I was that child in third grade…the last one still clinging to the firm belief that Santa was real. Many of my peers told me that Santa was make-believe, and I refused to believe them. I was the lone holdout in the third grade. But I was confident in my faith in Santa.
Two weeks before Christmas, I approached my mom with the news about what the other children were saying, fully expecting her to verify Santa’s existence. Instead of reaffirming my belief in that kindly old elf, my mom broke the devastating truth to me: Santa was a hoax.
I was NINE. I should have an inkling as to the truth. Instead, I was blindsided. To this day, I still feel a tangle of emotions around this memory: shock at the blowing apart of my sweet, dreamy and complete belief in a world full of magic and possibility; a deep feeling of betrayal by my parents, grandparents and every other adult who had conspired to deceive me; a deep sadness at the loss of this person with whom I had corresponded and who I thought of as a friend and guardian angel; despair when it occurred to me that the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy and fairies in general were probably just stories as well; and confusion that all these other kids had known first while I blindly went through life devoting myself to baby stories and trickery.
And so, at the age of nine, I made a solemn promise to myself: I would not teach my children to believe in Santa.
Typically, sound parenting decisions are not made by upset nine year olds, nor are they remembered 22 years later upon the birth of a first child. Amazingly, and despite all of the other promises to myself that I have broken, I kept this one.
In the 22 years between finding out the truth about Santa and becoming a mother, I also came to an understanding that consumerism is connected many of our problems as a society – debt, greed, competition, wastefulness, boredom, environmental destruction, and so on. As the years have passed, I’ve worked at divorcing myself from the cultural expectation to earn money so that I can buy stuff. It’s an imperfect process and I definitely still covet things. However, I’ve learned to separate the wants from the needs, to quit impulse buying (except at the garden store where I submit to seasonal hedonism), to budget for the things I want, and to devote more of my free time to creating and learning than to shopping and consuming.
When it came time to think about what cultural heritage I wanted to pass not my children, I realized that Santa didn’t meet my standards. How could I tell my kids not to talk to or take candy from strangers, and then say yes to Santa? How could I teach them that the joy of the holiday season is in spending time as a family and doing things together if I was simultaneously encouraging them to think about lists and presents? How could I teach them to care more about people and planet than stuff, and also encourage them to want, want, want? And I certainly could not stomach the thought of the fateful day in which I would have to tell them that Santa isn’t real. That I had lied to them.
Luckily I married a man who didn’t feel the need to raise his children in the Santa tradition. Without making a big deal out of it, we simply decided to focus on doing things together to celebrate winter and to leave the fat guy largely out of it.
Given our environmental proclivities, I have to say that freeing ourselves from the Santa mythos has freed us to celebrate the holidays in a manner that is more consistent with our ideals. Yes, we still give presents. Yes, some are plastic and made in China (can you say LEGO?). But there is less temptation to go overboard. Santa might not bring used toys, but if Mommy finds that My-Little-Pony – Friendship-is-Magic toy you want at Goodwill, you better believe that’s what is going to be in your stocking! We also are less inclined to blow the budget because we can realistically set expectations for the children, and they don’t have the wild hope the Santa will bring them that $400 Lego death star that they really, really want.
Of course, in America, it’s impossible to escape Santa. The children know quite well who he is and have both taken turns deciding that they are going to believe in Santa. We don’t correct them unless they ask us directly, but neither do we reinforce the belief. What we do talk about is the historical person of St. Nicolas, who cared deeply about the poor and the mistreated. We talk about remembering his compassion by doing good deeds of our own during the holiday season, including giving gifts. We reflect on why winter might be a time that people need a sense of community and extra help. We think up millions of things we can do to create warmth and community together – no sleigh required.
My eight year old son recently said to me, “Mommy…you know what my favorite part of Christmas is? It’s the holiday cheer. I really like all the things we do together that are part of the season.”
That felt just right to me. I think my husband and I have accomplished what we set out to – holidays that are meaningful based on relationships that are valued. No sleigh required.