Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the cult of santa

Years ago, when Olivia discovered the truth, or rather, the falsehood about Santa, she burst into some high-powered tears.  After collecting herself, she turned to me with reproachful eyes and accused, “You lied to me!!”  The indignation was palpable.  Years before, Gareth had reacted similarly, imploring, “Why did you lie to me!?” in a great mournful sob.

My sad response:  "I don't know.  What was I thinking?"  

The worst is: I didn't even want to.  I grew up with Santa, so when the time came to introduce my oldest to the big fat man and the chimney, my discomfort surprised even me.  Besides the obvious anti-materialist rant, I had no well-formulated philosophical objections to offer anyone.  I just didn’t like how it felt to tell such an expansive lie—like stepping barefoot into something unknown and slippery. 

My kids tend to be worriers with imaginations as big and fat as the jolly old elf himself.  Their nervous and hyper-curious responses to the news that strange and fantastic beings (tooth fairy and Easter bunny included) would be slinking around our house in the still of the night didn’t encourage me in the storytelling.   

So why did I do it? 

The pressure.  Think The Year Without a Santa Clause, The Santa Clause, Polar Express, and a slew of other Christmas shows in which the general population’s failure to believe in Santa serves as the primary plot-driving conflict.  The oddly confused moral of these stories:  you must believe in something that isn’t true or else be counted as one of the filthy low-down Christmas-wreckers among us.

What if I refused to comply?  Would my kids tell their friends, cracking the damn of Santa lore that shields other children from the waters of truth?  What if reality seeped through that crack, eventually spilling onto my kids’ preschool playgrounds and drenching all those beautiful bright-eyed-Santa-believers with the terrible realization that reindeer don’t fly? 

Did I want to be the Santa-killing mom at playgroup? 

I didn’t dare.  I once lost a babysitting job because my little charge claimed that I told her Santa wasn’t real.  I didn’t do it; I swear.  The mother didn’t give me a chance to defend myself.  She just banned me from the house, as if an alleged Santa whistle-blower were akin to an alleged sex-offender. 

I’ve been living with the stain of that accusation ever since.  True or not, something like that can really come back to haunt a person, right?  I could hear the whispers, as I imagined my kids chiseling at the Santa damn with the tiny pick-axes of their truthful words.  The mothers would say: “Well, y’know, she told that little girl when she was just a babysitter years ago.  A bad seed from the beginning!  We should have known.” 

So I caved.  I lied to my kids to save myself.

Our decade of falsehoods ended several years ago, and I’m only left to wonder, what would we have done without Santa?  What would Christmas have looked like? 

I think we would have treated it as we do now.   We pretend Santa is real for the simple honest fun of it.  We hang stockings; we find mysterious gifts under the tree, and the kids even put cookies out on the fireplace.  If this last one surprises you, just know that it wasn’t until they realized the true recipient of the plate (me), that they fully grasped the importance of this particular ritual. 

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as magical if they’d always known the truth, but it would have saved my kids from their Santa hangovers—the big letdown that follows the great high.  It took several years for them to recover, to stop lamenting, “it just doesn’t feel like Christmas” — a rare confession that means: “I can’t believe Santa isn’t real.”

Thankfully, we have arrived.   Since the full exposure of my lies, the fabric of our trusting family circle has been restored, my kids are out of Santa rehab, and I’m as free from the cult of Santa as I can ever hope to be. 


  1. Great post, Deb. I know just what you mean! Why does our culture perpetuate such lying? I felt uncomfortable being dishonest with my daughter, even as I tried to rationalize it. Sure, Santa is a nice, fun story and there's a lot of excitement and tradition wrapped up in the belief. But my husband and I are trying to raise our daughter to be truthful and genuine... and discerning. It's probably no wonder that she started questioning the reality of Santa last year when she was seven. So, we told her the truth. And her disappointment was heartbreaking.

    This is our second X-mas without Santa, and it still hurts a little. ...Like you, we still have stockings and cookies for "Santa" and presents on Christmas morning. But you're totally right about those movies. We just watched The Santa Clause the other day, and it does send a totally confusing message. The kids who believe are right, and everyone else is wrong.

    Anyway, this a tough one. But here's to new traditions!

  2. Thanks Jennifer. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one! Olivia was also 7 when she started asking. It was so sad, but a relief to have it over with too. Yes, here's to new traditions. I think we add new ones every year!

  3. Love it, Deb! My son is just 5 years-old now and already asked if I believe in Santa. I told him yes. He asked if Dad believes in Santa. I told him yes. The last was, "Does God believe in Santa?" I told him I think so. Even though he's in school now and no longer at a Baptist daycare center, I just can't take that last piece of innocence away from him.

    1. they usually start asking around Kindergarten. it gets hard to figure out when they're just looking for reassurance, and when they're actually looking for the truth. good luck! :)