Monday, August 2, 2010

The Santa Game

I talked about the book Parenting Beyond Belief a few posts ago and have been continuing to plug away at it - the collection of advice and information it has for raising children outside religion is really worthwhile.  One thing in particular really struck me though because it provided the perfect solution to a vexing problem I encountered last year at Christmastime.

The issue was Santa Claus and what to tell a certain 3 year old about his existence.  Neither Wendy nor I was particularly comfortable with lying about the existence of an omniscient, fantastically powerful being but we also felt like the Santa myth was not especially harmful in and of itself.  We both have good memories of Christmas time that are all wrapped up in anticipation of loot coming from the fat man in red.  When we discussed this issue with our parents we got a lot of strange looks and disbelief combined with a little disappointment - our parents had sold us on Santa Claus so it isn't surprising they took our idea of removing him from the holiday altogether as a bit of a slight against their parenting choices.

The trick is that choice to involve a child in the Santa Claus myth or not has consequences.  Friends will likely believe in Santa Claus and we don't want to create a confrontation between small children over it nor do we want Elli to feel left out and disappointed because she doesn't get all the fun her friends do.  We also don't want to make our parents unhappy or create rifts in the family by having a fight at family gatherings.  We want to tell her the truth any time it is feasible to do so and foster an appreciation of the wonders of the real world rather than rely on myths and made up things.  Last year we ended up compromising by simply not talking about Santa Claus ourselves and letting Elli either pick up on it from others - or not.

The trick that an essay in Parenting Beyond Belief taught me was so simple it is hard to believe I didn't see it at first.  All we need to do is tell Elli that we are playing a game of pretend.  We all pretend that Santa Claus will come and deliver presents on Christmas and everyone has a good time.  We can even tell her that it is a big secret and some people even believe it but we know ^wink wink^ that it is just a good game to play during the holidays.  We avoid lying to her but she can play along with her friends and all our various relatives just like she does with all her other games of pretend.  Elli has a car, an elephant, several siblings and all kinds of other things that exist or don't based on her whims so a magical man who delivers presents once a year isn't that different.

I think sometimes we end up agonizing far too hard over simple yes/no decisions when there exists the possibility of saying 'maybe' and avoiding the whole problem altogether.  This year we will play the game of Santa Claus pretend and have all the fun but without the Big Brother overtones and the lies.


  1. I often think about what I would tell my children about things and this is the precise solution I came up with. It may or may not change anything for them. After all, a Kindergarten teacher friend of mine has stories about children crying during fire drills - even at five many children can't separate reality from imagination consistently (I suppose I would argue that most adults I've met can't do this either).

    It reminds me of my own experiences with Santa Claus. My mother didn't want my brothers to tell me there was no Santa so she told them that as soon as no one in the house believed in Santa there would be no more presents from Santa. At first they employed a strategy of lying - my oldest brother insisting that he had seen Santa one night, just for a moment. Of course while I believed in Santa, I didn't believe my brother, and thought he was just trying to hold it over my head that he'd seen Santa and I hadn't. I guess seeing Santa might be the greatest badge of honor a four- or five-year-old could have. But my brothers realized that I would pick up on the fact that Santa must be a myth some day, and they decided a direct approach was best. They came to me and laid it all on the line - there is no Santa, but I have to keep pretending otherwise we won't get as many Christmas presents. I kept up pretending for a little over two years before my mother caught on that I knew. I'm not sure, at that time in my life, whether pretending there was a Santa and believing there was were really any different, or if I had ever truly believed in the first place.

    Of course the presents from Santa never stopped coming (and my sister came along shortly thereafter anyway). In the end, I'm not sure which is more fun when you are little: thinking that Santa is coming to bring you presents, or playing a huge imagination game for weeks on end where everyone, adults included, plays along.

  2. Alternately:,10417/

  3. This is worth a read:

  4. @BZ

    I read the article you linked, and honestly I have to say I completely disagree with it. There is so much in the world to wonder at and be in awe of that I cannot see any reason to value belief in made up constructions like Santa Claus. We don't need to believe in fairies to have a sense of beauty or appreciation of the world around us. What reason is there to toss aside the truth for a myth when the truth is so much more compelling, in addition to being real?

  5. Doesn't the non-truth, as you so recently noted, contain hot, red-headed, psychic ninjas?

  6. It does. However, I don't need to *believe* in said ninjas to enjoy them. I just enjoy the idea of them without belief in their existence. I don't try to convince people that hot, redheaded, psychic ninjas are real, which is the difference.

  7. I disagree with your guy's analysis of the situation. While "Santa" may or may not be a good creation... it is a concept that little children can understand. There are certainly ways of trying to work around it, but to be honest, these are exactly the same things kids work out in a few years anyways. When they figure out there is no Santa but play along(ish) for other kids. Its just a part of growing up.

    Part of what makes imagination so fantastically powerful is the idea that make believe things can be true. Who would have believed when Star Trek came out that we could actually teleport matter? Yet that idea has intrigued people to work on new physics... to the point that the idea is no longer simply ridiculed. Or an invisibility cloak, which meta-materials has demonstrated is theoretically possible.

    I guess the question is why do you feel uncomfortable with it? Lying is implicit in everything we do... in particular with how we deal with children.

  8. It's an interesting question Bung. I disagree that lying is implicit in everything we do. I feel like I am lying to people during the majority of my day, but there are definitely limited occasions where I am not trying to deceive anyone and I think I feel more comfortable during those times. I will definitely try my best not to lie to my children, should I ever manage to have any, but obviously there are lots of situations where giving children the whole truth just isn't feasible.

    But I guess you are probably right that lying to children isn't the biggest problem in this for me. For me this is probably more about not being Christian, and quite possibly about not liking Christmas. While I speak on Sky's side in terms of the Santa game, I'm sure at this point I'm not speaking for Sky's reasons to want to avoid telling his daughter there is really a Santa.

    In all foreseeable futures my children will celebrate Christmas and look forward to presents from Santa whether I like it or not. In a life where we do have to choose our battles, this is not a battle I am going to choose, and it's not a battle I would win. Maybe in my own head I want to subvert the reality of Santa because it is the one little piece of that battle I *can* win.

    Lying to kids about the existence of a jolly man in a red suit: Nope. Using children as pawns in a subconscious war on Christmas: Check.