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Having "the Talk" About Santa

I know parents who refuse to participate in the Santa thing because they don't want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.
12/04/2015 02:21pm ET | Updated December 4, 2016
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santa and baby

I know parents who refuse to participate in the Santa thing because they don't want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.

As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that's kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list -- and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones -- the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you've done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.

But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa, but older siblings know the whole truth. Or classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child.

Our middle child asked for "the truth" about Santa one year, and my husband shared it with her. Interestingly, the next year she acted as if the conversation had never happened. There's not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there's a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that's developmentally appropriate.

When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, "Well, the story goes that..." This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they're inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they're ready to push further, they will.

In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me -- to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter several years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent -- and trust me, you'll know when it's time for this conversation. I'm recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations -- in fact, it continues to unfold.


The story of Santa is just that -- a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas's generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church's way of honoring him.

And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.

The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it's a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you learning the "truth" about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell the story and live in it.

Yes, the story goes on -- it's just that you're in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. Maybe you'd like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.

There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That's OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the "truth." You can choose to do that if you want. But then you've taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won't take that choice away from them. They'll come to another place in the story when it is time.

When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that's not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus' life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus' story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That's OK too.

Over time, you will have questions about Jesus' story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus' miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and plenty of doubts, actually -- and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won't let me go. It's the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.