The Continuing Ethical Problem of Santa


My daughter Lilly will be eight years old in February. She still unequivocally believes in Santa Claus, despite being aware that others -most grown ups and some older children- don’t believe in him (thanks to perennial favorite The Polar Express).

It seemed so harmless and fun when she was a toddler. You want your child to believe in magic, to be awed and entertained, to be tickled by its possibilities. Besides, you almost have no choice but to perpetuate the cultural phenomena of Santa, unless you want your kid to be that kid that goes around telling all the other children that Santa is a big fat lie.

But then, as your child gets older, the questions begin: how does Santa know when you’re naughty or nice? (Um, monitors, like on Polar Express?)How does he get in our house when we have no chimney?(We’ll leave the door unlocked). Is that really Santa at Yankee Candle? (Yes, but he does have a lot of helpers that goes to other places. He can’t be everywhere at once, right?) Does he know everything? (Not everything, but he knows a lot). Can he do magic? (A little bit. His reindeer can fly, after all). Do you believe in Santa, mom? (Um, sure I do).

Lie after lie after lie. Suddenly you realize you’ve created a monster, and it’s pulling you down into a vortex of falsehood and illusion. This can’t possibly be good, right? And you dread the day when it all comes crashing down, when your sweet child looks at you with wounded, betrayed eyes with the question Why? on her trembling lips. And that day will come.

Lilly is already upset that magic isn’t real; real magic, when you say abracadabra and wave the wand, and a unicorn appears.  But it doesn’t work; nothing appears in a puff of smoke. I try to explain to her that magicians use illusion: they trick you into thinking you’re seeing something that’s not there. But she’s not buying it. She wants it to be real.  She wants the impossibility of something out of nothing.

So when the day comes that I have to explain that Santa Claus isn’t a real person, he’s simply the generous and giving spirit of Christmas, well…I think that’s going to go over like a lead balloon. Like the kid in The Polar Express, she’s going to feel railroaded, bamboozled, taken for a ride. And I don’t blame her.

Am I worrying too much about this? None of us has ever died in finding out that Santa isn’t a real flesh and blood person. But maybe a little something inside ourselves die. A basic trust in our parents, for one thing. I don’t exactly remember the day when it became clear to me that Santa (Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, fill in the blank) wasn’t real; it might have been an accumulation of evidence over time. I just remember feeling resigned that magic had no place in the real world. (Maybe that’s why I write in the genre I do-it’s the only way to bring magic back into my world).

“Magic” in a metaphorical sense is all well and good when you’re old enough to appreciate it. But when you’re a kid, it just sucks when the real magic dies. Lucky for me, Lilly isn’t there yet.







11 thoughts on “The Continuing Ethical Problem of Santa

  1. My parents would disagree, but I found the whole Santa “was a lie” thing hard to handle when I found out the truth, but never lost trust with them. So I told my younger brother he wasn’t real too, no fun in being disappointed alone. In the end, I kept getting gifts each year, so how bad could it have been that Santa wasn’t real, right? Anyway, my wife and I decided that we would be the one to give her (and tell her) gifts with one special one being from Santa. It would just “show up” addressed to her from Santa. We treated him more like something you don’t really see, but have symbols of him everywhere, like the mall. Have to give my wife credit for coming up with the idea. I’m sure things will work out in the end.

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  2. Rob and l decided not to have a strange man in a red suit come into our house while we were sleeping to leave gifts for the children, so we “invented” Children’s Day. Celebrated on 12/25, it’s liked Christmas in that the children get a gift (yes, you read that singular noun correctly) from their parents. Sure of their extended family give them Children’s Day presents, some Christmas gifts. We also have no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, and no dogma-inspired higher power. Rob and l explained that the children were not to tell others that Santa was “not real.” To my knowledge, none ever has. So for us, instead of being put into a position of explaining our reasons for years of dishonesty, we instead choose to dispel with the “magic” altogether. We’ll see whether this causes long-term negative effects down the road, though l doubt it will.

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