By Ashley Geerts-Perry, M.S.
The day after Thanksgiving at my house means the tree is going up, lights are getting hung, and Hallmark Christmas movies won’t leave the TV until December 26th (okay, you got me… Hallmark was on long before Thanksgiving). For most children, the Christmas season means one thing…SANTA! While standing in line surrounded by fake snow and high schoolers dressed as elves to take a picture and share your Christmas list may not be in the 2020 cards, on Christmas Eve Santa will still head out from the North Pole to spread Christmas magic…presumably wearing a very stylish candy cane mask.
So let’s talk Santa…I get it, technically we are lying to our children about a big fat man in a red suit who will determine if they’ve been good enough for toys that year, but there’s also cultural traditions rooted in the myth of Santa Claus that can’t be overlooked. From the toddler years, children begin practicing magical thinking and have the capacity to believe. Even if you don’t introduce Santa, they are going to hear about him from somewhere…a commercial on TV, Santa’s Village at the mall, a catchy Christmas jingle, or a visit from jolly ol’ St. Nick at school…Santa is inescapable all December. If you are hoping for an answer on whether or not to propagate this belief in Santa, you’re out of luck, but here are some thoughts to consider either way:
So you want your kids to believe in Santa…
There are varying degrees of belief in Santa that families proliferate. Maybe your family does a more traditional Santa…a visit to the mall with letter in hand, a plate of cookies by the fireplace, a full stocking in the morning, and a new present under the tree. Or maybe you do like my parents and play up Santa as a REALLY BIG DEAL, and trust me, we did it all…cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer on the “special Santa plate”, letters mailed with hand-written responses confirming that you’re currently on the “good” list but be careful because it gets revised all the way until Christmas Eve, and special Santa wrapping and tags. There is no right or wrong way to foster belief in Santa, but whatever way you choose, COMMIT, because from year to year your kids will probably remember.
Santa can also be a tool for establishing meaningful family traditions and positivity. Santa creates this connection around the world. A shared feeling on Christmas morning knowing something magical happened to everyone while you slept. I look back and it’s not the gifts Santa left that I remember, it’s the way Santa brought us all together. I remember decorating his cookies as a family on Christmas Eve before opening our one Christmas Eve present and laughing with my brothers while writing Santa letters before family game night began. Every year I put up the “Santas from Around the World” with my grandma, and even though we live hundreds of miles apart, I think of her when I place them on my mantle. Christmas hasn’t been about Santa for a long time, but the traditions, magic, and connection never faded away. So if you choose to believe in Santa, take the opportunity to create your own family magic.
While Santa is useful for getting your kids to stop fighting in the middle of the produce section, he also provides an opportunity for teaching valuable life lessons. Christmas is a season for giving and who gives better than Santa. Historically, the story of Santa begins with a monk named Saint Nicholas, who is said to have given away all his wealth to travel the country helping the less fortunate. He is known as the patron saint of children for the good deeds he did and generosity he spread. There are a lot of messages about receiving at Christmas, but Santa can help us remember the importance of selflessness and giving (Bonus! There is significant research about the benefits of altruism on our mental health). Santa can also teach us about equity and fairness. My husband grew up thinking Santa liked his cousins more because they always had more gifts from him …doesn’t seem very fair! When selecting Santa gifts and helping your children make their lists, consider framing Santa as someone who gives what you need, not necessarily exactly what you want. Perhaps in your family, Santa has a rule that includes no electronics. However you do it, be mindful of the power of peers. How might your child make someone feel if they got a Nintendo switch from Santa and a less fortunate child got a new backpack or vice versa? We could all benefit from keeping Santa simple. Belief in Santa means belief in kindness and generosity, so help your kids want to be like Santa, not just get from Santa.
What do you do when your kids start asking questions about Santa…
If there is one thing we can count on, it is a child’s curiosity, and when use of logic and reason kick in, they will start questioning the Santa narrative. You’ve got two choices…dig in or spill the beans! There may be lots of reasons for keeping up the ruse. For my family, it was younger siblings because while my 3-year-old self didn’t care that our chimney couldn’t fit a small doll, let alone a large man, my 6-year-old brother started to. My parent’s response was to amp up the story. That Christmas Santa got a house key alongside his cookies so that he could use the front door instead of squeezing down the chimney, and the next morning boot prints out the front door and reindeer bells as a ‘Thank You’ for being so considerate. Inconsistency reconciled and the magic lives on for another year!
However, maybe it is time for the jig to be up, then what…you could tell them Santa isn’t real or you can just stop trying so hard to foster belief and allow your child to put two and two together. “Wow, all of sudden Santa’s handwriting looks just like Dad’s!” Honestly, either way is harmless, so long as your child isn’t left feeling stupid for having believed in the first place. You can always go back to the meaning behind Santa…Giving! While their belief in Santa may have faded away, they now have opportunities to be Santa for others and spread kindness and joy.
But what if you don’t want to go the Santa route…
This is perfectly fine too! The lessons and meaning of Christmas are unique to each family and you shouldn’t feel pressured to conform. Even without belief in Santa Claus, your family can foster the spirit of Christmas, establish connecting traditions, and embrace the season of giving. However, you also don’t want your child to be the one ruining Santa for others. If Santa isn’t for you, then have a candid conversation with your children about how your family’s traditions differ from Santa traditions. In the spirit of Christmas, your children are being kind and giving by not taking away other’s beliefs.
In the words of Edwin Osgood Grover, “Santa Claus is anyone who loves another and seeks to make them happy; who gives himself by thought or word or deed in every gift that he bestows.” However you celebrate, enjoy making memories with your family this holiday season!