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What About Santa Claus?
  by Win and Bill Sweet

          Telling small children the story of Santa Claus as if it were gospel truth, and then continuing the fantasy for years as the children grow is traditional in our culture. Often parents do this without thinking, just because Santa Claus is a traditional part of Christmas, their parents practiced the tradition with them when they were children, and many other parents are also practicing the tradition. Since so many people are telling their children the story of Santa Claus, how could there be anything wrong?

         Many adults have shared with us that they felt betrayed by their parents when they found out the Santa Claus story was a hoax. They remember asking Santa in complete faith for certain gifts, and then trying really hard to be good, but the gifts weren’t under the Christmas tree. "What happened? Wasn't I good enough? Doesn't Santa like me? Tommy and Sue got what they wanted." Adult memories of Christmas morning disappointments and personal questioning was the theme of a movie a few years ago, and recently an anchor man on television related, "It was a major trauma for me to learn that the Santa Claus in the store was just a helper."

         This feeling of betrayal is not uncommon. Many adults have memories of the pain of learning they had been led to believe something that wasn’t true. These are wounds that have lasted into adulthood and in subtle ways affected life for them. Is there a way for your family to enjoy all the Christmas traditions without your children experiencing this kind of disappointment?

         There is definitely a risk in seriously telling children the story of Santa Claus coming from the North Pole in a sleigh with lots of toys in his pack, landing on their roof, coming down their chimney, and leaving gifts only if they are good, because this is a deception. Seriously guiding the children to put out cookies and milk, and then taking them away after the children have gone to sleep is also a deception. Yet these same parents would be angry and distressed if their children lied to and deceived them.

         The issue here is the serious deception of children who have matured enough to have definite expectations of Santa and his marvelous pack of gifts. To children who are quite small, stories of Santa Claus and his reindeer fit in right along side other fanciful stories such as The Cat in the Hat. Somehow little children know it's a game. All these stories fit into their imaginative world as play—fun to hear and daydream about. The little ones play with their toys and don't think about getting more on some future day called Christmas. This is a joyful time, and as the children grow, it seems wise for parents to help them peacefully move to another stage of understanding without engaging in deception and risking their disappointment, and perhaps, trauma.

         One approach for the next stage of understanding would be to present Santa as representing the spirit of Christmas giving—the spirit of Santa Claus. While the concept of Santa can drift into the wonderful world of imagination along with elves, unicorns, and The Cat in the Hat, the spirit of Santa can become the spirit behind a playful let's pretend game. In this Santa Claus game the emphasis on Santa Claus shifts from getting to giving.

         When your children are mature enough to understand and enjoy pretending, they are ready, with a little help from Mommy or Daddy, to pretend to be Santa Claus by giving a gift from Santa Claus to someone else. The fun of secretly knowing that they are the Santa that gave the surprise gift will delight them. In turn, when they receive a gift from Santa Claus, they can also delight in knowing that someone else is playing the game of pretending to be Santa Claus for them.

         The Santa Claus game ends with delightful memories; in contrast, the traditional Santa Claus fantasy often ends with disappointment and disillusionment. In fact, the Santa Claus game doesn't have to end. It can go on for many years, even into adulthood, with the same childlike delight each time the pretend Santa gives in secret. The secret may only last a few moments, but the happy memories of family fun with this Santa Claus game can last a lifetime.

         The story of Santa Claus with his bottomless pack perpetuates the expectation of infinite getting of whatever one puts on the list for Santa and encourages self-centeredness. Even making the list is risky business, because a child could be devastated if everything on it isn't under the tree on Christmas morning. The naughty or nice aspect of Santa's supposed giving can set up needless fears and anxieties in children who take Santa seriously. This whole scenario puts parents in a very awkward position. Could it be that the true spirit of Santa Claus is to give unconditionally just because you are you?

         The Santa Claus game relieves the possibility of financial stress, because parents need not get caught up in trying to fulfill the fantasy of the Santa Claus story. Parents attempting to make the fantasy come true cannot explain that Santa Claus can't afford the toys the children want; therefore, they often become susceptible to the marketing ploys of toy companies, spending far more than is wise at Christmas time. The budget is strained, sometimes for months, and family stress results. Children unknowingly feel the stress, and therefore, are burdened as well. Children are very sensitive to the undercurrents in their home. An important principle of parenting is to choose long-term value (no stress) over short-term comfort (unwisely giving the latest fad gifts just because the children have been hypnotized into believing there are particular toys they must have). Giving the children a household free of stress can be the best Christmas gift of all.

         By adopting for your family a non-traditional approach to Santa Claus, you have an opportunity to demonstrate to your children that your family does special things, and, at the same time, they are also learning important principles. This is also an opportunity for your children to learn to keep certain traditions and family practices special within the family, and to honor the fact that other families' traditions may be different and the privacy of other families should also be respected.

         We suggest that, as your children become ready, you gracefully transform the cultural Santa Claus into a deception-free Santa Claus game. The children will love to play the game because they'll feel important and valuable. Mom and Dad can also enjoy Santa without the usual stress of pulling off the traditional Santa Claus thing. In your family Santa will be transformed into an enduring symbol of the joy of unconditional giving.




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