Santa Claus: the jolly harbinger of merriment, commerce and deceit, and the subject of many, many (too many?) movies. Where did he come from? A Dutch legend? A Middle Eastern fable? A Coca-Cola ad? It doesn’t really matter, because that guy is not going anywhere. And I, frankly, am here for it.
I believed in Santa in a hardcore fangirl way until fifth grade, and it seems I’ve passed this on to my 11-year-old son, who still believes wholeheartedly in Santa (and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny). He may be among the last of his friends to still believe, but he chugged the Kool-Aid that Santa “only comes to those who believe in him,” and he’s hanging on.
“When are we going to tell him?” my husband asks, anxious about my son being made fun of. “He’s going to be so mad that you lied to him for so long,” my mother warns. “He’s just scamming you for extra presents,” my friend tells me. And I get it: Logically, it’s probably time to break the news to him. But I’ve decided not to have “the Santa talk” with him this year.
Maybe you think that’s terrible, that I’m hindering his maturity with fantasy. There are experts who would agree with this sentiment. Psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay published an article in The Lancet in 2016 that warned: “All children will eventually find out they’ve been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they’ve been told.” Their concern is that the Santa myth may undermine the bond of trust between parents and children. They also point out that an omniscient North Pole judge who watches you, even as you sleep, is a terrifying concept.
All of that sounds right ― the idea of an all-seeing, all-judging guy from on high is terrifying. It gets kids to behave (and adults, too; that’s why various religions have used essentially the same concept to try to control human behavior for millennia).
Several essays written in response to Boyle and McKay’s piece argue that they offered no accounts of children feeling so betrayed by their parents that it caused a deep mistrust of them. But many people still see Boyle and McKay’s overall point as a reason that kids shouldn’t believe in Santa at all.
Another article I read claimed that while your child very well might be teased by other kids for believing in Santa, the bigger issue is that your kid will absorb the wrong lessons about Christmas. It turns the holiday into an exercise of getting something for being good, rather than being good because you’re giving. I admit that’s a solid point, but it’s still not strong enough to sway me, the die-hard Santa hype man.
Here’s the thing: My son is a kid who loves being a kid. Childhood is a precious and short time in our long lives, and my son seemed to understand that at an early age. At 7, he expressed his intention to hang on to his childhood for as long as possible. “Can’t I just stay a kid?” he asked one night after I read him yet another chapter in yet another “Magic Tree House” book. I’m sure I answered him with something sappy along the lines of “You can always be a child at heart.” But I got where he was coming from ― I mourned the loss of my own childhood big-time, and a major factor in that grief was the fading magic of Christmas.
“'Can’t I just stay a kid?' he asked one night. I’m sure I answered him with something sappy along the lines of 'You can always be a child at heart.' But I got where he was coming from.”
Puberty, with all its misery, is about to wreak havoc on my son, squeezing the child out of him as it dazzles him with hormones and body hair. So this is it ― the final curtain call for childhood, and he’s in the wings asking for an extended run.
I understand that he is going to have to let it go at some point. But there is another big reason I’m holding on for one more year, and it’s something I never had to deal with as a kid.
Our city instituted a “stay home” order for the pandemic on the day of my son’s ninth birthday party. The childhood that he so cherished was yanked out from under him, and he was left with no friends, no school and no play dates. We drove across the country and stayed with my parents, which meant that suddenly, my son was surrounded only by adults and older people.
For two years his young life was destabilized and put on hold. There is no way I can make up for the loss of those two years ― for all the friendships and fun, parties and adventures, school activities and playtime that he lost.
A study from August 2021 suggested that rates of anxiety and depression had doubled in children since the start of the pandemic. The effects have so far proved long-lasting, with results ranging from developmental regressions to behavioral issues. But I would argue that most of the effects cannot be quantified by statistics or measured in a study. Since the pandemic, my son has shown a reluctance to lose himself in play, especially around his peers. He’s afraid to stand out, or even be noticed. He’s shyer, quieter, and more likely to hang with adults at a party then go off with the other kids. Despite desperately wanting to hold on to his childhood, it tragically feels as though he’s forgotten how to just be a kid.
The last “normal” year of school my son had was second grade. He is now in sixth grade. The reality of what he has had to give up due to the pandemic is hard even to imagine, and I’m certain we’ll be seeing the consequences for years to come. The two-plus years we’ve spent with our lives upended was hard for adults, but for many kids, it was 25% (or more) of their lives. To a 40-year-old, it’d be like spending 10 years in lockdown. I know that in time, this experience is going to become just another part of my son’s longer story and larger identity, but I mourn my carefree kid.
Adulthood is coming for him. He will grow, he will change, and he will give up childish things. But I’m not pushing him to do it before he is ready. I will allow him to be a child ― to believe in Santa and all the magic that surrounds him ― at least for one more year. I think we could all use a little more magic in our lives right now.
So if you happen to see my son, no matter what your opinion on Santa is, please: Shhh!
Robin Reiser is a comedian, writer and storyteller. She has appeared on NBC, E! and the Oxygen network, and has written for stage and screen. Her storytelling can be heard on many podcasts, including “Risk” and “The Only One in the Room.” She is working on a humorous memoir about being an awful teenager. Robin lives with her son and husband in Los Angeles and Connecticut.