How To Teach Kids The Awful Truth About Christmas (Maybe)

December 4, 2013

What do you do when your kids find out…022_acs_041_santa_4

…the awful truth…

…you know, about Christmas?  About Santa?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I can identify with all the other teachers out there.  It’s that time of year when kids restart the eternal debate.  On the one side, the kids who still possess their childlike faith.  On the other side, the kids who possess only worldly cynicism.  Both sides will argue endlessly until a teacher threatens to cancel Christmas.  Funny how both sides seem to believe a teacher can do that when presents are on the line.

Maybe the eternal Santa debate is good practice for the future when kids will feel the need to defend their faith from all perceived threats (or debunk someone else’s faith because anyone whose beliefs are contrary to their own is seen as a threat.)

As a non-parent, I fantasize now and again about some of the momentous days my children might one day have and how I might handle them.  The day they learn the truth about Santa is not a day I dread but anticipate.  Here’s why.

The Most Loving Thing

Some parents, who I have no doubt have great motivations and love for their kids, tell their toddlers up front the truth about Santa, for a myriad of reasons.  I am doing nothing to second guess their parenting or circumstances.

But I would just like to consider the why of Santa verses no-Santa for a moment though, if you will indulge me.

Some people say the most loving thing you can do is tell someone the truth.  In other words, if you love your kids, you’ll stop lying to them about Santa and tell them the truth immediately.  I say that such reasoning sounds an awful lot like certain notorious preachers, justifying themselves right after they’ve just proclaimed that millions of charismatic Christians are going to hell.

No, my problem with the “tell the truth” reasoning is that no parent is entirely truthful with their kids.  Kids all make liars out of us. Not only is not keeping secrets from kids not practical, it can be cruel.  Corrie Ten Boom gives a great illustration in The Hiding Place of how her father protected her by not telling her the whole truth of the world.  Her little child mind could not carry that burden, and he knew it.  So he sheltered her from the truth until she was ready for it.

So if we are going to tell our kids the truth, we may need to either reevaluate our motivations or our consistency.

Childhood Trauma

When I learned the truth about Santa, let’s say it was not pretty.  I threw a bit of a tantrum.  I felt a little traumatized.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the experience scarred me in any permanent way.  I didn’t become a jaded, world-weary, cigarette smoking fourth grader.  Life moved on.  I did not become confused about the difference between Santa and Jesus.  I did not suddenly mistrust every adult.

And I cannot imagine being a child without Santa.  He only lasted a few short, happy years.  We have far more Christmases without Santa than we had with him.

I don’t know how my future child will react to the news.  They might quietly come to their own realization.  Some other parent’s loudmouth kid might blow the lid on the school playground.

The parents who inspire me most don’t let Santa take over Christmas or overshadow Jesus.  But they also don’t ignore Santa or pretend he doesn’t exist.

They use Santa.

Mom and Dad’s Little Helper

For a few years, Santa gets to stand in for Mom and Dad.  He signs his name while two other people stand behind the curtain.  And what I want my kids to understand is that the truth of Santa is not a betrayal.  Santa is a testimonial of how much Mom and Dad love them.  Kids will wonder how Mom and Dad are having a good time on Christmas when they don’t get nearly the number of presents that they do.  And Mom and Dad will say, “You will understand when you have little kids of your own who you love.”

That is the real truth about Santa.  And from the day my child is born, I will look forward to telling him or her these things, not because I want to get Santa over-with.  But because every year that the illusion continues, the narrative of my love for my children will be written.

Parents can love their kids without Santa.  But I want to show my kids what he’s really about.

He’s not about stuff.  He’s about love.

What do you think?  Are / were you a Santa or no-Santa family?  What is the best way you’ve seen Santa used by parents in a meaningful way?

5 responses to How To Teach Kids The Awful Truth About Christmas (Maybe)

  1. I once read an article from Christianity Today from years ago (early 80s maybe?) that nt former pastor had kept and past along to others. It advocated for parents to celebrate Halloween and play Santa. The author discussed the importance of developing imagination in our kids. And how the ability to dream and play and create and celebrate is just as important to a life of faith as the ability to understand truth. Having read your book, that seems like a perspective that would resonate with you.

    We do a few things to keep the balance with our kids.

    One is that mom and dad, and not Santa, are the ones who get them “the big gift” of the year. Santa fills stockings and sometimes overflows a bit to the mantle, but he doesn’t take over the central focus.

    The other is that we relate Santa to history, and talk about his bringing toys to kids who don’t have very many. (This also will become useful later, when it comes time to explain the tradition. A friend of mine has used a historical picture book and found that it keeps kids still excited about Santa even when they know.) Anyway, at the beginning of December, at St Nick’s Day, Santa delivers a large bag to our house. Throughout the month, we use it to collect toys from our house that we no longer need or want or play with. Then Santa not only delivers gifts to us but takes those toys from us in order to pass them along to other kids who need them. (I can’t take credit for this idea. I read it on an Advent Conspiracy site years ago. We adopted the tradition and love it.)

    I think you’re right. It doesn’t need to be an awful truth or a scary tradition. Santa can easily be incorporated into a thoughtful Christmas.
    Stephanie Spencer recently posted..Love not just sent but birthed

  2. Santa, was a part of our Christmases, though as you say, we didn’t make him the focus of CHRISTmas. And I should say I don’t know how our children came to their own determination of the truth, but there was no big “reveal” by us. Perhaps it was school conversations, or their own maturity… one season, our youngest mentioned (a little tentatively) that she knew the truth. I think both she and I were a little afraid to bring it up, as it meant the end of that particular chapter of childhood. There is something special about believing in something or someone that you can’t necessarily see, but you see evidence of their presence… Hmmm…. :)
    Holly recently posted..An Evening of Gratitude

  3. Matt–great article. My kids are grown now, but Santa came for years–mostly because I have always had an unshakeable belief in the generosity of the human spirit. Santa can help us learn to be more generous. I loved “playing Santa” after the candlelight service when the house was quiet and my husband was asleep. I always took a photo of my finished work—it was a gift I could give to my family. We handled Santa’s visit similar to Stephanie–Santa could bring one special gift that would be left unwrapped by the tree and filled the stockings. The big gift (the Nintendo 64, for example) came from Mom and Dad. The kids asked for the sweetest things–at four, my daughter asked for a butterfly net. We did all the Santa stuff–left out cookies and milk, carrots for the reindeer and scattered magical, glittery “Reindeer Food” (dry oatmeal flakes and glitter) on the lawn just before going to bed.

    Bigger than Santa, the Advent Wreath filled our house with weekly readings (and a few scuffles over whose turn it was to light the candles). I have an old, worn Golden Book that had daily readings, beginning with Isaiah’s prophecies. The kids aren’t home through Advent, but now that I’ve recalled this, I think I need to get that book out.

    As the kids grew older, and the “fourth-grade reality” set in, Santa became a metaphor for spreading kindness without self-seeking. I still take photos of the tree when the house is quiet and the presents are all in place, and the stockings are filled with helpful things that young adults needs but I work in retail, so I focus on treating my clients kindly and keeping a thick skin when the commercialism gets too crass.

    For the past two season, I have dressed in cos-play as Mrs. Claus (I’m short and pudgy and have grey hair. When I put on my white-trimmed red velvet dress, black boots and pull on my white gloves, I can feel a change—I am more open, more aware of others, more prepared to let God’s love flow through me. It is an honor to interact with children who still tremble with naive belief. Barriers fall when I am Mrs. Claus.

    I don’t regret letting Santa into our house. I’ve done what I can to assist my children with their faith, and now they have to find their own way. I do know that my kids understand that saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” isn’t nearly important as what is inside their hidden hearts.

  4. We try very hard to keep the focus on Jesus and we have been doing it more and more as the kids grow older. When they were younger, we had Santa fill stockings because the poem “Night Before Christmas” has Santa filling the stockings with care. And that was also a staple poem in our house, along with a bunch of Our Santa did a pretty good job of stocking stuffers–LEGOs as wells as candy and oranges and sometimes either a book or a DVD. But we also linked Santa with St. Nicholas, the REAL guy who helped a poor man marry off his three daughters by giving them a dowry from his own inheritance because of his love for Jesus. And whenever they would ask us if Santa was real, we would ask them what THEY thought and let them come to their own decision. This will be the first Christmas that not one child of mine believes in Santa. I am okay with that. We will still fill the stockings and give them presents and show love to each other in ways big and small.
    tandemingtroll recently posted..Etiquette Matters follow up

  5. I fall in the “Santa” category, and I agree with what you’ve said. Santa isn’t about stuff. It’s about love. When my kids were smaller, they were aware of how little we had, and they worried if we spent “too much” on them. They’ve always been perceptive little things… Santa offered us an out. By labeling a few gifts with his name, the kids anxiety was lowered.

    In the later years, money wasn’t so tight, and those anxieties were alleviated, but we kept Santa around because he was FUN. We made cookies for Santa and laid them out carefully. It was a chance for my kiddos to give back- to provide the jolly man with a treat, and to show their caring for someone else. It was a chance for them to feel as if someone outside their immediate family cared about them, and that’s powerful stuff to instill into a young mind.

    I don’t know any child who actually gets coal or nothing at all from Santa (unless it’s in a family who doesn’t celebrate, but that’s not the same)… I don’t know anyone who believes in Santa who has gotten passed over for “being bad”. In short, it instilled in my kids a sense that they were inherently lovable. Not always “good” in a righteous sense, but that they were worthy of love. This set an early foundation for the acceptance of the love Jesus showed us all on the cross, and couched the lesson in a fun story that was age-appropriate at the time.
    For that alone, I thank Santa, and believe that celebrating the season with Santa is a good and positive tradition.