Was Santa Claus a part of your childhood? He was definitely a big part of mine (bigger than Jesus for most of my very-young days, in fact). It was only natural, then, that my wife and I would want Santa to be part of our kids’ childhood as well. But therein lies the dilemma: Santa is not real, and we didn’t want to lie to our kids. So we found a way to have fun with Santa, without ever lying about him.
The trick is quite simple: when you first introduce your kids to Santa, you mention that it’s a game people play around Christmas time. You don’t make an issue of it (any more than you would belabor the point that hide-and-seek is “just a game”), you simply mention it in passing. You then proceed to do all the Santa things that other parents do. You might mention the word “game” once or twice a year, but other than that you simply play along with the usual Santa conventions.
We did that with our kids, and I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my teenaged daughter a year or so ago. We were discussing the fact that many parents lie to their kids, and then the kids feel disillusioned when they find out Santa’s not real. Suddenly, my daughter’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at me accusingly and said, “Hey, that’s right, you lied to us about Santa.”
“No we didn’t,” I replied. “We told you from the very beginning it was just a game.”
Her mouth dropped open, and I could see the light go on, and she said, “Oh, yeaaaahhh…”
At that moment I knew that our kids had experienced every bit of the wonder, the excitement, and the fun of Santa Claus, just like the kids who really believed in him. The “magic” was no less for our kids than for the fooled kids, and I would say that our kids had it better, because their experience was untroubled by any nagging doubts. They never had to face the disillusionment of finding out Santa was a fake, because they knew all along he wasn’t supposed to be really real.
What made this experience especially valuable to our children was that it gave us a chance to explain to them that some parents take advantage of their kids’ natural gullibility, and fool them–not out of wickedness or cruelty, but because they want to pass on what they experienced when they were kids, and were deceived by their parents. Despite the later disillusionment, they treasure the “magic” of Santa so much that they want to share it with their kids. And this is precisely how and why some parents raise their kids to be Christians.
Different people have different opinions about Santa Claus, but I encourage reality-minded parents to play the Santa game with their young children. It’s a fun way to instill a valuable object lesson about how and why people pass on beliefs that make them feel good, even though reality doesn’t quite fit the belief. What’s more, you can explain to your kids how to talk to Santa-believing peers, and explain to them a little bit about how unpleasant it’s going to be when those kids find out they’ve been deceived by someone they trusted. Tolerance and respect need to be taught early, and the Santa myth gives us a good chance to plant those seeds.