Having "The Talk" about Santa

medium_4188008601There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don't want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives. As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that's kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you've done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.

But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?

Our middle child asked for "the truth" about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she's acting as if the conversation never happened. There's not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there's a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that's OK.

Still, if you're truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don't insist that the guy at the mall is the "real" Santa. Don't answer a kid's critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.

When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, "Well, the story goes that..." This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they're inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they're ready to push further, they will.

In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me---to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you'll know when it's time for this conversation). I'm recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations---in fact, it continues to unfold.

The story of Santa is just that---a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas's generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church's way of honoring him.

And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.

The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it's a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the "truth" about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.

Yes, the story goes on---it's just that you're in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you'd like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)

There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That's OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the "truth." You can choose to do that if you want. But then you've taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won't take that choice away from them. They'll come to another place in the story when it is time.

When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that's not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus' life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus' story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That's OK too.

Over time, you will have questions about Jesus' story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus' miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won't let me go. It's the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.


photo credit: cuellar via photopin cc

Santa Lives! Plus Video

A couple of years ago, I read a blog entry by a woman whose son had just "figured out" Santa. I can't find it now, but the post was a lovely letter to her son in which she explained that he had learned something very important: You now know that magic can come from other people---that each of us and all of us can be bringers of magic to one another. I don't resonate with magic language, but I think she's right: it's not that magic has ceased to exist. Instead, we are the creators of it. Something like that, anyway. We don't make a big deal out of Santa in our house. Santa brings a gift or two and fills stockings on Christmas morning, but we don't write letters to him or visit him or anything like that. He's everywhere this time of year, so they get plenty of indoctrination without our help.

When Caroline started inquiring seriously about Santa, I explained it to her in terms of Story. (Not a big surprise if you know me.) I told her the story of Saint Nicholas, and how Santa is a character that was inspired by a real person and has lasted all these years because it is such a powerful and beautiful story. Then I said that now she is in a different part of the story. She used to be one of the people who received gifts and joy from Santa, but now she gets to both receive that joy and give it to other people, most notably her siblings. So she helped pick out stocking stuffers for James, for example.

(I have no idea whether she got that, of course. I think there is some wistfulness there. But wistfulness is not enough to convince me that Santa is some pernicious lie that we tell our children. She doesn't feel deceived, just nostalgic.)

This year both girls wanted American Girl dolls. We had already planned to buy new bikes for James and Margaret this year, and Caroline is still angling for a telescope, and for a variety of reasons, new AG dolls just weren't going to happen. But a friend of mine found out about this and offered us her college-age daughter's dolls---one for each of my girls, plus accessories. A few days before Christmas, we received two big boxes full of Felicity and Kaya and a wood table and chairs and a tea set and a horse and a tepee and books and more.

It really was overwhelmingly wonderful, and that was just my reaction!

This is a perfect example of what I tried to explain to Caroline---that the Santa story is a story we participate in---and we participate in different ways as we age. My friend chose to give some joy to two little girls rather than mothball her daughter's toys, or sell them on eBay. And because Caroline knows the full story of Santa, I was able to share with her the origins of this year's Christmas gift. Someday I will share the story with Margaret too.

On Christmas evening, I asked if they wanted to say thank you to Santa (or in Caroline's case, "Santa.") Since I know Santa reads this blog, I will include their video here. [One note of explanation: Margaret is going on about the Bitty Baby high chair because that's what Kaya sat in when the dolls had tea together. The other chair that Santa sent needs some repairs.]

I also want to say Thank You to Santa.


So Be Good for Goodness' Sake

A member of the church sent me this article as a response to some of the themes we've been discussing in our Advent Conspiracy study. I was especially interested in this 1984 experiment:

The children were asked to tell stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or their pets. They were then given nine pieces of gum and “encouraged to donate any amount of their gum to handicapped children.”

The kindergartners, who were clearly not yet into sharing, tended to hold onto their gum. But the first-graders were far more generous, and those who had been discussing Santa were the most giving of all. They gave up an average of 3.63 pieces of gum, compared to 1.3 pieces for those who talked about the Easter Bunny and 1.63 for those who discussed their pets.

The study's authors surmise that the "Santa kids" display the most generous behavior because “children perceive Santa Claus — but not the Easter Bunny — as a contingent gift-giver, assessing the quality of a child’s behavior before determining the nature of gifts... Alternately, children may see Santa Claus as more generally vigilant than the Easter Bunny.”

That seems very likely, especially since many parents use Santa Claus as a carrot and a stick at Christmastime. I suspect this was even more true in the 1980s than now.

However, it is also possible that the story of Santa's giving inspires giving. I'd like to think that is a factor; in fact, I have read studies that strongly suggest this. People learn and exhibit empathy when they are intentionally exposed to people in need and to stories of extravagant generosity. To be frank, this idea is pretty foundational for me as a Christian minister---that the epic story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection effects a transformation in the lives and hearts of its listeners, such that they are moved to "go and do likewise."

But if that were the case---that stories of generosity inspire generosity---how do we understand the discrepancy between the "Santa children" and the "Easter Bunny children"? There are all sorts of possible reasons:

  • The quality of the stories. The Santa story is much more deeply resonant with children than the Easter Bunny.
  • Along those same lines, the Santa myth is grounded in a historical person, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And I think the myth carries the weight of that historicity, even when the listeners don't know the source material. Stories are powerful and mysterious that way.
  • The Easter Bunny is an animal, giving the story much less of an aspirational quality. What, I'm supposed to emulate a rabbit?
  • Generally speaking, Santa displays an abundance of generosity (toys, candy and stocking stuffers) that the Easter Bunny does not (a basket of candy).

What do you think?

By the way, I never realized until I typed the title how contradictory that verse of the song. "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good." Then comes the line in the title.

But wait---is it contradictory? I think it all comes down to the punctuation. When viewed like this:

So be good, for goodness sake!

It's totally in keeping with the song. It's a threat---be good, or else. (And how many folks do we know who still cling to that view of God?)

But when viewed like this, it's totally different:

So be good for goodness' sake.

Be good... for the sake of goodness. Not because you get anything in return. It's like a little glimmer of good news and a faithful bit of ethics right in the middle of "Boogeyman gonna get ya" theology. I'll take the glimmers and bits where I can get them.

A Christmas Poem

This is a busy time of year for churches and for clergy---often an unexpectedly heavy time as well. In light of that, we'll be keeping it light here at the Blue Room for the next few weeks. Here's something I wrote for Caroline for Christmas a few years back. Every single one of my kids is or was afraid of Santa Claus. One thing that the previous church I served does well is connect Santa with the story of Saint Nicholas, which is a religious story. This poem grows out of all of that.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The family was sleeping, the daddies and mamas, And three little children in footy pajamas. Caroline was the older of the two little girls, She was dreaming of MaDear and cute flying squirrels.*

She woke up at twelve, and said, yawning, “I think I’d better get up and get something to drink.” She crept down the hall, turned on the night light, Heard noises downstairs and thought “Something’s not right.”

The sound was a tinkling of bells and a boot So she tiptoed downstairs in careful pursuit, Her first clue was there on the table she passed: A small empty plate and an empty milk glass!

And that’s when she saw him, right there in the room Though it was quite hard to see in the darkness and gloom. He turned and smiled brightly, and that’s when she froze: Too frightened to move, from her head to her toes.

“Well hello,” Santa smiled, “my sweet Caroline, Are you enjoying Christmas? Having a good time?” But Caroline just stared. She couldn’t quite speak--- She tried to respond but her voice just went “Squeak!”

Then she cleared her throat, coughed, and tried speaking once more, “You scare me,” she whispered, her eyes toward the floor. He nodded and sighed, stroked his beard with his hand, And said, “Don’t you worry; I quite understand.

“Just look at me! Why, with this beard long and hairy And giant red suit, well I’m sure I look scary. But listen, there’s something I need you to hear: I work for somebody who loves you, my dear!

“I work for Jesus, sharing God’s peace I give so the spirit of Christmas will increase! For seventeen centuries I’ve been spreading joy To kids through the ages, to girls and to boys.

“Before there were airplanes, or light bulbs, shampoo, Before there were bicycles, cupcakes, or YOU! I’ve been hard at work, heeding Christ’s call To do what I can to spread goodness to all.

“But that’s it!” said St. Nick. “I’ve scared my last kid! I’m ditching this suit. Of this beard I’ll be rid!” And he marched to the bathroom and shaved off that beard, And changed his clothes also, and then reappeared.

In a T-shirt and blue jeans he looked pretty plain Just like any old guy you might meet down the lane. And Caroline thought, “There’s no reason for fright; I guess that this Santa guy must be all right!”

Then Santa Claus said with a smile, “Here’s a thought! Will you help me this evening? I still have a lot Of people to help, of kids to make smile, I’d sure like your company with me a while.”

And Caroline said “Sure!” and slipped on some shoes, And zipped with St. Nick up the fireplace flue. Nestled down in the sleigh with a quilt on her lap With the reindeers in charge they took off in a snap!

They rose o’er the trees, to a sparkling sky And a view of the world that delighted her eye: Just look at this beautiful, wonderful earth Just waiting to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

They spent the whole evening delivering toys Making sure to give things that each person enjoys. But they didn’t stop there, they gave help to the poor (The very best part of their long midnight tour.)

At the end of the night, Santa brought her back down To her house in the midst of the just-waking town, And she gave him a hug and said “God bless St. Nick, Who gives help to the needy and lonely and sick.”

Her family found her asleep in the den, And she said, “I helped Santa! I’d do it again! We all should love others, give comfort and aid; It’s what God really wants for this world that God made!”

Then Caroline thought, “Was it all just a dream? Maybe it was… but how real it did seem!” The parents, they doubt her, the family disputes, ‘Til they see in the corner: a pair of black boots.

* an inside joke