It was bound to happen sooner or later.
After years of dodging the bullet with elaborate explanations of how Santa deploys state-of-the-art Supply Chain Management systems to deliver all those presents around the world in one night, my younger children finally got the truth out of me.
It happened during a walk at the dog park. Out of nowhere, my almost-nine year-old son Andrew turned to me and asked:
Mom – does Santa really exist?
I choked. His older sister, now eleven, knew the real deal, and was standing right there. I knew our days of Santa-belief were numbered, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go yet. Using a patented technique learned from years of therapy, I responded:
Well, what do you think?
Andrew paused, deep in contemplation.
Well, there’s no real evidence that Santa exists. Sure, there’s the presents, but those could just be from you and Dad. Plus, I just don’t see how Santa could go all around the world in one night. Especially with just reindeer to pull his sleigh.
I debated taking the time to draw process-flow diagrams of Santa’s delivery solutions. But I could tell that what my son really wanted was the truth. I was also impressed by his thought process, incorporating the search for evidence to support a claim and analysis of the feasibility of a given proposal. I turned to Andrew, gave a little sigh, and the gig was up.
Thus ended one era in our family, as my children moved one step closer to tweendom. There is a part of me that is mourning the loss of innocence (and also of the convenient scapegoat when the kids don’t get what they want for Christmas). But I also immediately started to worry what learning the truth about Santa might do to their views of faith more generally. Would learning that their parents had lied to them about Santa make my sons question whether we were lying to them about much bigger targets of belief – like God?
As we continued our walk, I decided to address the issue head on.
You know, just because Santa doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that there aren’t still things that are worth believing in, even if you don’t have hard evidence for them. It’s important to keep an open mind about things. Sometimes there are things in life that you can’t explain, that you just have to take on faith.
My daughter, who is not a huge fan of organized religion but is a dreamer, replied:
Of course! There’s still magic in the world. There’s mystery.
Exactly! I replied. Or, for example, for me, I can’t exactly explain what happened after Jesus died. Something happened that doesn’t make complete logical sense, and it happened so long ago that we are never going to be able to get the whole story, but I think something special happened that touched his followers, and continues to touch people today.
The kids all walked on silently for a minute. Then Andrew turned to Emmy:
Hey Emmy, did you put a bed into your Minecraft house yet?
I guess that’s about as good a response as I could expect.
I thought that was the end of the story, at least for this season, but the issue came up again a few days later. Despite my very clear instructions that the boys should NOT discuss their insights about Santa with their third grade friends, I found out that in fact the boys had leaked this information at school. While discussing Santa’s non-existence with a friend who had never believed in Santa, they were overheard by other classmates whose belief in Santa was still going strong. Their other friends directly asked them whether they believed in Santa. Not wanting to lie to their friends, they replied “No”. They were then promptly chased around the playground, with demands to recant their heretical lack of faith.
In other words – they were persecuted for their beliefs.
Well, not really. It was mostly in good fun, but the word did get back to me that the boys were spreading the bad news about Santa, and could they please cease and desist. We had stern words with the boys about not destroying the magic of Christmas for other families, and for ignoring our explicit instructions. We took away their screen time for a day as punishment.
But a part of me felt a bit bad for punishing them. Isn’t expressing belief, or lack of belief, in Santa, a form of free speech? If it was a case of an atheist child expressing his lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus, would it have been socially acceptable to ask the child to stop expressing that view?
Well this is of course where the parallel breaks down. Because there’s no way to conclusively prove the divinity (or lack thereof) of Jesus, while all you need to do to prove the Santa story is to look in the right spot in your parents’ closet. Santa is a parents’ sweet, well-intentioned lie, while Jesus (or God more generally) is humanity’s great unsubstantiated hope.
So I am confident that my children’s ultimate faith in God will not rise and fall on their faith in Santa. In fact, finding out about Santa doesn’t seem to have caused much damage at all. When I asked my daughter if Christmas is still magical without Santa, she said absolutely, because Santa isn’t the spirit of Christmas. Also, we can still look forward to Easter. As Andrew put it:
Well, I still believe in the Easter bunny. Although normally bunnies don’t lay eggs….