The Santa Dilemma

Over on From The Ashes Of Faith, Megan has just raised a subject that was a huge dilemma for me in the early years of parenting:

How do you feel about the whole Santa charade? Did you do it with kids in your family? Did you believe in Santa when you were little? How did you feel when you found out he wasn’t real?

To answer the last two questions first: I don’t remember believing in Father Christmas (the term we tend to use more in the UK, although they’re fairly interchangeable for us) at any time during my childhood. Maybe I believed in him at one point, but, if so, I was too young at the time to remember, and I don’t remember any point of ‘but he’s not real!’ revelation. So, if that did happen, I suppose I can’t have been too traumatised by it.

When it came to bringing up my own children, however, I had no idea what the right course of action was. (Which I suppose at least made a change from the more usual parenting experience of smugly knowing exactly what the right course of action was up until the point where I went through that part of parenting and realised that in actual fact things were vastly less simple than the pre-parenting version of me had assumed.) If I brought my children up to believe in Father Christmas, then I was deliberately perpetrating a lie and a fraud. If I didn’t bring them up to believe in Father Christmas, I was depriving them of a delightful and important part of childhood magic, basically becoming Scrooge and the Grinch rolled into one. What was I to do?

The compromise I opted for: I wouldn’t straight-out tell my children Father Christmas wasn’t real, and I wouldn’t say anything revelatory when we saw Father Christmases at children’s parties or in the local garden centre prior to Christmas. But I also wouldn’t do anything specific to perpetrate the myth – no footprints on the fireplace or mince pies set out on Christmas Eve and removed overnight in our household – and, when either of my children did ask straight out about Father Christmas, I’d tell them the truth.

As to the details of what I’d tell them… well, this takes us to Megan’s other main question, which was whether I think it’s fair to compare Santa to Jesus. As regular readers of my blog will know, I believe that Jesus was originally a real person (a Jewish rabbi who was crucified) but that, for reasons too long to go into here, an entire enormous mythology was then woven around him that had very little to do with the actual person. If you want to debate that issue, please go pick one of my many threads on the subject in which to do so; I bring it up here because, in answer to Megan’s question, I think it’s completely fair to compare Santa to Jesus, in that both of them started as ordinary humans before a whole mythology was woven around them.

So, I decided that, when the time came, I’d tell my children that the bits about flying reindeer and visiting all the children in the world with presents were made up, but the story was based on a real person who was kind and good and gave people things and inspired parents to do the same with their children, and people then made the other stuff up to make it more fun. This is probably somewhat stretching the details of how the legend developed, but was reasonably true and felt a lot better than the prospect of effectively telling my children that the grown-ups had lied to them.

Looking back, I would say that – unlike almost everything else I’ve ever planned in parenting – this actually worked well.

I can’t remember how old Jamie was when he asked me whether Father Christmas was real, though I remember it was while I was getting the children ready for bed one night; I told him to come into the bathroom so I could tell him (getting some teeth-brushing done was probably also on my agenda there, but I wanted to get him out of earshot of Katie, as she hadn’t yet asked) and gave him the above spiel, as well as asking him not to tell children who didn’t yet know as it might upset them. Jamie nodded in acceptance and that was that.

I do remember when Katie asked, due to some other stuff going on at the time that enables me to pinpoint it around (probably shortly after) her eight birthday. I was driving her home from school and she was chattering away, mentioning a girl in her class who was scared of Father Christmas. As my heart sank, the way it always did when I was faced with the uneasy business of not knowing whether to speak up or not, she mused “You know, I don’t even know if Father Christmas is real. Maybe he’s just some guy named Jake.” I have no idea to this day where she got ‘Jake’ from, but I still remember mentally cheering that, within minutes, I would be done with the whole Father Christmas dilemma.

I got us both home so that I could tell her face-to-face just in case she did get upset, and asked her whether she wanted to know the answer to her question. This involved reminding her of the subject, since she’d moved onto somewhere completely different in her thoughts in the ten minutes it took us to drive home, but she decided that, yes, she did want to know.

“Well, then,” I started, “the answer is that the bit about someone flying around in a sleigh with reindeer is a myth, but…”

“I knew it! I knew it!” Katie crowed.

“…but the stories are based on…”

“He’s not real! Throw him out the window!” Katie, apparently delighted by this news, swung an arm in an expansive casting-forth gesture.

“…based on a man who was…”

Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Throw him out the window, one-two-three!” Katie had reached the point of putting together a mini song-and-dance act on the theme. “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Da-da, da-da-da-da!”

I gave up. At least she wasn’t traumatised by the news. I settled for explaining to her that she couldn’t tell other children who didn’t know yet (actually, I can’t even remember if I did remember to tell her that; I hope she didn’t ruin any other family’s Christmas magic in her enthusiasm) and, no, she was definitely not allowed to throw Father Christmas out the window and could she please be slightly less disturbing about it.

So, that’s how the whole thing went down in our household. I look forward to seeing what experiences Megan’s commenters had, though they probably at least did not involve impromptu chants about Santa defenestration.


  1. marner says

    “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Throw him out the window, one-two-three!” Katie had reached the point of putting together a mini song-and-dance act on the theme. “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Da-da, da-da-da-da!”

    Thank you! That made my day.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Defenestration for the win! Katie’s version sounds a lot more fun than having to learn about the Defenestration of Prague which is where I first encountered the punishment.

  3. Katydid says

    Parenting never seems to work out the way you imagine you’ll handle it before you have kids, does it? Ours would have tuned out for a history, but “it’s a game adults and children play, but don’t tell the other kids this in case they don’t realize it’s a game” worked for us.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    Just came across this link to Terry Pratchett’s argument for teaching children to believe things that aren’t true:

    Not sure if I agree with him or not — obviously there are plenty of downsides to belief in the unreal to counteract the good. But as usual, he makes the case well.

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