Poor ole Santa. Just at that time of year when millions of children idolize the guy, some journalist or reporter comes down on him as the cause of mistrust in children toward their parents. The idea boils down to a kid discovering – usually from a peer – that there is no jolly guy flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and that “my parents have been lying to me all this time. I’ll never trust them again.” Ah, the simplicity of pop psychology.
Christian evangelicals are also often vocal in their criticism of presenting Santa as real. They point out that lying is sinful; your child could also be embarrassed in front of peers; even worse, your child could suffer religious confusion among peers when faced with a question like, “You believe in God? I suppose you also believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny!” And, finally, many argue that focusing a child on Santa encourages them to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus.
I don’t buy it. Truly enlightened and empathetic parents are able to use their children’s newly-discovered skepticism about Santa as valuable life, family, and yes, religious lessons. “Hey, mom, Sally just told me that Santa isn’t real. Is that true?” I remember a conversation I had with a former student. I asked her how her Christmas was. Great, she said, but she added that a few days before the 25th she and her 6-year-old daughter were wrapping a couple of presents for her dad. She told her they could make one from Santa, and she said, “Mom, I know Santa’s not real.” When I asked mom how she handled that, paraphrasing, here’s what she said:
“Well, you know I teach elementary school, and I was ready for it. In a nutshell, I admitted that there was indeed not a bearded old man in a sleigh. But I brought up some of our family traditions and talked about them with her. Things we did, special decorations, meals, all the fun times we had at Christmas. And I asked her, ‘Has Santa been a part of all those fun times? How is Santa in this house? Could it be that we’re all Santa? You, me, your dad, your little brother? And what makes us Santa?’ She nailed this one and said, ‘We give each other presents!’ Building on that insight I went into some comments about giving and receiving, that both are blessings, they are things that bring us together as a family. I said, ‘That’s who Santa is. All of us, and it’s one of the things that shows each of us that we love each other.’ I could tell she was really soaking all this in like a sponge. And then I took the plunge. I pointed at the Nativity scene we always had in a prominent place under the tree. And I went into the great gift that God, the ultimate Santa, gave us – his son who would teach us to love one another.”
The pop-psychology stuff about seeding mistrust in children by lying to them about Santa is nonsense. The great Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, showed us that children’s understanding about their world progresses through stages, and the first stage is very concrete. Their understanding is primitive. Try to explain to a 3-year-old that Santa is symbolic of the gifts of giving and receiving, those things that define a family and love, including the love and redemption we receive from Christ. Good luck. But, believe it or not, the vision of a jolly, smiling guy being towed through the sky by a bunch of flying reindeer, is preparing the child’s mind for understanding those greater mysteries to be grappled with at a later age, with a more physically-matured brain. The fact is, the early belief in the real Santa is not at all incompatible with appreciating at a later age the significance of what’s really going on in that Bethlehem stable.
So, what’s our coping lesson here? Put more Santa into your life throughout the year. The reality of Santa embodies the principles of effective coping with stress: Get outside yourself and give service and support to others; likewise, receive what others bring you, remembering the difference between taking – which is based on egotistical self-absorption – and receiving – which is based on understanding, empathy, and humility. Putting Santa’s Ho-Ho-Ho in your heart will help you establish a psychologically healthy daily legacy, which is based on how you make others, and yourself, feel.