The Most Real Things In The World, And Also Santa Claus

December 19, 2011

Scan any set of Internet headlines this week and odds are that you’ll see something along these lines: Imagine There’s No Santa, No Virginia, There Is No Santa, and Why I Don’t Tell My Kids About Santa. You’ll also see classics like Should You Tell Your Kids About Santa Claus? and When Should You Tell Your Kids About Santa Claus? And if you were online today, you might have seen this: Justin Beiber Never Believed In Santa Clause.

You’d almost think that there was no Santa Claus.

You can find these headlines on Babble too, of course. We’re currently running a salon discussion about ‘the Santa Myth’ at Babble – Santa: Holiday Hero or Horrible Lie – in which most of the discussants are wringing their hands about lying to children about a fat man in a red suit. I just don’t like doing it, they’re saying. I want my kids to trust that I always tell them the truth. They worry about this, of course, because the story of Santa is not true. And if the story of Santa is not true, then telling that story in a manner that does not disclose the story as fiction is, basically, lying.

Which, sure. Of course.

If you were to ask me, casually, if I thought that the most familiar Santa stories – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Rudolph, et. al. – were based on fact, I would say no, of course I don’t. I don’t believe that a fat man in a red suit runs a sweatshop, exploiting cheap elven labour, at the North Pole. I don’t believe that he keeps a list of who’s naughty and nice, nor that he flies around the world in an airborne sleigh on Christmas Eve, dispensing gifts and small bits of coal according to the dictates of that list.

I don’t believe that reindeer really do know how to fly.

But neither do I believe that Santa stories are lies.

Plato wrote, a very long time ago, before there was a Christmas or a Santa or anything of the sort, that there is a very important difference between what he called lies of the soul and verbal lies, or lies in speech. A lie of the soul, he said, is a lie that misguides the soul, misdirects the soul away from truth. It’s a lie that causes the soul to become confused, and so, ultimately, unhappy. A verbal lie, on the other hand, might be as simple as a little white lie, told to avoid hurt, or it might be something more noble. A noble lie is a lie in the sense that it veils the truth, but it veils the truth in such a way as to make it comprehensible to those who are unable to grasp truth in its fullness. It orients the soul to truth, without revealing truth openly (the truth being like the sun – it can be blinding, and so we must, most of us, shield our eyes.)

A long time ago, when I used to teach the story of the noble lie (which appears in Plato’s Republic) to my undergraduate students, they usually responded, initially, with indignation. It’s a lie, they say. It is meant to deceive, and deception is bad. Yes, I would say, deception is bad. But not all fiction is deceptive. And then I would remind them of origin stories and creation myths, of the story of the Garden of Eden and of the Fall (which, forgive me, I do not regard as plainly factual), of cosmogony, of Pangu and Nyx and Romulus and Remus; I’d remind them of fables and myths; I’d remind them of the stories that we tell children, the stories that we use for the purposes of teaching.

Stories like that of Santa, which, I think, teaches something about generosity and goodness and the idea that all children deserve to be (even if they are not in fact) loved. That the best way to celebrate Christmas is to give gifts without the expectation of reciprocation, to quietly slip a little happiness into the stockings of others. (We could, of course, go darker with this story, and expand upon the ‘naughty and nice’ proviso, and say something about cold and coal-dark hearts being undeserving of gifts, but I am skeptical of the quote-unquote truth of this part of the story and so I will likely – because it does not accord with the quote-unquote truth that I wish to communicate to my children – delete it from the version of the story that I tell them. Such is the power of the parent, who as primary storyteller is both poet and philosopher-ruler.)

(I could, of course, say something here about religion and the original story of Christmas and the purposes that these stories serve and what it might mean to refer these stories as noble lies. But that is a much longer and more complicated post – and in any case it is a post that I attempted, once upon a time - and so you must just accept these concerns as subtext.)

But there’s more to this than the question of whether such stories are deceptive. Joel Stein, in the discussion at Babble, stated that Santa is a character of fiction, no more real than the Cat in the Hat. Which is a reasonable position to take, I think – except that when I think of my own childhood relationships to characters of fiction, what I remember most fondly is the wonderful uncertainty of those fictions. Grover might have been real (I cried when I met him. I did not care a whit that a puppeteer’s arm was jammed up his rear-quarters. He was real to me, in that moment; so real that I apologized to him after I asked for his autograph. Oh god your arms don’t work I AM SO SORRY.) So too Peter Pan, and Alice, and the Cheshire Cat, and Charlie who went to the chocolate factory, and the Tooth Fairy. And Santa. Those characters, and so many others, were fascinating to me because they made demands upon my imagination – they lived only through my imagination, it was my imagination that sustained them, that made them walk and talk and breath. Had they solely been one-dimensional figures, had they only been words and pictures on a page, had I been certain that they were not real, they would have remained flat. Lifeless.

Their stories had force, for me, precisely because those stories occupied and energized that wonderful space between my heart and my mind where truth and story and fact and fiction are blurred, where the impossible and the not-quite-possible and the possible become deliciously tangled, where disbelief is always suspended. They lived – they live – and became real in the space of my imagination.

So. I will never try to convince my children that the Santa in the mall is the real Santa. I will never insist to them that he does come down every chimney in every house in the world. I will never claim that he is always watching, all the time (I reserve a clause here – no pun intended – for the elf on the shelf, and for certain iPhone applications that allow me to call the North Pole.) I will never try to make them believe. I will, however, tell them stories about Santa (of all varieties), and I will tell these stories in my most assured voice, with my most sparkling eye, with my most animated gestures. And if – when? – Emilia or Jasper asks me whether Santa is real… well, I suppose that I’ll be honest with them. I’ll say that ‘real’ can mean many things; I’ll say that sometimes it’s enough to believe in something with all your heart to make that thing real in many of the ways that count (to love that thing, to derive hope or comfort or inspiration from that thing). I’ll say that while I can’t personally confirm that there is a Santa who lives at the North Pole (never having been there myself), that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible that there is a Santa, somehow, somewhere. I will say that it is, in any case, important to believe, sometimes, in impossible things. I will say, with the Queen of Hearts, that I myself have been known to believe in as many as six impossible things, all before breakfast.

All of which is to say that I will encourage them to reach their own conclusions, and that I will encourage them to be open-minded in pursuing those conclusions, in pursuing understanding of seemingly impossible things. I will give them the opportunity to believe, to embrace the stories and let them live in their imaginations. I will let them have their Santa, whatever that means, if they want him.

(Audience participation! What do you tell your children about Santa? Weigh in here, or over at the Salon.)

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    corasmom December 19, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I hadn’t made the connection to the noble lie before, but it mirrors my thinking. When my daughter asks, I say that the Santa at the mall is not real, but that I do believe in Santa. Which is pretty much what my dad always said to me.

    KeAnne December 19, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I love this post. I know several families who have decided not to introduce their children to Santa because of the lie issue and while I understand that position intellectually, I don’t get it. We are a pro-Santa house, and I plan to teach my son that Santa is an idea much bigger than one man on one night. I also hope to teach him that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We need a little magic more than ever these days.

    Saisquoi December 20, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I love this so hard.

    This is the first year my daughter (nearly 3) has expressed interest in Santa. At this point, she seems to connect him with presents, reindeer, Ho-ho-hos, and lots of red. Which is fine.

    When asked if we “do Santa,” our answer has always been “We believe in Santa Claus.” Which is true. I believe in Santa Claus every time I read “The Polar Express.” And I believe in Santa Claus every year when we go buy gifts for the Giving Tree at church or collect food for food drives. We tell Santa’s stories and we wait for the wonder…which, actually, is very similar to waiting for the wonder of the Christian Christmas Story. Is it real? Is it true? I can’t say for everyone, but it was very real and very true three years ago when I was heavily pregnant and waiting the birth of my own long-expected child.

    Thinkmama December 20, 2011 at 11:21 am

    We believe in Santa in our house, but do not pretend that there is an actual real man who delivers gifts to all the world’s children, etc. My 5yo son knows that the men in red suits “aren’t the real Santa”, but still talks about Santa as if he is real. I have always told him that Santa is a made up person like Elmo and the Cat in the Hat. We can pretend they are real, talk about them and enjoy them. To me Santa is about so much more than a story. I am 36 and still believe in Santa, even if I know he isn’t a real person. Belief in generosity and miracles are the important part of the Santa myth, not the fact or fiction aspects. So thank you for stretching my mind.

    red pen mama December 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    My approach to Santa is very like yours, Catherine.

    The average person tells a lie every three minutes. Not all lies are created equal. When a co-worker says, “How are you doing?” and I say “Fine” even though I think I have pink-eye and I have to haul my three children into a Target tonight against all the wishes in my heart and my son is having ear tube surgery tomorrow — that “fine”, technically speaking, is a lie. There are great lies and little lies that make the day bearable. There are, as you illustrate here, noble lies.

    I love Santa, and though it’s been a long time since I believed in the red-suited elf as a real entity, I still believe in him.

    Kristin December 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    I didn’t grow up with Santa – there was St. Nikolaus, who came on the 6th to let us know how were were doing. But on Christmas Eve is was the Christkind (or Christ Child) who came and set up the tree with my parents help while we waited eagerly at the top of the stairs. I actually believed that there was a baby Jesus toddling around directing my parents where to put the next gift. That was a “lie” of my own invention since they never SAID that’s what was going on…but there you go.

    Now, we have a Shelf Elf who reports back to Santa. We have reindeer tales and St. Nick also comes on the 6th to give a small gift. My kids know that not all the santas are real, but they were thrilled and excited when the local PBA showed up with Santa and Toy Soldiers and Rudolph and the Grinch. They said “those were masks, but Santa was real.” To me, it’s pretty much the same – albeit more creative – as letting the kids think that the Buzz walking in the parade and Disney characters are “real.”

    Maija @ Maija's Mommy Moments December 20, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    This right here is why I love reading your blog. Not only is this beautifully written, eloquent, thoughtful and educated it is right. Just plain right.

    Thank you.

    The Woman Formerly Known As Beautiful December 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    “the noble lie” will now be a part of my vernacular. You have made choate my feeling it’s important to embrace the Santa story. If you can’t have magic in childhood, when??

    kelly @kellynaturally December 20, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I love your thoughts on this, Catherine.

    I’ve wrung my hands over so much child-related; it’s part of my mother-persona, er, my human-personal, so I go with it.
    But through the hand-wringing, I usually come out the other side with far less guilt, having made decisions I can live with, and have kids who are pretty okay. Maybe a tad on the cynical side for their age, but I give them high marks for never being afraid to speak their mind (instead of I, as a child, and still as an adult, not saying what’s actually on my mind, because politeness trumps all) and knowing a lot more information than ever did.
    But, anyhow, I’m wandering.
    My point is that I never told my children Santa was real. It was a little bit about always wanting to be truthful, and a bit about not wanting the reward/punishment aspect of things, a bit about fairness, and about not wanting them to be disappointed (as I was) when discovering that Santa was actually Mom & Dad. I’ve never turned off Santa Claus is Coming to Town when it comes on the radio, and we’ve read The Night Before Christmas, but I’ve always redirected their questions or asked them questions in return. I.e. Q: How does Santa fit down the chimney? A: How do YOU think he might do that?
    I don’t tell them to be good (or else Santa won’t…) – they’re good because they ARE good. Because it feels good to be good. Not because Santa won’t bring a present to bad kids… because… if there’s a Santa that brings presents to good kids and not to bad kids what about kids who don’t have money who are good? Why doesn’t Santa bring them presents? Does poor = bad? What about kids who are Jewish? Or kids who don’t celebrate any holidays? Why don’t they get presents from Santa?
    Of course, I don’t tell them god is real – or not real – either. I tell my kids what is my truth and what I believe and what others believe and don’t believe. I give them tools to formulate opinions about life based on feelings and observations – with a bit of hand-wringing… because nothing in life is certain, but my love for them. So I give them that (along with holiday traditions – because I can’t picture making it through the Winter without egg nog and presents!)

    Christmas Carol December 22, 2011 at 2:00 am

    I loved the idea of Santa. As an adult I look back on the days I believed, the days I didn’t know for sure and the days I knew the Santa wasn’t the Santa of my child mind. And, I am grateful for the experience. Like Keane, we “know several families who have decided not to introduce their children to Santa because of the lie issue and while I understand that position intellectually” we don’t get it either. When I found out, or finally believed that it was my parents, and even now as a middle aged adult, knowing that it was my parents I 1. can’t believe they did that for us 2. Am very grateful they did that for us 3. Really, well and truly believe that our childhood was better, because they did that for us.

    Catherine, this is a beautiful post. It is yet another apt example of why Promise us all you will never stop thinking and writing because

    Merry Christmas, and to all a goodnight.

    Corey Koehler December 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Darn it… I have a blog post ready to publish exploring whether or not it is hypocritical to lie to our kids about Santa when we are trying to teach them not to lie. :) I think the way you present the idea of it being a story “may” have changed my position a bit (or at least giving me more to think about). Hmmmm, what to do. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

    AmyB December 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Great post! I tell my daughter (9 next week) the truth which is that I believe in Santa. I believe in magic and the generosity and joyfulness that abounds during December. She seems to always want some toy that I would prefer she not have. It’s during Christmas that I let my wants go and give in the spirit of complete generosity what the receiver really wants. She continues to believe in Santa bc she knows I would never buy those things bc I don’t want her to have them. I continue to believe bc she is right.


    Stephanie December 23, 2011 at 3:23 am

    I get to relive all the magic of Santa all over again. My sons are 17 and 15, while my daughter is only 2. My oldest son asked me about the “truth” of Santa when he was around 10 years old. I told him the same thing my mother told me. “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” We read the newspaper article and talked about how so many magical things happen at Christmas. Families who can’t afford gifts for children or a special meal and yet find gifts and food delivered to their door. That’s Santa. I explained that Santa is the spirit of giving and generosity that exists during the holiday season. A few years later I gave the same explanation to my younger son.

    After reading all the blogs for people who don’t want to “lie” to their children, I asked them both if they ever felt lied to about Santa Claus (since I’ve always made it a point to tell my children the truth). Both said no – they know that Santa exists, even if he’s not a man in a red suit.

    Grace Pamer December 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I just have to be honest to everyone and admit that I still believe in Santa Claus. I do not know if it is a good thing or not considering that I already have kids of my own. The joy of imagining a fat man in a red suit is just amazing and I do not want to deprive my kids of this experience. I think telling my kids about Santa Claus is no different from telling them fairy tales.

    Wafcat December 23, 2011 at 11:00 am

    We have been honest with our kids (now 2 and 5) from the start that Santa is all part of make believe, like any character in a book or on TV. If you ask them about it they will tell you its ‘(pre)tend’. But even though they know he’s not real they are still TOTALLY wrapped up in the wonder of this truely magical imaginary friend, because they LOVE pretend and make believe. If you met them, you would never guess that they already know ‘the secret’! I even think it makes their experience richer because they can use their own imaginations to embelish the legend as they see fit. We have a great time!

    Santa, for me at least, is the personification of selfless generousity and caring. He is a person who works tirelessly all year to provide joy through the simple act of giving. He expects nothing in return, but encourages everyone to be ‘nice’ to each other. He is understanding of the odd slip up, and doesn’t hold a grudge. He is interested in every child, what they do, what they think and what they like. He is a good role model. I think that is a great foundation for a make believe character!

    My son (5) characterises Santa as a “kid- adult” as opposed to an “adult-adult”, with the latter being boring and out of touch with children!! I think that sometimes we don’t give children enough credit, because they are capable of understanding the difference between make beleive and reality. I think that sometimes we don’t see this because they know how to do make believe REALLY WELL!

    Ho Ho Ho! Be jolly and have a very Merry Christmas!!

    gabrielle December 28, 2011 at 12:05 am

    (from The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams:)
    “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

    “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

    “…once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

    “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

    IzzyMom December 30, 2011 at 3:36 am

    Forgive me, Catherine, for linking in your comments but it’s relevant—I just wrote about the end result of perpetuating the Santa myth with one of my kids. It didn’t end well and I wish so badly that I’d done things differently…

    I still believe I the magic of Christmas and all the good things Santa represents but I hope things go differently with my son, who still firmly believes in him.

    Deep Fried Mama December 30, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    We do talk about Santa, because I want my children to believe in the possibility that wonderful, magical things can happen. And what is our existence here, if not a wonderful, magical occurrence? Here’s a related post you might enjoy:

    Jennifer Lachman December 30, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    I just had to tell my daughter that all the times I told her that her eye hurt because she told a lie may have been slightly less than truthful and in actuality it was an eyelash and not a lie stuck in her eye, making me #1 hypocrite mom of the year. After making me promise never to lie to her again (and I really did mean it when I said it) She asked me if Santa was real. I gulped looked her straight in the eye and said “Of course Santa is real Silly”

    Elise Davis January 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    My sister-in-law recently asked if we were going to introduce our child to Santa and I said, “Of course”. She asked if I felt it was lying and I responded that it was only in the same way that all of our imaginative play and imaginative stories are. It’s hard to formulate a good response about this issue and I liked your post. I particularly liked where you said, “I will tell these stories in my most assured voice, with my most sparkling eye, with my most animated gestures”.

    Imagination and play are such magical wonderful parts of childhood. I think part of the gift to a child is to provide solid trusting loving relationships that allow children to float off into magical play. Perhaps my own experiences learning about Santa around age 9 helped pave this way because I never felt betrayed. I only felt like I had made a great discovery when my mom gave me a smile and a sparkling eye and asked what I thought.

    And the traditions of celebrating Santa and cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer continued. Imagination and fun makes for wonderful family memories. Why would we change that.

    (But what about fun at the expense of a kid like giving them a joke present as recently done on the Jimmy Kimmel show – ick ugh horrible! THAT I think is plain cruel)

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