Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 6, 2005

Bittersweet moment of Santa Claus truth

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” ~ Shirley Temple Black

Fellow columnist Dina Campeau’s treatise on the challenges of talking with their teenaged children about their own experiences with sex, drugs, and alcohol made me think about another difficult topic many parents face: talking with the ten-and-under set about Santa Claus.

At least, it was a difficult topic for me. Some folks despise the Santa Claus myth, thinking Old St. Nick’s turn in the spotlight conflicts with the biblical Christmas story. Others believe it’s a lovely tradition that distills the spirit of giving into a mythic figure who is easily understandable by children.

Me? Perhaps foreshadowing the cynic I was to become, I never believed in Santa Claus. I don’t think that my parents, evangelical fundamentalist Christians, were too enthusiastic in selling Santa. But it wasn’t all my parents’ fault.

My main problem was that I didn’t understand why there was a difference in the wish fulfillment between rich kids and poor kids if Santa was truly basing gift distribution on who was naughty and who was nice. I also had trouble with the logistics of delivering gifts around the world in one night, fitting down chimneys (not to mention issues about tree and stocking access in homes without fireplaces), and flying reindeer, to name a few parts of the Santa story that required extensive suspension of disbelief. I simply declined to suspend it.

Once we had children and had to deal with this thorny issue, John and I agreed that we’d tell our kids about Santa Claus; most of their cousins were steeped in the story, and it felt like we’d be spoilers if we didn’t participate. We did tweak the story a bit: We told our kids that Santa filled their stockings, but the presents under the tree came from friends and family.

Then came last Christmas. Our daughter, a true believer in Santa, came downstairs on Christmas morning to find only some carrot tops, a scattering of cookie crumbs, and a few drops of milk remaining of the treat she’d carefully set out for Santa and his reindeer the night before. She excitedly looked for the thank-you note Santa always left – and stopped short as she began to read. She looked at me accusingly and demanded to know why I had written Santa’s thank-you note. I hadn’t done as good a job of disguising my handwriting as I thought.

It was a watershed moment for me. My youngest child no longer believed in Santa Claus, and I was not going to try to convince a 9-year-old to continue to believe the myth. Many of her friends had already stopped believing.

So, my husband and I gently told her the truth: that all the presents in her stocking came from Mom and Dad, that Santa Claus was a myth who represented the spirit of giving and sharing and unselfishness, but that, no, he was not a real person, no elf-staffed factory was located at the North Pole, and no species of reindeer can fly.

She looked a little disappointed for a moment, but then the wheels began to spin. I could almost see the thoughts fly across her forehead like a news ticker as she realized that if Santa wasn’t real, then the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were probably not real either. She asked, we confirmed.

She admitted that she had harbored doubts about Santa’s existence since the previous Christmas; she had been hearing from other kids that Santa wasn’t real, but the note with the poorly disguised handwriting was irrefutable evidence.

It’s a sad fact of life for those of us who tell our kids about Santa that someday they’ll learn the truth. While on the whole that’s a good thing – the picture of a 30-year-old true believer in Santa Claus is a pathetic one – but the moment of truth is still difficult.

Campeau wrote that parents can employ one of three strategies when answering difficult questions about their own experiences with sex, drugs, and alcohol: honesty, deflecting the questions, or lying. Parents have similar choices when it comes time to answer tough questions about Santa. I think we made the right decision.

“There are three stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus.” ~ Bob Phillips

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