I grew up in a house where we ate rabbit on Easter and deer at Christmas. Not that my mom was anti-religion, but more because she had an ironic sense of humor. I was raised Catholic, we celebrated the holidays, went to church, but I was never told to believe in mythical creatures that would leave chocolate bunnies in baskets or presents under a tree. But now that I have my own child I am starting to wonder if I should encourage her to believe in Santa, and if I missed out by never knowing to believe.
Part of what takes away from the innocence of the fantasy is the connection between Santa and materialism, because Christmas has become so intimately tied to consumerism. Having a child believe in Santa is not just about the magic of Christmas, but also the market. There is the mindset of Santa paraphernalia, Santa movies, sitting on Santa's lap at the mall, the branded Santa Coke cans, and now the proving of Santa by customized pictures you can order online. Giving your kids personalized evidence of Santa in your house to capture the magic seems like an extreme use of media manipulation to me, but maybe I am just cynical.
Here is where I am torn. On the one hand I understand that many children associate Santa with the charisma of Christmas. There is this fantastic story of a benevolent man who travels to your house and brings your hearts' desires for the cookies you left behind as an offering. Each family has their own ritual that stirs the imagination and ignites unparalleled feelings of expectation. You spend your night waiting to hear the hooves on your roof, and then wake up before sunrise to see your tree transformed with an explosion of elegantly wrapped gifts. In a way Santa can seem more real than God for a child. They are both old white men with beards that judge your behavior, but there is tangible verification that Santa has visited you.
But here are my reservations. The list of Santa's naughty or nice implies that if you are a nice person, you should be rewarded with goodies. But what about being good for goodness' sake? I always thought we should teach our children that the reward for being nice is the positive feelings that being nice inspires, and not because they will get something in return. And what about the fact that Santa gets all the credit for presents parents work hard to buy? I think it is important to have gratitude and thank mom and dad for their sacrifices rather than thinking that their new Xbox 360 just fell from the sky.
Yet before I could make a genuine assessment of how Santa affects the psyche of our children, I had to question some of my Santa-believing friends about their experiences. I was moved by how, with every person I asked, their eyes lit up with an intense twinkle as they described their personal ceremonial practice with the jolly man. For most, Santa was the closest to magic they ever got, and their memories are filled with an incomparable delight. It didn't seem to be about the presents or the vindication of good behavior, but the irreplaceable presentation of wonder that Santa and Christmas embodied.
I then thought back to my own childhood and remembered a very similar feeling the night before Christmas. There was something in the air; the collective energy of millions of children believing that the world is full of unexplainable enchantment. Maybe what our kids really love most about Christmas is that it is the time of year where they are allowed to truly live in their imaginations. And perhaps we parents have a nostalgia so deep for this mental freedom that we too get caught up in the thrilling delight of believing. Maybe the real gift of Santa is bringing families together to celebrate the beauty of belief and the remembrance that miracles are real.