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24 Dec

On Santa, and Other Truths


Emilia, age ten and some days, telling Mr. and Mrs. Claus all about that camera she wants and also are they SURE that her little brother isn’t on their naughty list?


Every year, I write about Santa, because every year, Santa plays an important part in our holiday celebrations. Emilia is now ten, but the same ideas apply, and will apply, I expect, for many years to come. After all, I still believe in Santa, and I don’t think that faith is going to rattle any time soon.

So, this year, as last year, as next year, and so on.

Soon it will be Christmas Eve. And on Christmas Eve, my daughter will put out cookies and milk and a handwritten note for the red-suited gentleman who will visit our home and leave presents under our Christmas tree. She will also leave carrots for the reindeer who pull his sleigh, because, as she likes to remind us, there are no reindeer gas stations in Los Angeles.

Emilia is 10 years old.

I wondered, as we approached the holidays, whether this will be the year that she calls our bluff on Santa. But if the volume of her drafts of letters to Santa is anything to go by (we’re up to about six), this is not that year. Next year’s probably not going to be that year, either. I don’t see Emilia letting go of Santa until high school at the earliest. Maybe college. Maybe not even then. Because she loves Santa. A lot. Santa, for Emilia, is the very embodiment of generosity and happiness and joy and she can’t get enough of him. And all of this is fine by me.

I know that not every parent feels this way. This is the time of year when op-eds about telling the “truth” about Santa abound. This is the time of year when adults publicly parse their discomfort with the Santa story and take their stands against children being misled by that story. I just can’t do it, they say. I just can’t shake the feeling that my children need to be able to trust that all their parents ever told them was the truth.

This, because the story of Santa is, of course, not true.

There’s no large man in a red suit running an elf sweatshop at the North Pole. He doesn’t see kids when they’re sleeping, and he doesn’t know when they’re awake. There’s no round-the-world overnight gift-delivery system outside of Amazon.

Reindeer, we can all agree, don’t really know how to fly.

But does that mean that Santa stories are lies? I say no.

A very long time ago, long before there was a Christmas or a Santa or anything of the sort, Plato argued that there is a very important difference between what he called “lies of the soul” and “lies in speech.” A lie of the soul, he said, is a lie that misguides the soul, that misdirects the soul away from truth. It’s a lie that causes the soul to become confused. 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 communicates truth indirectly. It says something that points in the direction of the truth, that orients us toward what we might call “the right idea.”

Stories are often “noble lies.” They’re not true in the factual sense, but, when they’re good, they tell the truth better than any recitation of facts. This is the basis of origin stories; this is the basis of folklore and myth. This is why Aesop told fables. This is why we all love Star Wars — not because we believe that there are, actually, battles taking place in a galaxy far, far away, but because the underlying story tells us something true-ish about good and evil and love and family (and light sabers, which are probably in development at MIT or CalTech).

So it is for the story of Santa. It teaches something about generosity and goodness and the idea that all children deserve love. It teaches that the best way to celebrate Christmas is to give gifts without the expectation of reciprocation; it teaches that we should give because giving is its own reward. It teaches that the most meaningful kind of giving is the kind that quietly drops a little happiness into the figurative stockings of others and then slips away, red-cheeked and joyful for having shared such happiness.

I have never tried to convince my daughter that the Santa in the mall is the real Santa. I will never insist to her that there is, in fact, a real man in a red suit living at North Pole with a posse of elves. I will never try to make her believe. I will, however, tell her stories about Santa (of all varieties), and I will tell these in my most assured voice, with my most sparkling eye, with my most animated gestures. And if she asks me whether Santa is real … well, I suppose that I’ll be honest with her. 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. I’ll say that while there is no current evidence of a toy workshop at the precise location of the North Pole, that doesn’t mean that the spirit of Santa isn’t, in its own way, real.

Then I will put out the cookies and the carrots and tell her that it’s important to believe in things we cannot see, like love and generosity and gratitude and Santa, who is really about all those things, and more.

And I’ll do it again next year, and the year after that, and for – I hope – many, many years to come.

(Cross-posted over here.)