| 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
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
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.