The joy of Christmas as a child was magical, perhaps suspiciously so. I’d lay out cookies on Christmas Eve, wind myself up into a frenzy with so much excitement that I could barely sleep, and wait for the sounds of hoofs on the roof.
As I dozed off, I fantasized about what kind of gifts I’d be receiving. A toy fire engine? A new video game system? A new CD from hitmakers like Hootie and the Blowfish or the Encino Man soundtrack?
One Christmas morning, when the lack of sleep from Christmas Eve kept me in a shallow sleep, I woke up to find my parents putting gifts under the Christmas tree. I rubbed my eyes, silently looking around the corner of the hallway to confirm my sight. I had suspected for a couple of years that something wasn’t quite right in the North Pole; after all, I should have heard SOMETHING on that damn roof after years of all-nighters.
My quixotic idea of reindeers, elves, and a charitable obese man with some loose relation to Jesus of Nazareth remained after this, even if slightly, in that moment. Hope against hope, perhaps. But I was still stunned and perhaps for the first and only time, felt a strange mix of betrayal and love, a feeling I tried to shove as far into the pit of my stomach as I could. They had lied to me about something so simple; what else were they lying to me about?
At the same time, it was they who had purchased me the gifts all those years, they had who had smiled and laughed with me on joyous holidays, and quite clearly, they who had eaten the cookies. It was confounding. I quietly tip-toed back to bed and convinced myself it was all a dream and I was to forget it instantly.
But I knew, even as I let the charade play on for years longer: There was and there is no Santa Claus.
If I have a child, they’ll surely know about and perhaps even get a kick out of Santa Claus. But they’ll know he’s a work of fiction. A ghost of Christmas past, if you will.
I love my parents and love the idea all parents want to make their child happy, but can’t it be done in a way that keeps trust from eroding and prevents strange feelings in children that the mask of reality has been grasped from their face?
The reactions are mixed whenever I dare publicly line up my sights on the sacred cow that is Santa Claus. Ripostes range from looks of horror and requests to keep my as-yet unseeded children away from theirs to high-fives and agreements, setting up far-away play dates for children who together won’t believe in the fat bastard.
However, no one seems to demur too heavily – save, perhaps, a roll of the eyes – when I give my reasoning: I wouldn’t want to lie to a small child, even for something silly like a fictional fat man. Why set up a story that can’t result in any way but a loss of trust for the child I’m trying to raise?
In Lancet Psychiatry, psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay asked the question my gut asked me on that fateful morning: “If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”
They add that the idea of North Pole as an “intelligence agency” which judges every child as “naughty” or “nice” is absolutely terrifying for children. I’d agree: If you’re going to create a magical fantasy land, you may not want to create a version of George Orwell’s Thought Police or the Soviet Union’s Cheka in the process:
“The morality of making children believe in such myths has to be questioned,” the write. “All children will eventually find out they’ve been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they’ve been told. Whether it’s right to make children believe in Father Christmas is an interesting question, and it’s also interesting to ask whether lying in this way will affect children in ways that have not been considered.”
Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris wrote in his book “Lying” that Christmas may be a bit more exciting for children who believe in the mythical Santa Claus and his reindeer, but wonders how far that lie could go into fiction:
“Why not insist that dragons, mermaids, fairies, and Superman actually exist? Why not present the work of Tolkien and Rowling as history? The real truth—which everyone knows 364 days of the year—is that fiction can be both meaningful and fun. Children have fantasy lives so rich and combustible that rigging them with lies is like putting a propeller on a rocket. And is the last child in class who still believes in Santa really grateful to have his first lesson in epistemology meted out by his fellow six-year-olds?”
Why not use the spirit of the holiday season – one of charity, good will, love, and togetherness – to teach children to give gifts of time and love instead of expect gifts of value? Why not teach children to believe in the wonders of their already very capable minds rather than creating an alternate reality for them to play in for a moment before having their hopes dashed? Why tell them a lie that will inevitably found out, thereby sending the message to yes, it’s OK to lie, so long as your intent is good and fun?
There are plenty of real, wonderful things to believe in throughout life. As a child, everything is quite wonderful and amazing; Christmas lights shine brighter, sugar is at its sweetest, and the familial love felt during the holidays feels its warmest. There is no need to confuse the facts with something that should be qualified as fiction.
This is why if I have a child, they will know from day one that Santa Claus is a fun myth, nothing more. There will be no reindeer on my roof.