When our parents said “Go,” my three brothers and I raced downstairs into the living room. We tugged our stockings off the mantle, treasuring each chocolate goodie from Santa and eyeing his empty cookie plate and half-drunk milk glass. By turns, we shucked gold- and green-wrapped presents with festive tags marked “from Santa.” Overjoyed by the Star Wars Lego sets and that new American Girl doll, we turned to our parents.
“Thanks, mom and dad!”
We never believed in Santa Claus. But growing up, I didn’t much miss him. To us, he was both a historical figure and an imaginary character. We should all embrace the joy of Santa this way, not as our annual chimney sweep.
We kids celebrated the real Santa Claus, the third-century bishop from modern-day Turkey who dispersed his hefty inheritance among the poor, delivering not Lego sets but bags of gold to those who needed them. On December 6, the day of his death, we celebrated St. Nicholas’ Day.
Every year, a lovely friend from church, an émigré from Holland, would knock on our front door, and in what is evidently a Dutch tradition she would hover in the doorway singing “Sinterklaas Kapoentje” and pelting us with ginger cookies. We read books on St. Nicholas and admired the good bishop, and never had to ask mommy how the holy man was still alive and kicking.
Telling the Truth Inspires Trust
Parents who tell their children the truth that the jolly old man died some 1,700 years ago build camaraderie with their kids. I appreciated that my parents respected me enough to be honest with me, and the truth became an inside joke between us. With four kids bumbling about the house, they also saved themselves the hassle of stowing away wrapping paper and devising excuses for why Santa decided against the $400 bike this year.
Encouraging children to emulate St. Nick also inspires good behavior more than warning them to keep off the Naughty List. Let’s be real: Kids know that Santa’s gifts will always materialize under the tree, temper tantrum or not.
Some of you will shake your heads sadly and call me an angry elf. CNN accused the U.S. Air Force of similar surliness last month after it “shattered the magic of Christmas for millions of children” by tweeting that Santa wasn’t real. On its official Twitter account, the Air Force told two of its bases to drop a feud by threatening no Christmas presents because Santa is a phony.
After the Washington Examiner reported the tweet, the Air Force revisited its joke to avoid Scrooge status. It tweeted, “Santa is real,” and tagged the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which, it said, tracks Santa’s sleigh ride. Despite the change, CNN still charged the military branch with playing “Grinch.”
Even “All I Want For Christmas Is You” singer Mariah Carey won’t deny the existence of Kris Kringle. “Santa comes every year!” she told BuzzFeed this month. It’s much more popular to be a Santa believer. The name of Santa Claus sells songs (“Santa Baby,” anyone?), empties shelves of toys, and inspires unnecessary trips to the shopping mall, where—dare I say it?—he sits on a throne of lies.
We Don’t Need Lies to Express Imagination
Those who believe in sharing the myth of a chimney-hopping Santa, however, will offer this primary objection: Santa Claus is a source, and inspiration, of children’s imagination. He is. But only if they know Santa Claus is an imaginary figure.
We tell children stories to move their imaginations. We read them fables and C.S. Lewis and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Children know these stories to be fiction, but they still appreciate the fantasy. Distinguishing between imagined worlds and the one we inhabit doesn’t detract from their curious sense of wonder.
So Santa Claus doesn’t have to rally his reindeer to engage our curiosity. I knew fairies weren’t real either, but that didn’t stop me from making homes for them in the garden.
In eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous 1897 letter to the editor of a New York newspaper, she asks for the truth: “Is there a Santa Claus?” The editor, in prose that should inspire a reader of any age, tells the young girl not to lose faith. His response is the most-printed newspaper editorial to this day.
“The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see,” he writes. “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”
But what if we reserve our faith in the unseen for virtues, like love and trust, or religion? What if we were to choose it rightly, and keep it forever?
If Santa is real, all children must learn the truth and grow up. If he is an imaginary fellow, we can believe in him always. So no, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus. But that doesn’t mean you can’t leave him cookies.