I always say yes when they ask me if I like the outfit they chose for themselves, even when Christmas sweaters are paired with swimming trunks and galoshes. I grit my teeth and shake my head when they tearfully ask me if I am angry at them for drawing on the white-lacquered kitchen table with permanent marker. I tell them their dreams can come true, even when I know that life simply isn't long or fair enough to allow everyone to achieve all they set out to do.
And now that we are in the midst of the holiday season, I have to perpetuate the biggest, longest, most complicated lie I have ever told in my life: the myth of Santa Claus.
Here is my household's version of Santa Claus in a nutshell: Santa Claus is a magical humanoid-shaped elf who lives in the North Pole. On Christmas Eve, he rides around the world in his sleigh, delivering presents to the all the children of the world who made it on the Good List this year. Children do not have to be good all the time to get on the Good List, they just need to have a good heart and try hard (in other words, the bar is low). Children are allowed to write to Santa and inquire about their Good/Naughty status, as well as request ONE gift (Mommy and Daddy have to make a photocopy of it before it is sent because that is what we do for all important legal documents). And on Christmas Eve, you can track Santa's progress on NORAD. In fact, a few years ago when he was a Google employee, Daddy spent Christmas Eve working for Santa. Therefore, Santa is real. QED.
All other details, like how the elves spend the rest of the year assembling toys, mall Santas, or that stalker creep Elf on a Shelf, I hand-wave as apocryphal sideshows. They may or may not be true, because Santa is a mysterious creature and no one truly knows everything about him; but if their friends believe, then it's best to just let them do so and not spoil someone else's holiday.
I thought this version was pretty airtight, but my son, Isaac, when he was around eight, kept asking questions: Who gave Santa the job of giving toys to everyone? And if Santa has the power to deliver to every household in one night, why couldn't he do repeat routes to distribute food to the needy, or deliver the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book to every household the night it comes out?
Such questions made Mama's eyelid twitch, because she never intended to get this knee-deep in fibs in the first place. So I answered the way all cowardly parents do, by asking him, "I actually don't know how. What do you think?" and we made hypotheses, researched time travel, wizardry, magic, and Isaac walked away appeased.
He is in fourth grade now, and he still believes, despite being pretty discerning and skeptical in other realms. Will he hold it against me for allowing him to believe for so long, when he finally does discover the truth?
I have an acquaintance who created a very sticky situation for herself with her daughter. It all started innocently, a short note under her pillow from the Tooth Fairy congratulating her on her first lost tooth accompanied by a shiny quarter. Her daughter insisted on writing back, and thus started years of correspondence between her and the Tooth Fairy, each letter getting longer and more personal, the mythos becoming more and more complicated to uphold. In these letters, her daughter would open up and talk about things going on in her life that she wouldn't tell her mother – her hopes and fears, things that happened in school, how she felt when her parents argued. Until one day, her daughter heard from a classmate that the Tooth Fairy wasn't real. She tearfully asked her mom point-blank for the truth: had the Tooth Fairy been writing to her all this time, or was it actually her? Her mother confessed, and all at once, her daughter's childhood naiveté just vaporized. Although she got over it emotionally, she stopped all her little-girl play and fantasizing then.
So, knowing all of this, why did I start?
First and foremost, Santa is a major part of American culture. I cannot think of any way you can raise your kids here without encountering him. In fact, polls have shown that 91% of white people and 72% of people of color believed in him as a child. Even being an immigrant myself, I settled here early enough to believe in Santa for a couple of years. And although my personal feelings towards Santa are mixed, I do not care enough to want to be the solitary Santa-atheist asshole family in the neighborhood.
In addition to the cultural literacy aspect, I do have to admit Santa makes Christmas a lot more fun. Assuming you don't go overboard and concentrate on the materialistic part of the holidays, Christmas is chock-full of charming traditions and life lessons: the joy of giving gifts and decorating the tree, spending time with family and friends, golden retrievers snoozing by the fire, mugs of hot cocoa, and eating an obscene amount of food and cookies. That's all good stuff, but there is nothing like seeing a kid's face light up on Christmas morning when they discover that present sitting under the tree. He remembered me! How did he know just what to get? He must have received my letter! Oh, it's so heart-warming.
Of course, we should ask ourselves: who is it all really for? Are we fooling ourselves into thinking that lying to our small children is justified if it provides adorable photo ops to include in our scrapbooks?
The answer, for me at least, revealed itself many Christmases ago, and it helped me understand why myths, tall tales, and legends have existed in all cultures: myths are mirrors of our own values, anthropomorphized and distilled into one being or story. Santa represents our desire to celebrate the joy and inherent goodness inside our children, and children all around the world. Santa is an impartial judge of character, he doesn't have to like you because he is legally bound to do so, and being on his good list means that maybe, just maybe, a kid can truly believe that in his heart of hearts, he is actually good. This bloom of self-confidence and self-acceptance will far outdate whatever seeds it grew from; even if a kid no longer believes in Santa, they will continue to believe in themselves. A gift that truly keeps on giving, no?
Happy holidays, one and all!