I grew up without Santa. This is no big deal to me but friends have gasped when they heard this. Most everyone who celebrates Christmas has a story about how they discovered Santa wasn’t real. I don’t. I was deluged with gifts as a child and couldn’t really have fonder memories of Christmas. It’s just that my mother decided she wanted to be truthful with her kids — no Santa.
Somehow this resulted in her developing a later-in-life obsession with the jolly old fellow and she now has an untold number of Santas in her house. There are Vaillancourt Santas and Eldreth Salt-Glazed Pottery Santas and Hearts & Ivy Santas. My entire inheritance is wrapped up in various vintage and folk art Santas.
I, on the other hand, have carried on the tradition of not having Santa with my children. This once led to one of my favorite reporters calling me “the worst mother in America,” an appellation I wear proudly. The only problem is that I really must be the worst mother in America because my children don’t believe me. They watched a particularly compelling Phineas & Ferb Christmas special and were convinced of his existence. The younger one cleared a space in front of the fireplace to assist with gift delivery and the older one’s been writing and hiding “thank you” notes to Santa for days.
What are you going to do? To truly combat the Santa obsession, you have to care more. I’m the Dr. Doofenshmirtz of Santa hatred. In the Phineas & Ferb special, the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz has trouble ruining Christmas because he’s apathetic about it. I’m simply too apathetic about the American tradition of Santa to effectively fight against his power. Or perhaps I’m just too divided. I mean, I love few things more than a really good picture of a kid crying on Santa’s lap, but think the book “The Sacred Santa” remains one of the best and most provocative things I’ve ever read on America’s most dominant religion: consumerism. Also, I’m Christian. And in our tradition, it’s not that we don’t have Santa so much that we do have St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra. His feast day is Dec. 6 and he’s awesome.
There are more who celebrate Christmas sans Santy Claus than you might think. Below, some folks from all over the country reflect on the thing that makes us so weird.
Ashley McGuire, writer, Washington, D.C.
My family grew up without Santa – my parents simply did not want to lie to their children in the name of Christ’s birth. I had a wonderful childhood replete with happy Christmas experiences. I also ruined Santa for a lot of other kids. (sorry) I struggle with this now with a daughter closing in on Santa age. While I sometimes envied the Santa traditions of other families – things like leaving out cookies or listening for reindeer, I’ve realized now that the Christian faith offers many traditions full of excitement and wonder without the lies and disappointment. I’m inclined against Santa as an adult and never really missed him as a child.
David Sessions, writer, New York
I grew up homeschooled in a family of 10 kids, so not believing in Santa barely charts on the list of ways were different from other people. I can’t even remember why; I think it had to do both with the fact that my parents didn’t want to lie to us when they were trying to teach us to believe in God, and that they associated Santa with the secularized version of Christmas. (I knew people who thought Christmas trees were pagan.)
I found it hard to comprehend that other kids believed in something so obviously fictional; I vaguely remember innocently reacting to my cousins referencing Santa, and they ran to the grandparents to tell on me and be reassured. I’m not sure I understood that they really believed it. And then my parents would sometimes kid with us and pretend Santa was real, and we would assail them with rational arguments and at the same time think, “What if!” So it was like getting to imagine and know the truth at the same time. I had no idea having kids believe in the literal truth of Santa was such a big deal to people until I worked in the media and read all the idiotic articles about it every year.
Hana Kabeleova Gala, professor, Seattle
I was born in the commie Czechoslovakia in the 70s, so Santa Claus was never a part of my life. We believed that the presents are brought by Baby Jesus. And it’s still fascinating for me to think about how little we were ever told about the logistics, the mechanics of presents being delivered. And yet, I don’t honestly remember ever questioning how the boxes get under that tree, it was just part of the Christmas magic.
My family (and the majority of people in my country) is not religious. I grew up knowing that Baby Jesus was bringing the gifts but I would not necessarily connect the fact that we all sang carols about him being born on this day and “the whole Christianity thing.” I grew up loving Christmas for the family traditions, ornaments, smell of cookies and playing in the snow at our cabin. Santa was unheard of.
Interestingly, after the fall of communism and the beginning of a new era of consumerism and access to all the “Western things” (such as Coca-Cola and Levi’s stores and McDonalds, a common thing these days but a very foreign concept to my childhood self), Santa is now part of the picture in lands previously verboten to Santa and there is a backlash. Just yesterday I saw a post on Facebook on my sister-in-law’s wall that read: “Dear Coca-Cola, take your Santa and shove it. We have Baby Jesus – we always had baby Jesus and we want to keep him.” Or something along those lines. It’s like with Valentine’s day that also appeared out of thin air recently.
I have a dilemma now. I want my 2-year-old son to enjoy the mystery and magic of Christmas with Baby Jesus. But I do not know how to really explain it (we know so little!). At the same time he loves Santa, because he sees it everywhere. On billboards, in books, as part of decoration in shop windows. Plus there’s another layer, every time I see Santa here, it reminds me of the real Christmas that I used to have that my son is not experiencing because he is removed from that environment, and it somewhat brings up all kinds of immigrant issues.
Matt Frost, Charlottesville, Virginia
Our home sounds like the one you grew up in. The day after Thanksgiving, the music starts, the decorations go up, and it gets way Christmas up in here. We observe the Feast of St. Nicholas, complete with candy in the shoes. We just don’t include the Santa mythos.
I’ve come to enjoy the seasonal solidarity with our atheist friends who, reasonably enough, choose not to retain a vestigial quasi-Christian habit just by default.
Our kids have, for better or worse, taken a certain pride in their Santa-free upbringing. One of the ornaments on our tree is a drawing our daughter made at age four or five of Santa Claus suffering traumatic burns in a fireplace.
The other day, our most enthusiastically apologetic daughter, 5, found herself arguing in school that Christ was the “spirit of Christmas” while Santa was “a mascot for Christmas,” which I consider an excellent distinction. The teacher intervened in Santa’s favor, but that’s only to be expected.
Bethany Mandel, editor, New York
I’m Jewish but wasn’t raised Jewish — my single mom was Catholic. She told me when I was 3 or so and asked me not to ruin it for my friends. I never had an imagination or that much of a sense of wonder. I reacted to all fanciful things of childhood – the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, etc. – with too much logic, my mom said I was never any fun. “I’ve never seen a rabbit that big. How did it get that big? Is it dangerous?” “So there’s a woman sneaking into our house, into my room, when I lose a tooth? What stops her from taking our money instead of leaving it?”
I think my mom mostly didn’t want to freak me out because the idea of a strange man coming into our house in the middle of the night must have scared me. After she told me I remember thinking my friends were suckers for believing it.
John Nixdorf, instructional designer, Naperville, Illinois
While we would not fit the generally accepted “fundamentalist” template (King James only, dispensational eschatology, women with uncut long hair and floor length dresses, smoking & alcohol taboo), we declined telling our kids about Santa, and generally downplayed the material trappings of Christmas in favor of religious observance and ritual: Advent candles, nativity story, Christmas Eve service.
For me additionally, not on my wife’s part, my mom was big on Christmas decoration and made it such a pain in the neck that I’ve never been much for Christmas “stuff.” Plus it’s so depressing when it comes down in January that I’d rather do without it. We’ve been married 38 years and I don’t recall that we ever bought a Christmas tree of any description. Funny enough, 10 years or so ago my wife fished a little ratty 3-foot-high artificial “Charlie Brown Christmas” tree out of someone’s trash after Christmas, and that has become our traditional family Christmas tree. It’s really a shriek when people come over and have no idea what to say about it, and the kids all think it’s a riot when they come home and there’s this old flea-bitten, falling-apart tree off in a nook somewhere.
Kim Marxhausen, educator, Lincoln, Nebraska
I made the decision to not celebrate Santa with our children, and my husband agreed. I served as a teacher in Lutheran schools for 26 years and we did not even think about putting up Santa at school because Christmas is about the gift of Jesus. Christmas is also about grace and not about earning your way to the “nice” list. My daughter referred to Santa as a clown, and my son insisted on believing in him anyway, although he didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that Santa did not visit our house. We also limited Christmas gifts to three each. I cringe when religious celebrations become entangled with the secular world and consumerism. I am not one who is bothered by retail clerks not wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” I have no idea to what kind of Christmas a non-believer is referring. Besides, I have worked more than a few retail jobs to supplement my income. We do as we are told. As a kindergarten teacher I remember handling an argument between a Santa believer and a non-believer. I simply said that everything in the Bible is true, so we know that Jesus was born in a manger. Santa is not mentioned in the Bible so we do not know for sure if he is true. This got me off the hook with both sets of parents and seemed to settle the argument with the boys.
Lora Horn, missionary, Papua New Guinea
My husband Jeff grew up without Santa. We haven’t done Santa with our kids. I know Jeff thought his parents did it intentionally, but it just turns out he was the youngest and by the time he could remember, his siblings already knew Santa didn’t exist. We told our son that Santa lived a long time ago, and that he was kind to children. When he was four, a sales clerk asked him what Santa was bringing him, and he stated very emphatically that “Mommy and Daddy told me that Santa Claus was dead!” she looked like she was ready to call DCS right there.
Bethany Persons, soon-to-be stay-at-home mom, Chicago
As far as I can recall, my parents never sat us down to explain that Santa isn’t real or why we didn’t believe in Santa. We just didn’t. If I had to guess, it was some combination of avoiding myths and superstition in general, the materialistic or secular associations tied to Santa, and the kind of anti-gospel message of good kids getting presents and bad kids getting coal. I think on some level they also didn’t want to put in the effort to keep up the ruse.
My parents did always leave one big gift unwrapped and fill stockings for us. One year my mom tried to say that they were “Santa gifts,” but we knew it was her.
I do remember feeling like I knew something my peers didn’t, and that made me feel smarter than them.
But for all that, they totally got me with the Tooth Fairy. Nobody’s perfect, I guess.
As for my own kids, most likely we won’t tell them about Santa, for all the reasons I listed above from my own childhood. My husband also finds most forms of Christmas decor tacky or a fire hazard, or both. Pretty sure he wouldn’t let Santa into the house on that basis alone.
I did read this from Aaron Earls that made me think. It reminded me of that Chesterton quote, something like “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Katie Schuermann, writer, Illinois
I have a memory of sitting at my desk in first grade, staring at a piece of red construction paper with handwriting paper glued to the top of it. I was dutifully listing out all the toys I wanted that year for Christmas, for I and my fellow first-graders had been given the assignment of composing letters to Santa which would then be published in our local newspaper.
My mom told me years later that my first grade teacher had called her at home that same evening.
“Katie told her fellow classmates today that there is no Santa,” my teacher had explained, very concerned.
What was my mom’s honest response? “Well, there isn’t.”
That story still makes me smile.
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me the freedom to enjoy all of the magical stories, movies, songs, and American pop-culture references to Santa in my childhood without making me a slave to a lie. Thank you for reading to me stories of St. Nicholas, the pastor from long, long ago whose generous gift-giving inspired the bearded, jolly, red-suited Santa Claus of today. Thank you for all of the real, sincere, shiny, glittery, Christmas memories rich with good food, good music, festive decorations, thrilling gifts, reverent church services, rousing songs, warm snuggles, vibrant family gatherings, and – yes! – even a silly, ceramic Santa candy dish from which I would sneak Hershey kisses at home.
Adrian Sherrill, pastor, Denver
It is strange to me that the more and more people call Christ and Christians great laughing stocks and idiots for believing in Jesus, that they go to such great lengths to “believe” in other things. We never discouraged or encouraged Santa, but when the first child asked, “Is Santa real?” We said “no.” That pretty well did it for all the other kids. Our kids sell firewood. Last year they were somewhere on around December 22nd. The guy asked Ben or Peter (6 and 7) if Santa was coming. They replied something along the lines of, “We don’t believe in Santa.” The same man bought firewood again this year. His girlfriend’s daughter was going to be over when we delivered, it was before Thanksgiving mind you. He specifically asked that we not tell his girlfriend’s daughter that Santa wasn’t real. Like we remembered, even cared, or thought about it. Strange. A child’s life is learning things aren’t real. All their cartoon heroes become fake. Spiderman, Tooth fairy, Santa, Superman, Easter bunny, whatever. Then our kids bibles depict Jesus, the disciples, Moses, Mary, Adam and Eve in the same cartoonish way. I think it is dangerous and scary, so we just try to be honest with our children. No, we don’t believe in Santa, he is a fake. We do believe in Jesus, He is real.
Joseph Sunde, writer, Minneapolis
From the very beginning, my parents told me the truth about Santa: all the list-making, chimney-sliding, and reindeer-wrangling was nothing but a bowl-full-of-jelly-sized sham.
Yet I never felt an “anti-Santa” spirit ’round the house. Despite their truth-telling, I sat on the laps of many a Mall Charlatan and would receive candy in my stinky old sneakers every December 6. We were fed the best of Claus Culture (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”), given the dull, uninspired trash in small doses (nearly every song on the subject), and spared the worst of it all: that silly, pointless lie. And for my parents, that’s what drove the reveal.
My mother has routinely recounted the moment that she, as a child, learned the real deal about Santa, paying particular attention to the confusion and frustration that followed. “Why did my parents trick me?” she continues to ask. She saw no point in risking the same with her own children.
Now, as a father of three, I’ve taken a similar path, shrugging the whole thing off as “pretend.” Insofar as Santa offers a good story for the season, fine, but given the vast array in our arsenal, consider me underwhelmed. The Gift of the Magi? The Little Match Girl? The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? A Christmas Carol? All point to the Ultimate Story with far more oomph and vigor than Rudolph’s shimmery nose and Santa’s sack of material wonders, and none require me to dance behind curtains when my kids ask me about the permanent things. Outside of the traditional tackiness that seems to accompany him, I’m not sure why Santa is all that different.
Michael Hickerson, web manager, Cincinnati, Ohio
When my wife and I started having kids (we now have three), we decided early on that we wouldn’t pretend that Santa was real. This wasn’t necessarily based on any religious or cultural concerns – we’re evangelical Christians who celebrate Christmas and Advent, and we’re also fairly comfortable with cultural holidays. Overall, we see cultural traditions like Santa as adding to the celebration of Christmas, rather than distracting from the holiday. Our main concern was building trust with our kids. If we told them that Santa was real, and they learned at an early age that they couldn’t believe the things we said, would they believe us when we told them about more important issues? So, from the beginning, we told them that Santa was a fun game that we played at Christmas-time. We did warn that other kids thought Santa was real, and to be careful with what they said around those kids. We’ve never had an issue with our kids “spoiling” Santa for someone else.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Our older two kids are pretty strong-willed, and they decided for a few years that Santa was real, regardless of what we said. Even when we reminded them that he wasn’t real, they simply didn’t believe us and continued to insist on his reality.
Two side notes: 1) We also told them that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, but for some reason, we pretend that the Tooth Fairy exists. Go figure.
2) Knowing that Santa is a “game” may have helped our kids’ abilities to play-pretend with traditions like these. Last year, we introduced Elf on the Shelf to our home. You’re supposed to move him every night (as if he’s alive), but my wife and I often forget. This year, one of our kids has started moving him around the house. None of them will admit to doing it, and all of them act surprised when they find out where he is in the morning.
Anna Mussmann, writer, Pittsburgh
We too loved Christmas while growing up, but never “did” Santa. My only Santa memory comes from a a shopping trip in December when I was four or five. The store had a santa who was giving out candy canes to the children who sat in his lap. My little sister and I wanted a candy cane so much that we agreed to endure the embarrassing and slightly scary experience of acting friendly with a peculiar stranger and sitting on his knee. I did, that is—my little sister just cried. I think she got a candy cane anyway. Even at my tender age I remember feeling that the experience was very weird, because I knew that Santa wasn’t real and yet the strange man wanted me to pretend that he was Santa. I also knew that I didn’t know or like this man, yet he wanted me to pretend to be his friend. It was kind of uncomfortable.
My parents didn’t believe in lying to children in any way. They didn’t tell us to believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy (although they left us coins under our pillow for teeth), and they were open about life realities from which some people would shelter children. My mom felt that if we did go through that “What, Santa isn’t real?” moment, we would begin to wonder what else our parents had lied about and begin to doubt their word in other areas. We might wonder if Jesus, too, was a myth that people tell to children.
I’ve never felt cheated in any way by keeping Christmas focused on religious and family traditions instead of a cultural Santa. I do think that I’ll celebrate St. Nicholas day, though, when my kids are older and leave them treats in their shoes. I just won’t deny that I’m the one who provided the treats!
Joel Gehrke, reporter, Washington, D.C.
I grew up without Santa. It explains my abandonment issues. When I have kids, I’ll do the same, because I want all the credit for the gifts.
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