Back again for another highly opinionated — some might even say downright cranky — look at some element of the fantasy genre. You’ve been warned!
NO, VIRGINIA, THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS
Okay, I’m going to confess something that’s sure to make me very unpopular with many readers.
If my kid asked me if Santa Claus was real, I’d absolutely say no. I feel that if a kid is old enough to ask, he or she is old enough to know the truth.
Yes, I realize this is making me sound like Ebeneezer Scrooge, but hear me out.
I’ve heard all the arguments about how believing in Santa Claus makes Christmas “magical,” and how innocence is a fragile thing that must be maintained at all costs.
But is that really true? Is Christmas really any less magical when a gift is given not by some mythical being who is watching over you and granting the gift as a reward for your “good” behavior, but by someone you love, carefully chosen to express that love?
As for preserving innocence, is there anyone among us who would deliberately want important information withheld from us, so we stay happier? Maybe so, but not me. Anyway, when someone specifically asks a trusted adult for the truth, there’s an expectation that that adult will actually give him or her the truth.
Sure, use age-appropriate language! But to lie outright? That seems to me to just invite either simple-mindedness (”The lesson here is it’s better to not ask questions in order to maintain your illusions”) or cynicism (”They lied to me about that — what else are they lying about?”). And don’t tell me a five-year-old isn’t aware enough to pick this up.
For the record, I’m (mostly) completely serious about this.
“But Santa Claus isn’t a lie!” you might be saying, citing that famous 1897 editorial in the New York Sun.
“Yes,Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the editorial states. “He exists as certainly as love and devotion and generosity exist.”
Sure, love and devotion and generosity exist — along with the human imagination, which the essay also pays homage to (”You might as well not believe in fairies!”).
But whether love and devotion and imagination exist is not what Virginia is asking, now, is it?
She’s asking: is there a literal Santa Claus, a man in red suit with a bushy beard who comes down my chimney on Christmas Eve?
And the answer to that, of course, is no.
So why not say to a kid: “Santa Claus is an entertaining story we tell around the holidays. So he’s ‘real’ in the sense that the imagination is real — and what exactly is ‘reality’ anyway? But no, he doesn’t literally exist, not any more than Mickey Mouse or Bilbo the Hobbit exist.”
A kid won’t understand this? The thing is, all my life, people have been telling me what kids won’t or can’t understand. And most of the time, these people have been wrong. But in any event, why in the world would you deliberately want to dumb something down for your kid? Isn’t the point of being a parent to get your kid to aspire to be smarter and more sophisticated than he or she was the day before? Wouldn’t you want to reward your kid for being skeptical of those in authority and questioning the status quo?
Why do things have to be literally true for them to be beautiful and magical and meaningful anyway? We don’t insist that Dr. Seuss or Where the Wild Things Are are literally true — and they’re still pretty wonderful.
And I haven’t even touched upon the idea of the kind of moral framework the whole “Santa” thing is developing: be a good person not because of an empathetic awareness of other people and realization that humanity is all in this together, but because … well, you’ll get lots and lots presents!
Which brings me to the part of this essay where I lose even the few readers who are still with me (and yes, I realize I’m burying the lead!).
Part of what bugs me about teaching kids about Santa Claus is that it seems like a precursor to — an important building block in– a particularly immature brand of morality in general and religious belief in particular: the idea of God as an all-powerful magical being, watching and judging everything, and granting special favors to those who follow a set of existing black-and-white “rules.”
Whenever I hear a parent insisting to a child that Santa Claus is literally “real,” I always feel like the next step will be to replace The Man in the Red Suit with The Man with White Snowy Beard.
What’s wrong with that exactly? I guess I’m one of those who thinks that that immature kind of religious belief is the source of a very large percentage of the world’s problems — either inspiring misguided and often hateful zealots, or creating an equally scary group of people who, having rejected simple-minded religion, have no moral framework to replace it with and end up being evil in other ways.
Is this all too much to lay on Santa’s jolly’s shoulders? Maybe. But it’s what I think of every time I hear a parent insisting that Santa is “real,” even over their kid’s skeptical — and, to my mind, absolutely wonderful — objections.
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