My twin girls are 3 years old, and this is what they know about Christmas: People put trees in their houses, there are sparkly decorations and lights and kids get lots of toys. So, aside from the trees and sparkles, it's pretty much like any other day.
To my kids, Santa Claus is a character that appears in several different incarnations in a handful of their books. He's an eccentric old man with an outlandish costume and a sweet ride, who sneaks into houses, eats cookies and leaves presents.
We have not discussed whether or not Santa is real, but I doubt that they think he exists outside of stories. If you ask my girls about dragons, fairies, wizards, monsters or superheroes, they'll tell you that these creatures can only be found in books. They'll tell you that because that's what my wife and I told them when they, apparently driven by a healthy skepticism, asked us. Firefighters, farmers, helicopters, doctors, giraffes, whales, cement mixers: They've seen all of these things in real life, and have no reason to doubt their existence, however improbable they may seem on paper. But a guy who jets around the world in one night behind a team of flying reindeer, committing B&E's on every house on earth, or at the very least, every house with a fireplace or other heating system that requires an exhaust duct? I don't know if I could convince my kids that the jolly old elf was real if I tried, despite their limited worldliness. And I must say, I don't feel very compelled to be complicit in this hoax.
I grew up participating in the Santa Claus game as a kid, but I don't remember ever believing that he was real. There may have been a couple golden years of faith; but by age 5, I found the whole premise dubious at best. After that, the ritual of preparing for Santa's arrival was just another piece in our mish-mash of a Christmas celebration, which included our favorite elements of traditions from the foreign countries we had lived in as a military family, some secular Christ-admiring, and a healthy dose of American consumerism.
That's not to say I had a problem with Santa. Far from it -- I was willing to play along well into my teens. In fact, I may have been a college graduate by the time my parents stopped giving me gifts with tags signed "Santa." Those tags always indicated the big-ticket items, and I wasn't about to turn up my nose at a skateboard or a new bike because of some objection to a culture-wide charade. Like most of my peers, I was happy to be a victim of this ruse.
While playing the Santa Claus game was fun and exciting for me as a kid, even though I knew (or at least suspected) he wasn't real, I find it hard to justify getting my girls wrapped up in it. What lessons do children learn from the experience? That it's worth pretending you believe in something if there's a reward involved? That parents will happily lie to you year after year?
Defenders of the Santa tradition cite the joy and wonderment of children on Christmas morning as justification for duping their kids. But is the joy and wonderment of opening presents from "Mom and Dad" rather than from a mythical figure really that much different, and that much less intense?
I'm not casting judgment on parents who do the Santa shtick, but as for me, I can't even play a prank on my kids for more than a minute without feeling a little guilty, no matter how cute their reactions are. So, while it's probably mostly harmless, I don't know why we feel the need to inject the ambiguity of a benevolent figure who may or may not exist into the already complicated lives of children. Between books and movies, video games and social media, I'm anticipating years of helping my kids sort out what's real and what's not. So why would I want to add to the confusion by trying to convince them that, while Spiderman is just pretend, once a year there will actually be an elf creeping around the house while everyone's asleep?
I have other grinchy friends who have refused to deceive their kids about Santa, and they assure me that it's not really a big deal. Their kids respect the holiday traditions of other families, but they accept that their own family doesn't participate in all of them. So, aside from the ribbing I get from pro-Santa parents who call me a killjoy, my convictions about Santa should be a simple matter. The only thing that complicates them is my wife.
My wife's family emigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. when she was a toddler. Her parents were devoutly Catholic and profoundly poor, so her early Christmas celebrations entailed little out of the ordinary besides extra Masses. Maybe a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree and a couple strings of lights, but no presents -- and certainly no Santa. Given that, and the fact that her birthday falls on Christmas Day and therefore went unnoted for most of her childhood, you can understand why my wife feels compelled to give our kids the frivolous Christmas experience that she was denied. I have to admit that it breaks my heart a little when my wife tells me that she made up stories about what Santa had brought her when her elementary school teachers asked the children to tell the class about their Christmas vacations. My wife sees my point about how Santa's workshop is a den of lies, but I think she also wants to see our children lose their minds from sheer excitement and joy. She tells me that I have no sense of magic in my heart.
She's wrong, though. I do have a sense of magic in my heart. I think the real world is magical. Redwood trees, oceans, hummingbirds, snow, French fries; these things blow my mind. How can such amazing things exist? And yet they do. And the fact that there's overwhelming evidence of their existence doesn't make them any less magical. So let's celebrate and explore and enjoy real things. And let's absolutely enjoy suspending our disbelief for hours at a time and becoming absorbed in fictional tales about Santa and his elves and reindeer if we want. And if you see some benefit in tricking your kids into believing that certain fictions are truths, have at it. If my wife insists on playing Santa, I won't try to stop her, because it would be impossible to do so without feeling like a huge jerk. If it comes to that, I'll probably just try to stay out of the way until the fantasy runs its course. And if my kids ask me whether or not Santa is real, I'll tell them to ask their mom.