? Yes, please.

Perhaps what I love most about these experiences is that they are available in great abundance all year if we choose to notice, even in the worst of circumstances.

Kerry, my sweet and often cynical love, spends a good bit of time each year during what many people call “the holidays” goading our friends who are parents into conversations about Santa.

This year, I attempted to remove myself from the conversation. It has never really seemed to go anywhere that felt useful to me and it seemed headed in that same direction. I and my fellow Santa-supporting parents always turn out to be people who are “lying to their kids.” End of story. There was no getting around it. She wanted to know why, and our answers were never satisfying.

The conversation with the bigger group did end this night when I thought I had removed myself, but Kerry and I kept talking, as we are wont to do. As we wrestled through the blame, the sense of accusation, the imperative to disrupt the status quo, some interesting aspects of this thorny debate thawed for me.

Liberation can look lots of ways. As we continued to explore this conundrum I began to feel like calling bullshit on Santa might be one of them.

I am not actually concerned that the Santa myth (and let’s face it, bitch ain’t real) undermines our children’s’ trust in us as parents and I’m not alone. I think, for the most part, it’s a gradual experience of non-believing over time that happens for most of us. Some kid on the bus shouts “Santa’s not real!” or an older sibling or cousin “ruins” it for us, but even after that happens, it’s a gradual letting go that dovetails our cognitive development and, let’s face it, we still do want to believe. I think most of us can see that our parents were not deceiving us in a way that makes it hard to believe that they will pick us up from soccer practice if they say they will or that they’ll take us for ice cream on the weekend.

So, let’s just set that concern aside.

The bigger, more real concern, as we look around at our disconnected and troubled world, is that the Santa story is one of the first lies we tell in a litany of others that uphold the dangerous myth of meritocracy. “Be good and Santa will bring you what you want.” There is a magical white man who will deliver your dreams to you if you just do what you’re told and don’t look behind the sleigh barn.

When Kerry pulls people into this conversation, she basically asks why we’re lying to our kids. We did discuss that an approach that feels like an indictment may not be a great way to engender vulnerability. She conceded this point. Messaging going forward will be a bit gentler.

Even so, when my fellow parents and I respond from defensiveness, it’s a deflection. We don’t lie intentionally and defend our perpetuation of the Santa thing, but we engage in a sort of post-mortem justification about joy or hope or magic or whatever Santa is “supposed” to symbolize. What we’re saying is, “I’m not harming my kids, if that’s what you mean, you heartless shrew!” Nobody likes to be backed into a corner, especially when it comes to our performance in a job that we rarely feel qualified to do. And, like so many of the things we do to “get along” in the world, we don’t even see how it happened or continues to happen.

The truth is that most parents “just go with it” when it comes to Santa. Nobody wants their kid to be the dick who, at 4 years old, declares to their colleagues at daycare that Santa is not a thing. We don’t relish the idea of answering, “Oh, that guy? ...well, he’s a capitalist bastardization of a patron saint whose lineage can be traced back to the 3rd century and who has nothing to do with presents or chimneys,” when our children ask about the velvet-suited random at the mall who seems to be touching all of the children.

Santa is just another thing we’ve twisted and manipulated to serve our purposes. (See also Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Labor Day). St. Nicholas was, in fact, Turkish and, to our knowledge, never went up or down a chimney. He was known for his generosity, giving away all his wealth and protecting sailors and children. He didn’t have anything to do with the North Pole or judging children’s character. And the celebrations that take place in his honor happen on the 6th of December, the anniversary of his death. He has nothing to do with Jesus or Christ or material gifts.

Then, in 1822, an Episcopal minister (who was reluctant to share his poem because of its frivolous nature) wrote a poem for his daughters that we have come to know as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” about a visit from St. Nicholas. Then, in 1881, a political cartoonist for Harpers Weekly drew a likeness of what he imagined St. Nicholas to look like, based on the poem. The red suit, the North Pole Workshop, Mrs. Claus and the elves were all the creation of this cartoonist, Thomas Nast.

And the snowball picked up speed from there. Enter Macy’s. Enter industry. Enter capitalism.

Today, parents not only tell this story, but we even have creepy things like Elf on the Shelf that are used to leave kids feeling like there really is someone watching them. We buy and do and lie about the magic of Christmas. Parents bust our asses to buy presents. We stay up late at night wrapping them and hustle to get our kids to the mall to sit on a stranger’s lap to ask for more stuff and then we put a little tag on that bike or that scooter or that ballerina costume that reads “From Santa.”

Wait, so I work hard to give things to my kid (and let’s talk another time about how love and presents aren’t related and none of us “owe” each other anything at Christmas) and this imaginary white guy in the sky gets the credit? No, thanks. And, I don’t know about you, but if there was such a thing as the “naughty” list, I woulda been on it. A lot. And it never affected my haul. More lies. And don’t get me started on all of the kids who already know Santa’s not real (or worse, think themselves unworthy of the material benefits our society assures you will receive as a result of proper conduct) because no matter how “good” they are, year in and year out, they never receive presents or even maybe a place to live or food to eat.

So, maybe let’s stop telling our kids that a big white man with enslaved reindeer and little people is responsible for their happiness and joy each December? Let’s create our own traditions and celebrations and fun and magic without lying about benevolent white dudes that don’t exist. The way I see it, we have two responsibilities here; to show our kids that joy, generosity, magic and love are within each of us on every single day of the year and to disrupt the diminishing, lying, undervaluing status quo.


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