Right now many of us are in the final throes of preparing for Christmas. The traffic has suddenly become unbearable. The exhaustion of the year is coming to a head; you might be facing yet more fever and malaise creating viral invaders as is the case in our house (hence publication of this post being a day later than it should be) and the will to fend them off is about as great as the desire to go anywhere near a M.A.L.L. Rather, retreating into hermit-ville seems a more enticing prospect.
Doing anything that involves extra energy may not seem top of the things-to-list right now but in the last post I introduced the idea that Santa, such a prevalent mythical character, may come with strings attached and it’s worth spending time peeling off societal and familial filters to uncover your own values about Father Christmas and whether the deceit really works for your family.
In this post I explain who Santa is, why I’m honest about Santa with my daughter and then finally I look at the pro’s and con’s with supporting evidence for whether you should bring the Santa myth into reality. It’s a long post but I hope you make it to the end.
So who is Santa?
When I went through my own self-analysis about Santa and the part I wanted him to play in our Christmas two years ago, first stop was actually finding out more about who this Santa figure was, like here and here. Many of us have grown up with the idea of this jolly red suited, black belted gentleman, white hair and beard flowing, known under various names of Santa Claus, Father Christmas or St Nicholas. There’s the idea that he rides a sleigh powered by reindeer and delivers presents to ‘good’ children on Christmas Eve (only if children are asleep). He’s kind and all-knowing and this Santa many of us might be aware is a recent (last 100 or so years) creation in part driven by commercial entities.
How different is he from his ancestral form then? Our modern Santa is actually a blend of a number of different stories of varying ages. The story predominantly derives from Nicholas, later canonised to St Nicholas, born into a wealthy devout Christian family in the 3rd century in Patara in what was then Greek territory, but now in Turkey. His parents died when he was young and he used his inheritance to assist those who were needy including sailors, the suffering or ill. He also became Bishop of Myra. Persecuted by the Romans and incarcerated he was later released and continued his generous work until he died. A special substance was found in his grave, deemed to have healing powers and the anniversary of his death (St Nicholas Day, December 6th or 19 on the Julian Calendar) became a celebration. There are various specific stories of his generous acts, including secretly supplying dowries to three daughters of a poor man, via bags of gold tossed through windows and landing in stockings hanging to dry (hence the act of hanging stockings up now to receive gifts). A number of other stories surround his particular protection of children. December 6th is still the major day for gift giving across much of Europe. In some European countries, carrots are left out for St Nicholas’s horse.
The name Santa Claus derives from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which itself is in part derived from the legend surrounding St Nicholas. However, there is also a nearly identical story from Greek Orthodox folklore about Saint Basil indicating a variety of origins to Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is an elderly stately man with white hair and a long white beard, wearing a long red cape over bishop’s attire. Parallels have also been drawn to the Germanic figure of Odin, a major god, indicating some pagan influence into the Christmas holiday. These include use of horses and children leaving boots filled with carrots and straw for the horse to eat in return for gifts or candy. In some countries in the 16th or 17th century the gift exchange changed to being associated with Christ’s birthday and hence a shift from December 6th to Christmas Eve but in many areas, December 6th remains the primary gift giving day.
Father Christmas, the spirit of good cheer at Christmas was present as a green-coated person in Britain in the 1600’s. The modern Santa Claus appearance and figure (derived from St Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas) actually dates from the 1800’s and is linked to a poem “A visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore (1823) and later a cartoon by Thomas Nast (1863) where Santa became more portly. At about the same time the mythology around Santa Claus altered in Western cultures so that he now resided at the North Pole with elves, uses chimneys (although also associated with Odin and Sinterklaas) and required the assistance of reindeer and sleigh. The popularity of the naughty or nice list dates back less than 100 years to 1934, an idea associated with the song ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ (although this concept is also a part of Dutch Sinterklaas tradition).
Coca Cola further popularised the image of Santa Claus in the 1930’s, which leads to the mythology I grew up with, that the modern jolly red and white Santa was created by this particular beverage company to reflect their branding- thanks to the internet I now know that this is not correct! Mrs Claus first appeared in the mid-1800’s, letter writing to Santa probably in the 19th century and the idea of a large Santa gift factory at the end of the 1900’s.
Why it’s interesting learning these origins is the understanding that the modern Santa is far removed from the original St Nicholas source, and that our modern Santa is a real blend of old and new. Within our families though, we have the option to create the Santa that fits us.
Why I’m honest about Santa
I grew up with the story of Santa. I don’t recall exactly when I found out that Santa wasn’t real and that it was instead my parents sneaking around leaving gifts during the night but it was probably around a very standard age six or seven. Santa left a few small gifts (including always an orange- a tradition dating back to St Nicholas) in pillowcases we left on the end of our beds while we were asleep. I think we did the leaving of biscuits, maybe carrots, and milk out for Santa so from my recollections there was full participation by my mum and dad in the deceit. We quite possibly wrote notes but I don’t remember that. Finding out the deceit was actually somewhat traumatising and I did feel betrayed, a memory that lasts to this day. This is not uncommon.
When it came to my own child; MissBB was a mid-November baby born in 2009, so our first Christmas was a blur of sleep deprivation and actually just out of one of several unpleasant hospitalisations for mastitis (expect more about mastitis science at some later date), so introducing Santa that first year seemed irrelevant. The next Christmas, with a just over a one year old, I still didn’t feel any need to introduce Santa, especially as we had been hit here in Christchurch by a massive earthquake just three months before. Another year later and I now had a two year old and this time I felt the pressure to engage in the Santa mythology. At first I started out approaching it with an expectation that I had to go with the cultural flow and re-enact my childhood traditions with her (that’s that weight of cultural and societal filters I wrote about in my last post). So we did the pillowcase and a few small gifts inside although I didn’t hype it up much. It just didn’t feel right- there was a niggle eating away at me, which was guilt about not being completely honest with my daughter. After all, one of my foundations of parenting has always been honesty. So why, would we bend the rules with Santa and deliberately tell lies? Who was this for anyway? Was this really about our child and adding magic to her life or was it really amusement for us as parents at playing a clever practical joke that goes on for years in the notion of fun for all?
The niggle ate away at me and I felt uncomfortable about what I had done. It just didn’t seem to fit with my parenting approach and hence my parenting values. It was still early enough to reverse it without repercussions and so I started reading. First, I read all about Santa and his origins as I briefly outlined above. Now that I understood more about the history of the jolly red guy more I could evaluate just how far removed the modern version is and start to think more deeply about what my actual values around Christmas really were.
Again, it was time to do some more reading to find out whether the doubts I had inside me were valid, whether they were common or whether I was a neurotic mother that just needed to relax into the idea of engaging in the red velvet suit game. I found some really interesting material, some of which I’ll share below (and I’ve since found a lot more which is also included below) although one of the best I read, a mini-thesis I can sadly no longer locate. One of the central recommendations from that research was that ‘inviting the child to believe’ was the best approach. In other words, this philosophy of dealing with the Santa myth is of letting the child know that this is just another story but asking them by invitation whether they want to engage in the Santa game, which if they do is fine, as it under the full control of the child and in full knowledge that it is just a game. In reading that and having gone through a number of different ‘changing rooms’ during my online researching, I had found the velvet suit that felt like it fitted my values perfectly.
I came to a resolve that I needed to maintain my honest relationship with my daughter and to do that I needed to keep Santa where I believe he should be, as a story character but not as a real figure. Children may be children but that doesn’t mean from their first minute of existence out of our womb, that they don’t deserve our full respect as humans with equal rights. With that in mind I and with my partner’s agreement, resolved to let my daughter know the truth, but how to do it gave me a lot of anxiety and caused a lot of thoughtful moments, in an already crowded with thoughts mind.
In the end I felt I just had to take a deep breath and gently broach the subject. I don’t remember the exact specifics of when, but I did sit down and start by telling her a shortened version of the history of Santa Claus so that she could know it was just a story and that Santa was just a mythical story character. Once I got started the nerves dissipated a bit- these nerves were what felt like the oppression of those societal filter/expectation chains weighing down on me and I was breaking them off and liberating my own values. I felt a little like a naughty child, one who might not get Santa’s gifts! At the end it felt good, I felt relieved because I was being true to me and to how I wanted to parent.
Change is like that- it can be scary but once it’s done we often feel like better and stronger people. We often feel that we know more about who we are. And that’s a good thing. Having the courage to peel the top layers off to find your values is frightening and it is hard but my personal opinion is that I would much rather tackle that than spend my days feeling like I was carrying chains and never really feeling free or being myself. The most important person to be myself for, other than for me, is for my child.
That’s how we headed a few months later into the next Christmas, this past Christmas, and it seemed straightforward to reinforce that Santa is a story and that MissBB can ‘choose to believe’, where we participate in the Christmas build-up in a very similar way, except she knows it is a game. Where I explain that different stores have their own Santa for that store etc. She wasn’t at an age where she would tell other children and it all seemed fine. I should point out here that despite somewhat of a negative experience uncovering the deceit during my childhood that that wasn’t my primary motivation for keeping it real with my own child. Whilst that may have been a catalyst for examining how we would tackle Santa in our family, it was all the research and thought processes that followed that lead me to my decisions.
This year, now MissBB is four, has actually been a little more challenging. That’s because she is now far more aware of what society is doing around her to cultivate the Santa myth- everywhere she goes she is bombarded with people asking her what Santa is getting her for Christmas, which I think is very confusing. Those societal filters are layering on thick and it’s a bit like doing a chemical peel for me to combat them. Naturally of course there is a lot of talk amongst her peers which is fine- this is what you would expect. But why do those adults she knows but especially those she doesn’t (retail assistants etc) have to ask specifically about Santa ?– why is the question not less loaded as just simply “What would you like for Christmas?/What have you asked for for Christmas?”.
There really is a weight of expectation that every adult is complicit to this game. At first glance it might seem like harmless fun, but put a different pair of glasses on and it comes across as more a sinister criminal underworld of lies, deceit and trickery. Here though, the material gains are unusually to the receiver, rather than the giver. The mental gains may on the other hand be largely to the giver.
Childcare parties where Santa makes an appearance and malls where there’s always Santa present but not giving presents add to the confusion. We talked again about the Santa story and that’s he not real at the start of the silly season. It’s important to reinforce concepts in the face of an onslaught of material that may suggest otherwise. She told the teachers at childcare one day and they told her not to tell the other children- fair enough. This in turn led to a really interesting conversation where I explained that Santa is just a game and that I have chosen to let her know that he is a game but that many parents play the game with their children but without telling them it is a game and that she must not spoil that as it is the parent’s choice. “Why do they not tell them?”. Being careful to respect other parent’s choices I answered that some parents think it’s good to create that magic and mystery and that they have a variety of reasons for not telling their children. I was careful to leave it as open as she can so she can make her own mind up about what values she has around the deceit as she grows.
We hit a speed bump a few days ago when she declared that she thought Santa was real- I can sense in a way that perhaps she really wants to believe or maybe she feels pressured into it. Another interesting conversation where we both learnt more about each other and where I asked her if she trusted me? The answer of course, yes. The response from me was that if she trusted me, then it was also important for her to trust me that I was telling the truth about Santa. She took that on board as she does and we followed on with some great exploration of logic and critical thinking looking at the evidence for or against Santa being a real person.
Yet another speed bump yesterday where she kept talking about Santa as if he was real- asking questions about what I thought he wore to bed. I felt confused- had I gone wrong as a parent? Was the desire in children to make believe and engage in fantasy so strong that believing in Santa was inevitable? We talked about some story book characters in a book she had just read and I asked her if they were real- could they ever come into the room? She was clear on that one, no, so I reinforced Santa was no different again. MissBB had provided more opportunity for thought though. I wanted to tell her the truth in full respect for her as a person, but now I was left wondering whether I was interfering with her fantasy games too much. I wanted this to be a child-led game so it was time to make sure it was. We had a conversation tonight and I said I was a bit confused about whether she thought Santa was real or not but I really wanted her to decide how she wanted to deal with Santa and that I wanted to put her in charge. I think the upshot of that slightly muddled but delightful 4-year old conversation is that she knows Santa is a story character but we’re going to act out as if he’s not- in other words we’re going to play a make believe game like we might in many other situations. That’s completely fine by my- I’ll go with her flow and direction. Today, we pretended that Tower Junction, a shopping area, was Jungle Junction (a TV programme). That was simple. It’s time to show trust in my daughter the way she trusts me. It’s her choice to ‘believe’- this game has a new leader.
I wanted to give you an honest account of what’s it been like being honest about Santa. Maintaining the deceit about Santa is difficult for those that go down that path as it involves ever increasing elaborate trickery to maintain the deception. However, maintaining Santa as a story character isn’t without effort either. The road bumps I’ve encountered this festive season haven’t changed my position. Rather, they’ve provided ample learning opportunities for my daughter and I and ultimately a means for us to demonstrate the respect we have for each other and the chance to know each other better; for our relationship to evolve. To me that has immeasurable value and benefit. The uncomfortable feeling where you’re having to think hard and evaluate as a parent or otherwise is actually the space where you are learning the most.
What about those other mythical creatures that have also pervaded our society – the tooth fairy and Easter bunny? How do I intend to deal with those? The Easter Bunny I don’t even bother about- although we do an egg hunt and the tooth fairy- revealing the ‘fairy toothbrushes’ within periwinkle flowers is as close as we come there- I’ll tackle that when she starts getting wiggly teeth.
All of this section though is only my personal opinion and experience. Below is where we delve into the research surrounding the Santa myth.
Candy canes for thought- research and other ideas around dealing with the Santa myth
The following are some of the major considerations around promoting the Santa myth or not.
Lying to your children and erosion of trust
This probably ranks as the number one reason not to engage in the deceit. We all know that lying to our children is bad and so like my experience many people when they engage in making a mythical character reality feel some level of guilt based on the idea that lies are bad. I think we should listen to these doubts our mind expresses and examine them carefully. Some of the ideas presented by others put this kind of deceit in the ‘lying for the benefit of our children’ category but this to me is very poor logic. As I suggested above the lies may primarily be not for the benefit of the recipient, which the ‘good lie’ concept suggests but rather the supplier.
Lying may lead to a long term erosion of the trust relationship we have with our children and this aspect of trust is one of the most important components, if not the most important, we have with our children over our lifetime. Yet lying as a parental tool is incredibly common as shown in recent studies outlined here and here. Beyond the big three – Santa, Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy, the most common lies are threatening to leave children alone in public, fairy godmothers watching all you do, and Pinocchio style nose growing on lying! Interestingly, research now shows that children engage in lying much earlier than previously thought – by age three, which means they are in turn well aware by that age of what a lie actually is.
Melinda Wenner Moyer in an article claims that when children learn the truth around age 8 (in reality the data suggests earlier at age 6-7) they now know the difference between good and bad lies and therefore won’t resent you for the ‘good lie’ you have told. However, this assumes that there are few negative consequences of Santa’s big reveal.
This is in fact incorrect although there is surprisingly scant literature on this and nearly all of it based in America, leaving those of us in other countries such as here in New Zealand completely unsure what effect the perpetration of the Santa myth is doing to our kids. For whilst some, if not many children may appear to suffer little ill effects when the deceit is unveiled, others do. My own experience, for example, was negative. I can’t remember the exact details of when I found out the truth but it is a scarring memory. One Christmas, probably the final one before I found out the truth, my brother and sister convinced me that they had seen reindeer hooves in the lawn. I spent the majority of that Christmas Day carefully going over the lawn trying in vain to find the evidence they claimed existed. I remember how utterly betrayed I felt by my siblings who I had complete trust in that they had actively deceived me. I felt like I had been made a fool of, that I was the recipient of a cruel joke. Whilst my angst on the surface of it, seems directed at my siblings and has potentially contributed to some erosion of my trust relationship with them, it is also possible that on another level, the same erosion has happened to my relationship with my parents.
There really is no such thing as a ‘good lie’.
Given the prevalence of Santa in Western culture, the scant research that has been conducted into the effects the Santa deception has on children strikes me that there is a considerable qualitative and quantitative data gap. Parents should want to know whether promoting the deception has positive or negative impacts on their children and to what level so they can make the best decisions for their family. Prentice et al in 2010 showed that belief in fantasy figures such as Santa varies with age and the level of parental encouragement. Cultural context is also important: Prentice and Gordon have shown that in Jewish families, belief in both Santa and the Tooth Fairy declines with age but belief in either figure in Jewish children is significantly less than in Christian children. Thompson and Vickey in 1989 looked at the meanings attributed to an American mall environment, where behaviour is on public display leading to continual shaping of social identities. They found that in the presence of children, both males and females promoted the Santa fantasy- looks like nothing has changed there, although one has to wonder what impact the rampant commercialisation of Christmas has had on Santa in the last 24 years.
Interestingly they found that age and gender influence behaviours and understanding in Santa’s presence. Challenging of the belief in school-aged children tended to be infrequent and brief and for those who had discovered the truth about Santa, they tended to play along for the reward and to “publicly demonstrate their conformity” to adult expectations. From a young age girls were more comfortable in Santa’s presence than boys- the authors suggest conforming to being ‘good girls’. A broader range of behaviours were tolerated in boys. The paper also outlines fascinating differences in both male and female teenager and adult interactions with Santa. Male teenagers were typically threatened by Santa and perhaps abusive in an attempt to validate their near-adult status; female teenagers on the other hand actively sought out Santa, flirting with him and using Santa in a way that didn’t threaten their adult status but affirmed it.
Adult males tended to avoid Santa deliberately or otherwise whereas women regularly interacted. This may be to do with the expectation that women are meant to be emotional, supportive and engaged. Engagement with Santa may be a public confirmation of their good partner/mother role which fitted with the author’s assessments that women tended to respond to the fantasy by overacting. Santa on the other hand may pose a threat to adult males- threat of social embarrassment if one was to acknowledge Santa. Men in the presence of children responded differently and typically acknowledged Santa. When both men and women were present with children, women took on a lead role. Motivations for interaction with Santa may have been simply a means to a photo shoot, or also for additional reasons centred on modelling of good behaviour. Thus, Santa even in this context is manipulated as a tool to obtain a certain desired behavioural standard from children and interactions with Santa are influenced by gender in a subtle but pervasive manner. Follow-up studies that assess social class, race, religion and ethnicity impacts are just begging to be done here but the complexity of the Santa interaction in a mall or department store or elsewhere should make us all pause and think next time we approach Santa.
The most recent (that I can find) analysis of impacts of discovering the Santa Claus myth is not very recent (Anderson and Prentice 1994) and again was an American study. I am ignoring a 2002 study by Cyr of 45 inpatients as the author declared he still believes in Santa! In the Anderson and Prentice study a small cohort (52) of children who no longer believed in Santa and their parents were interviewed in a well-designed but exploratory approach. Participants were sourced from a medium-sized Southwestern city, and most were Protestant. Children were found to generally find out on their own at age seven. Parents used a wide variety of encouragement verbal and behavioural tools to get children to believe. The authors reported that parents were in general more distressed at the reveal than their children. Parents in general strongly disagreed that there were negative aspects to a belief in Santa Claus, which is not unexpected given these parents had actively encouraged and promoted the deception, but may not be representative of a wider snapshot of society. The level of distress on learning the truth was lessened the greater the parental encouragement but the reasons for this are not entirely clear, although may be related to a greater sensitivity to the child’s experience with Santa and ability to tune in and respond to any adverse reactions. Children exhibited a broad range of reactions to the truth, both positive and negative although the definition of these terms may be one flaw in the study, e.g. a child could be ‘happy’ about learning the truth (71% of children) but that ‘happiness’ could be associated with a number of negative feelings- happy their gut instinct was right, that they now knew about their parent’s deceit etc. Although the authors downplayed the intensity of the negative impacts on children, the negative impacts were not trivial: 50% felt bad, 48% felt sad, disappointed, tricked, 42% felt confused, 35% felt angry, 33% felt upset, 29% felt sorry and 13% felt hurt. I wonder too with this age group of children who tend to be quite self-conscious whether downplaying the intensity might be a reflection of social conformation rather than genuine feelings? Their recollections after the event may also be not an accurate reflection of how they felt as they gradually uncovered the deception. There are other shortcomings in this study which highlight further the need for us to carefully consider our own approach to the Santa story as well as the need for more research. Sample numbers were relatively low, the study was American and may for example not be applicable to other countries where Santa is also a fantasy figure. The participants were generally white, Christian and middle class. In other Santa-fied countries, such as here in New Zealand where there is a much higher prevalence of non-religious parents, parental motivations and encouragement may be significantly different. And not least of all twenty years on a lot has changed in the ‘Santa space’ with the encroachment of commerce and associated shifts in cultural values or practices.
I put the Santa deceit to Kumari Valentine, clinical psychologist and lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand for her thoughts. She admitted it was such a thought-provoking question she’d been awake after I wrote to her in the middle of the night thinking and talking it over with her husband for an hour! Kumari is an expert in attachment and her blog can be found here. She notes that “a number of my friends have talked about the sense of outrage they had when they learnt their parents had put one over them”. Her principal advice was similar to a number of other psychologists: “The other thing is to look at the principles – what are we trying to do with Xmas? Seems to me it’s about a sense of magic, a cultural story and family. Well, you can create all of those with your daughter as a co-creator, rather than as a passive recipient”. Kumari recognised that not all children are the same and being cognisant of our child’s needs is important “I think it’s good to be pay attention to that particular child needs. Some children need to have make believe for longer”. “For example, a child might ‘need’ to believe completely in Santa to be part of a particular peer group that perhaps they are struggling to fit into and they don’t have the skills to ‘play along’ with the Santa idea for everyone else.”
Following on from the idea that maintenance of the trust relationship is incredibly important between parent and child, it’s logical that being honest about Santa is a demonstration of a respectful relationship. As I indicated above, babies and children aren’t in my mind second class citizens and being upfront about St Nick is just one way to demonstrate the respect you have for your children. It’s difficult from my perspective to see how engaging in increasingly elaborate lying could be viewed as similarly respectful.
Imaginative play/mythical play
The most common argument for propagating the Santa myth is that it fosters the magical and fantasy thinking that young children need and thus the Santa lie is presented by some as beneficial and even good for cognitive development. Touted in many articles on the internet, including a well-known article by Melinda Wenner Moyer is the idea that this is not only beneficial for children’s cognitive development but perhaps even necessary. Specifics include the idea that engaging in fantasy play sparks creativity, social understanding, critical thinking and emotional understanding. All of these ideas are in fact true- imaginative play does help cultivate what are known as theory of mind skills.
However, there are some key points missing from these oft-presented flawed arguments. Firstly, it assumes that engaging in the Santa myth through deliberate lying by a parent, is one of the only ways that such imaginative fantasy play can occur. Thus, it follows that one might also question how children that culturally do not recognise Santa Claus fare- do they have poorer theory of mind skills? Dangerous territory indeed. Children from one upwards readily engage in all sorts of fantasy play- they do it at their own initiation and generally do it under their own control and rules. They are experts at make-believe and they use it to make sense of the world around them. As such they are fully aware of the boundaries of the game or they learn them as they go if by invitation from others.
The central difference here is that in the Santa deceit, the children are unaware of the rules of the game- these are being set by adults and withheld from the children. An appalling article by the ‘trusted’ parenting website PBS states among other things that the lie is fine because “it doesn’t really harm children to imagine”. In an excellent article, psychologist William Irwin and philosopher David Johnson, counter-argue that there are three major reasons that the Santa lie should be avoided: 1) it’s an unjustified lie; damage to trust relationships; and 3) promotes ‘credulity and ill-motivated behaviour”. He goes on to say that this defence of imagination in those that suggest the Santa lie is good “doesn’t actually promote imagination or imaginative play” because to imagine means that you pretend, and to pretend something exists you need to believe first that it doesn’t. He argues instead it ‘stifles imagination’ and suggests as have others taking exactly the approach I have taken with MissBB.
Psychologist Clifford Lazarus suggests that engaging in the Santa deception may actually promote the development later in life of ‘magical thinking’, which far from necessarily being harmless may include believing in spells and other irrational beliefs which are often at the core of OCD.
Used by either those for or against the Santa deception is the idea that of development of critical thinking skills. Those that suggest the Santa lie is not only harmless but beneficial also provide the idea that the slow realisation encourages the development of critical reasoning skills. Indeed, the experience of learning the truth, as I am doing with MissBB, is a fantastic critical thinking platform. However, I and others suggest that rather than maintenance of the lie encouraging reasoning skills in itself, it merely confuses. As children use their logic to slowly uncover the truth they may ask questions of parents and siblings who likely construct more elaborate ruses and in the process stifle doubts. Stifling doubts is counterproductive to the fostering of critical thinking skills.
Loss of innocence
Another oft-mentioned reason that the Santa deception is indeed beneficial is that maintenance of the deception is one way of ensuring children stay children for longer. The world is so hard and full of troubles, the longer they hold onto this fantasy world the better seems to be a theme. Indeed, as one article writes “It’s better for their development to allow them to believe in the fantasy of Santa Claus. After all, they will have to face reality sooner or later”. Again, I find flawed logic in these arguments. Fantasy is a part of childhood, but to assume that fantasy (and indeed taking on board Irwin’s point that the Santa deception isn’t pretend play and therefore isn’t fantasy play) is the major component of innocence does not seem intuitively correct. These are loaded ideas and one really needs to examine how innocence is defined with respect to children. More to the point, how do we define what being a child really is? Is for example my openness with my daughter about childbirth, menstruation, and some rudimentary knowledge about reproduction also an erosion of her innocence? Or a deliberate attempt to ensure comfort in her own skin throughout life?
Lazarus goes on to say in his article that if we affirm that Santa is real to our children, then logic follows that ghosts, monsters under the bed or elsewhere must also be real. If we deny the latter ideas to our children but invest in the Santa lie, where does that leave our children? He raises some interesting ideas about what as yet unknown damage exposing children to delusional ideas may do to psychological development and suggests as we now know that cognitive development starts earlier than previously thought that exposing children to the psychological realities of life (age-approrpriately) should occur as early as possible to develop rational thinking. These sentiments of grounding children in realism are echoed here.
Indeed, many children are terrified by Santa. In the last few days on TV and on social media I’ve seen all sorts of photos of children screaming on Santa’s lap. This then is clearly not about the children. It seems nearly like a badge of honour for parents to display their child’s level of utter distress. It seems weird too, to me to even go there. On one hand from a young age we actively encourage our children to be wary of strangers, and their inbuilt response kicks in from as early as five months. Yet we once again bend the rules come Christmas time and thrust our young children onto some stranger’s lap in the quest for that perfect yuletide pic. We assume that the malls and stores and wherever else have done vigorous background checks on the Santa’s they employ, but is our child’s distress telling us something?
Thompson and Vickey noted in their qualitative mall study that preschool-aged children tended to be fearful of Santa or even terrorised, were often being co-erced to sit on Santa’s lap and were sometimes spanked and physically forced into the photo opportunity! School aged children of 5-9 years of age enjoyed the interaction and treated him as if he were real and the Santa actors themselves were far more comfortable with this age group. Infants had no response- they were generally asleep!
Commercialisation of Christmas, conditional love dangers, religious run-ins and political problems
There are a number of other issues associated with the Santa myth and several of these are centred on the actual presents. There is no doubt that Christmas has become a highly commercialised event and so then has Santa by association. Yet, many of us live in times of considerable financial hardship. Requests for substantial presents are now put to Santa and frequently Santa delivers. Not so long ago, the Santa gifts were small in nature. Santa doesn’t however, always meet expectations. Every year there are many bitterly disappointed children who don’t understand why Santa didn’t listen to them and grant them their request. Kumari Valentine says “I recall feeling disappointed when Santa didn’t seem to pay attention to what I really wanted (and my mum gently told me that Santa couldn’t afford to buy everyone what they wanted). I wonder if children would change what they asked for if they knew their parents were the ones paying. I know I had an acute sense of how much my parents could afford and I suspect other kids might too. It seems like there is another agenda here – it’s retailers who benefit from children being fed the idea that they can ask for anything if they’ve “been nice” and they deserve to get it.” Parents solve the distress in their children by telling more elaborate lies but children may end up with feelings of lower self-worth as a result.
This in turn relates to the issue of conditional love. We all want our children to know that we love them unconditionally no matter who they are and what they do and in return we hope that they grow up for the most part feeling the same way with respect to us, i.e. their love isn’t determined by the material things we provide. Depending on how the Santa deception is constructed in families however, and the adherence to this naughty or nice philosophy, Santa’s benevolent love for our children may appear to be conditional based on behaviour- you’ll only get presents if you’re good, if you go to sleep early on Christmas Eve etc. The Santa myth also involves using a stranger to control children for the sake of parents and some people object to Santa on these grounds, while others view Santa as a foreign indulging figure.
In religious circles there are those that feel that a heavy focus on Santa is a detractor from the real focus of the Christmas period, Jesus Christ. In a possibly spurious argument, Goltz raises the issue that we may be influencing our children’s political views through teaching them that needs come from a ‘sugar daddy’, leading to a dependence on the state to provide.
Final festive thoughts
I’ve chosen to reveal the Santa game to MissBB for a variety of reasons but mainly centred on trust and honesty and preservation of respectful relationships. It hasn’t been easy and it’s involved a lot of thought and examination around my own values for me and my family. For me it’s the right decision to let her ‘choose to believe’ and I hope in years to come she will reflect and also find it the right decision for her childhood. This year, I’ve also made a conscious choice (or maybe it’s just plain exhaustion) to not create all manner of festive unhealthy (but oh so delicious) goodies in order to promote healthy eating. We don’t actually need all that extra baggage leading to extra baggage penalties to celebrate Christmas. Next year, I intend to more fully and similarly examine my attitudes around Christmas gift giving and materialism- pathological consumption as George Monbiot coins it. Yes, like many women I do love buying presents for others, but MissBB I hope will not measure me by the amount of presents she receives. As she told me today, what she needs most and what she likes giving most are cuddles. Wise words indeed. Some things may seem complicated but life really is about some pretty simple concepts.
I hope this post encourages you if you haven’t already to consider your own values around Christmas and in particular the Santa myth. Kumari suggests “I think it is worth parents consciously reflecting on how they choose to parent” and she strongly advocates tailoring your approach to each individual child “and based on the child’s needs”. She notes that “parents may struggle to separate a child’s needs from what THEY want for the child” .You might not come to the same conclusions as me. Other options do include ‘don’t lie but don’t tell’ or of course sticking with the societal norm- making the Santa myth reality. Alternatively revealing the truth but not engaging in the game at all- no Santa presents etc is also an option.
My hope though is that many of you will leave Santa in a fictional world and make your children a consenting part of the Santa game. The magic will still be there but the deceit won’t.
Whatever you choose to do, may you have a wonderful festive season.
Links in order
http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0031409 Emergence of lying in very young children.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1978.tb02566.x/abstract Prentice et al 2010. Imaginary figures of early childhood: Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221325.1987.9914544#.UrEpN5Iwdyx Prentice and Gordon 1987. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy for the Jewish Child and Parent
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00989398# Thompson and Vickey 1989. Myth, identity, and social interaction: Encountering Santa Claus at the mall
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02253287# Anderson and Prentice 1994. Encounter with reality: Children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth
http://www.cmaj.ca/content/167/12/1325.short Cyr 2002. Do reindeer and children know something that we don’t? Pediatric inpatients’ belief in Santa Claus