“Is Santa real?” my four-year-old Rebecca asked as she looked up at me with a serious, studied look. I had to pause a minute before I could answer. It was just after Thanksgiving and we had begun to get the Christmas ornaments out. The manger scene was her favorite item. Like most children she loved the small figures of the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and especially the tiny baby Jesus. We had gone over the story of the angels and shepherds and the wise men from the East and, as always, she asked her usual question about those events: “Did it really happen?” Much of the business of childhood, I was beginning to learn, was sorting out the real from the unreal.
So, I wasn’t exactly caught off-guard with her question about Santa. It was predictable. What I hadn’t predicted were my own feelings of awkwardness and insecurity when she asked. I was rather overwhelmed with a realization that I was departing from the mainstream of tradition as well as from my own upbringing as I responded.
“Rebecca, Santa isn’t like Jesus. Jesus is real. Santa is pretend. But because almost everyone everywhere pretends that Santa is real, he seems real. It’s like a wonderful game that all the grown ups and all the children join into at Christmas time. That’s what makes Santa Claus so much fun.”
Rebecca was content with that, and so was I as it turns out. Now, looking back six years later, my awkwardness has vanished and it is with confidence that my husband and I recommend the “pretend Santa” idea to other parents looking for an answer to Mr. Claus.
What’s the Big Deal Anyway?
Some may ask, “What’s the big deal anyway? Let the little ones believe that Santa is true. The harsh realities of growing up come soon enough. Let them believe while they can.” Indeed, I felt those harsh realities descend heavily on me as a child when I discovered Santa was not true. I used to sit on my bed and ponder how totally wonderful it was to live in a world in which angels, Jesus and Santa were all realities. The shock of the truth hit hard when it finally broke in on me, and I immediately questioned the veracity of the other two entities along with St. Nick. It was years before I finally began to recapture some of that lost joy over Christmas. My husband had experienced an equally intense and lasting disappointment about Santa when he was growing up. We knew we wanted to avoid that for our children. Besides, reality isn’t just harsh. It’s both harsh and full of wonder. And the Wonder is going to win! Children must be grounded in the wonders of the Truth first… with no lies mixed in. Then as the harder parts of reality begin to present themselves, there is no rug for someone to pull out from under them, just the rock-solid base of God’s true love and His incredible plan for this world.
Jesus versus the Bag Full of Toys
We have heard other objections to telling young children the truth about Santa. Most of them boil down to general feelings parents have that they would somehow be cheating their children out of the joy they themselves experienced in childhood on Christmas morning. Children can’t fully appreciate what Christmas is all about, the argument sometimes goes, so let them have something they can enjoy at their own level. But no one appreciates the story of Jesus’ birth better than a child! Mature understanding is lacking, of course, but not wonder, awe, and a pure, total ability to trust that those incredible events really happened… that same trust which makes them so susceptible to Santa Claus. Their awe and joy over choirs of angels and a King born in a stable are only dwarfed by us when we ourselves build-up the Santa myth to its full extent, give it the honored place in their hearts as truth, and then have Santa bring all the neatest “stuff” to them. We twentieth century parents have unwittingly blown Santa out of proportion by our sheer prosperity. Laura Ingalls’ Jesus had only to compete with a Santa who brought a candy cane and a rag doll. But look with what our Jesus has to compete. Jesus himself walking through the door can’t top that bag full of toys. Our children get the bag full of toys, too (more or less), but they know, now, it comes with love and sacrifice from us.
The most delightful thing to us about this venture is that the “pretend Santa” idea worked even better than we thought it would. When Rebecca at age five wanted to know who brought the toys if it wasn’t really Santa, I said that it might spoil some of the fun if I told her. She accepted that for another year or two and then, when she really wanted to know in the worst of ways, I told her. She felt she had been let in on a great secret and was careful not to tell her little sister or brother. They eventually plied the truth out of her, of course, at various ages and when they wanted to know badly enough. But there was never any question that Santa was pretend. He was lots of fun, but he was in an entirely different camp in their minds from the person of Christ. The great intrigue was only “How do the toys get here?” not, “Is there really a Santa Claus?”
Keeping the Magic
Now, we are all in cahoots together keeping our secret from other children who “might think Santa is real.” We have had some good discussions about allowing other families to keep traditions in their own way, from those who present Santa Claus as the truth, to those who leave out Santa altogether from their celebrations. During the holidays, we conspire not to mention that Santa is pretend because that would spoil the fun. The children leave out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve every year, but it is with added humor and hidden giggles. Last Christmas, they left hilariously funny notes for Santa thanking him for their gifts and asking for a response. Each child got an equally funny note from Santa scrawled at the bottom of his letter which was read aloud to the family next morning on Christmas–a new tradition was born. We read “The Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve each year, and we can feely talk about the wonderful legend of the actual Saint Nicholas without causing confusion for them. We ride together in our imaginations on the Polar Express. We alternately laugh till it hurts and get goose bumps over Santa in Ernest Saves Christmas. We feel we’ve missed none of the magic. In fact, we all love Santa! Is there any other time of the year when everyone in the country and practically the world joins together in a mutual game of pretending, even down to the TV news anchor on Christmas eve? But legends remain legends, and the startling beauty and real “magic” of the Christmas story has remained central. No contest. It holds a greater charm and engenders supreme awe in their thinking by simple virtue of its having really happened. That one’s the true story, and they know it.
Two years ago when our daughter Hetty was five, she secretly wrapped her doll in “swaddling clothes” and put it on the sofa for us to find on Christmas morning. She had composed a story explaining how every year Santa and God get together and make Jesus a baby again and give him to a family to keep for the whole day, “and,” she exclaimed, “this year they picked us!” So, we got the baby Jesus right in the middle of our living room for the whole day, and right in the center of Christmas for always.