Fun with Santa

Re-posted from Evangelical Realism, 5 Dec 2007

Was Santa Claus a part of your childhood? He was definitely a big part of mine (bigger than Jesus for most of my very-young days, in fact). It was only natural, then, that my wife and I would want Santa to be part of our kids’ childhood as well. But therein lies the dilemma: Santa is not real, and we didn’t want to lie to our kids. So we found a way to have fun with Santa, without ever lying about him.

The trick is quite simple: when you first introduce your kids to Santa, you mention that it’s a game people play around Christmas time. You don’t make an issue of it (any more than you would belabor the point that hide-and-seek is “just a game”), you simply mention it in passing. You then proceed to do all the Santa things that other parents do. You might mention the word “game” once or twice a year, but other than that you simply play along with the usual Santa conventions.

We did that with our kids, and I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my teenaged daughter a year or so ago. We were discussing the fact that many parents lie to their kids, and then the kids feel disillusioned when they find out Santa’s not real. Suddenly, my daughter’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at me accusingly and said, “Hey, that’s right, you lied to us about Santa.”

“No we didn’t,” I replied. “We told you from the very beginning it was just a game.”

Her mouth dropped open, and I could see the light go on, and she said, “Oh, yeaaaahhh…”

At that moment I knew that our kids had experienced every bit of the wonder, the excitement, and the fun of Santa Claus, just like the kids who really believed in him. The “magic” was no less real for our kids than for the fooled kids, and I would say that our kids had it better, because their experience was untroubled by any nagging doubts. They never had to face the disillusionment of finding out Santa was a fake, because they knew all along he wasn’t supposed to be really real.

What made this experience especially valuable to our children was that it gave us a chance to explain to them that some parents take advantage of their kids’ natural gullibility, and fool them–not out of wickedness or cruelty, but because they want to pass on what they experienced when they were kids, and were deceived by their parents. Despite the later disillusionment, they treasure the “magic” of Santa so much that they want to share it with their kids. And this is precisely how and why some parents raise their kids to be Christians.

Different people have different opinions about Santa Claus, but I encourage reality-minded parents to play the Santa game with their young children. It’s a fun way to instill a valuable object lesson about how and why people pass on beliefs that make them feel good, even though reality doesn’t quite fit the belief. What’s more, you can explain to your kids how to talk to Santa-believing peers, and explain to them a little bit about how unpleasant it’s going to be when those kids find out they’ve been deceived by someone they trusted. Tolerance and respect need to be taught early, and the Santa myth gives us a good chance to plant those seeds.


  1. Nemo says

    I always said I wouldn’t lie to my kids about Santa (or anything), if I had any. But my sister has a different attitude. She’s been doing the Santa thing with my nephew… and I’ve pretty much just played along with it. I feel bad about it, but I think she’d be furious if I told him the truth. I’m not sure what to do.

    On a positive note, I think the only exposure my nephew is getting to “God” or “Jesus” is when somebody curses.

  2. DonDueed says

    I generally agree with you that parents shouldn’t let their kids think Santa is real. But…

    Isn’t the eventual revelation and disillusionment of discovering he’s NOT real a good object lesson in the problems of having faith without evidence? Isn’t it a bit of training in skepticism and even a path to atheism, for some at least?

    It wasn’t for me, since my folks always kept things light — Santa was treated as “the spirit of Christmas” rather than a real person. But I know I’ve heard anecdotes from others who trace the beginnings of their deconversion to the unraveling of the Santa deception.

    Even so, though, this would only apply if a kid is taught to believe in both Santa and Jesus. Ideally, it would be neither.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      For me, that role was played mostly by creationists. Back when I was an evangelical Christian, I wanted to be a creationist author myself, so I started looking up the scientists most frequently quoted by my heroes. The more I read, the more I discovered that the creationists were distorting the facts and even outright lying. That made me increasingly skeptical about not only creationist claims, but all of apologetics. The more I checked the facts, the more deceptive and dishonest Christianity turned out to be. I tried to blame it all on people and to keep my faith in God, but eventually I realized that these fallible, untrustworthy, and even dishonest people were the only sources we have for everything we know about the Christian god. At that point, the whole thing unravelled and I could finally see past the wool people had been pulling over my eyes for forty-some years.

    • Nemo says

      It makes sense on paper, but if uncovering the Santa myth were really a common path to atheism, I have to feel that… there’d be a more atheists.

      Indeed, it’s surprising that more people don’t draw that parallel.

  3. John Morales says

    Was Santa Claus a part of your childhood?

    Not at all.

    I was born in Madrid in 1960, and what I knew was the “Three Kings”, so it was January 6 rather than December 25 when we got gifts.

    (Much more appropriate, IMO)

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    You’re walking a pedantic distinction. Honesty and lying are not about literal truths and literal falsehoods. Intent matters. The reasonably known effect of your speech matters. Carefully avoiding saying a literal lie but still misleading – that is still dishonesty. Perhaps a lesser form of dishonesty than outright lying, but still dishonesty. Hence the phrase “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I’m not sure I understand your point. We told our kids that Santa was make-believe. Are you suggesting that there’s something dishonest or misleading about that?

      • EnlightenmentLiberal says

        Let me try to clarify.

        “Hey, that’s right, you lied to us about Santa.”

        “No we didn’t,” I replied. “We told you from the very beginning it was just a game.”

        Her mouth dropped open, and I could see the light go on, and she said, “Oh, yeaaaahhh…”

        If you tried to pull a similar fast one in a court of law while under oath, do you think you could be reasonably charged with perjury? If yes, I think you have to tap dance pretty hard to argue that your proposal for Santa and children is fully honest. If no, then I think you don’t have enough respect for modern courts.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        But we did tell them, from the very beginning, that it was just a game. That’s why, when she thought about it, she remembered that yes, indeed, we had always told them it was The Santa Game. Perjury means telling a lie, saying something that’s not true. But nothing I said was untrue. We did tell them that it was a game, and we did play the game, and the kids did have all the magic and excitement experienced by the kids whose parents lied to them about it, and then I told them the truth about what we had told them. Nothing perjured there at all.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Perjury means telling a lie, saying something that’s not true.

    No it doesn’t. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. No judge is going to buy that excuse if you say something purposefully misleading under oath. Get a lawyer if you ever need to testify.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Did you now?

    Suddenly, my daughter’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at me accusingly and said, “Hey, that’s right, you lied to us about Santa.”

    I am highly dubious if this could happen from the model of clarity and forthrightness. You seem to be right in the middle between honesty and dishonesty from misleading. Winning on a technicality of “I never told a lie”, but leaving the impression that one did, is not honesty.

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      Let me try it like this. It sounds very much that if I was your child, the lesson I would take away is that my parents sometimes will lie to me, but they will hide behind obfuscation and technical correctness, and thus I need to rules lawyer everything they say and ask often for explicit pedantic clarification to detect if they’re lying to me now.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Again, what lie? We were not lying when we told them that Santa is just make believe. Nor was I lying when I reminded my daughter that we had always told them Santa was just a game. That’s why she remembered it so clearly when I reminded her. The light bulb went on. She thought for a second that we had lied to her, because her experience as a pre-schooler on up through about 3rd grade was so similar to the experiences of her classmates who had been lied to. But you don’t have to lie. That’s what’s so cool about the Santa game. The kids can have 100% of the fun with 0% of the deception.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Is that all? You find it “highly dubious” that a teenager might jump to a conclusion that put Mom and Dad on the spot, only to retract it when reminded of the actual facts? That’s hardly evidence of any perjury or deception on my part. Nor is there any need for deception. When kids are very young, they pretend all the time. You can tell them Santa’s a pretend game, and they’ll get into the spirit of the game right away. They won’t care that Santa’s not real. Because it doesn’t matter. Tell them the plain simple truth that Santa is make-believe, and then have fun. They’ll have all the “magic” and excitement as if you’d deceived them—but without the deception. I know because that’s exactly what we did, and that’s exactly what happened.

      • EnlightenmentLiberal says

        Again, you have a most curious view of honesty and deception. It seems you are employing a double standard, one for young children, and one for adults. Do you agree that you are employing a double standard for what counts as dishonesty and deception?

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I think at this point you’re just trolling, otherwise you would have been able to explain what it is you think is untrue and how that differs from what you think the truth is. I have no reason to believe that your accusations have any substance or even that you have any interest in them beyond seeing how long you can keep talking without making a legitimate point. Feel free to try and explain yourself better if you can, but I doubt you’re really interested.

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