Santa matters in those families where he has always mattered. My own parents’ conviction was always a little wobbly: no cookies, but stockings hung by the chimney. Somewhere along the line, my brother and I agreed to an unspoken don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, though when my mom yelled things like “Get your asses to bed! I’m stuffing these bloody stockings!” we had our doubts.
Instead, for reasons known only to them, my parents went all out for Easter. We were sent upstairs while they cranked Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” at full blast on the stereo. Then, as we peeked down through the slats on the staircase, my dad would go outside and knock loudly on the front door while my mother announced, between gales of laughter: “Why, it’s the Easter Bunny!” The sound of hopping ensued as chocolate eggs were scattered throughout the house. It sounds cynical, but it felt heavenly, a true expression of our family’s off-kilter abide-no-crap sensibility. After the hunt, we all sat laughing and gorging on our substances of choice – us: bunnies; them: wine. Praise Jesus! Whatever it was, it was a shared experience, a loving tradition, uniquely – this I’m sure of – ours.
My kids are three and four this year, and questions are arising. I’ve been vague about my relationship with Santa thus far, and I’m trying to figure out exactly why I can’t throw my arms around the guy, beyond the fact that my arms might be too short. A deep fear of bells? That House of Horrors cackle? Maybe it’s the sanctimonious finger-wagging: “You better watch out!” Maybe it’s the vile notion that good behaviour isn’t a reward in and of itself, but only a means to sleighloads of toys, milled in some sweatshop by elves demanding hot snacks made by Mrs. Claus, forever slaving, wage-free, over the hot, coal-fed cookie ovens.
Then there’s the obvious irritant that Santa has replaced Christ as the central figure of Christmas. When it comes to religious holidays, go big or go home: Give me some divine rapture, some midnight mass, some meaning, or I might as well keep hanging with the skeptics. What Santa has come to mean is consumption. And he’s no Michael Phelps, holding out for the best deal; the guy will shill for anything. I’ve seen Santa’s un-trademarked ho-ho-ho plastered on chocolate bars and toilet paper. It wasn’t always thus: Nicholas was born around 270 AD, and when his parents died, he turned to service, helping the poor and making miracles for the needy. Somewhere along the line, he morphed from an ascetic saint into the zaftig daddy figure of today, a jelly-bellied image solidified in a Coca-Cola campaign of the 1930s.
I’m sure my parents recoiled at Santa’s loyalty to soda, but also they came from a place of ’70s secular bohemianism that valued complete honesty and openness with their kids, man. Duplicity just didn’t fit into the counterculture world view; truth in children’s entertainment meant picture books about divorce and gay dads and impending nuclear war. Reality is necessary, but the trade-off was a damping down of a certain kind of magic that’s the birthright of kids.
So this year, I’m trying to get right with Santa. Cognitive scientists have pointed out that “imaginative play” is actually imperative for children’s development, particularly between the ages of one and six. When kids imagine a reality that includes Santa in his North Pole ice palace with all those psychedelic talking reindeer and comforting cuddly elves, they’re engaged in magical and fantastical thinking, a mode they’ll leave behind soon enough for the cold corridors of adult logic.
Children may even equate Santa with God, and why not? He’s omnipotent and indestructible, a rightness compass – and he comes from the sky! A child who suspends disbelief – and disbelief is everywhere; its opposite is rare – and trusts in Santa is engaged in her first act of faith, submitting to something inexplicable. Even when that child learns Santa isn’t real, those vestiges of faith remain. This may be why one 1992 research paper from the Yale Child Study Center showed that the vast majority of kids aren’t traumatized by the realization that Santa is a fake. Perhaps they’ve tasted belief, and feel comforted somehow by the idea of possible worlds, spiritual and otherwise.
I didn’t feel betrayed when I finally figured out 100 percent that there was no Santa (I think it was when my dad said: “By the way, your mother and I are Santa”). There’s something ritualistic about being inducted into the grown-up narrative, a pride in having solved the whodunit and crossed over to the adult side.
That same 1992 paper showed that it’s not children who mourn the loss of Santa, but parents. We associate Santa with innocence, and view the big reveal as the moment when our children’s purity ends, a reminder, maybe, of our own lost innocence.
But instead of projecting adult disappointment onto the Santa story, maybe we should let the big red moral titan point us back to that childhood sensation that the inconceivable is conceivable. Oh, how I want my kids to believe that anything is possible – for themselves, for others, for the planet. As they get older, we’ll come up with some holiday traditions about giving, and pull back on the getting. (It can’t start too soon: The other day, my son said, alarmingly, “You should ask Santa for a garage this year.”) I hope we’ll always come together at Christmas, maybe with our own goofy rituals, to let them know our family is a safe harbour, a sure thing. But I also want us to look outside our home – find some toys to donate; help sort some food at the local food bank; something, something – to make a reality out of the myth that we share a common story. Kids don’t have any problem giving over to something bigger than themselves; I see it every day as they spin their imaginations into fantastic tales. But in the chaos of the holidays, the rush and panic of events and the collision of cultures and traditions, it’s the adults who need to be reminded of magical thinking, right here, far from the North Pole.