I used to get called “Grinch” a lot, and not without reason.
Many aspects of the consumerist orgy of Noel brought out my grouchiest instincts, not the least of which were grownups trying to fill my young children’s impressionable brains with lies and coaxing them with candy to sit in the laps of strange, flamboyantly dressed men with whom the kids wanted absolutely no truck.
But this year I’m much less grinchy than I have been during Christmases past—in fact I’ve been cheerfully shopping for stocking-stuffers this morning. And it’s all because I came clean to my kids about the Santa Claus Hoax.
The reason I’m sharing this story is not to condemn or judge adults who keep the Santa ruse alive year after year, or even to encourage them to consider spilling the proverbial beans about the jolly old elf. You are the best judge of how much parental deception is right for you and your kids, not me.
All I want to say is, if you have misgivings about lying to your children when you know they will eventually learn the truth, if you worry that your kids may have trust issues once they learn of your years of deceit, if you dread the meltdown that will happen when they finally know what’s up, if you’re concerned they will feel foolish for having believed, or that they will continue believing far beyond the point when it’s embarrassing for everyone, or if you wonder why Santa should take all the credit for the presents you provided by the sweat of your brow, then you should know this: It’s all right to tell your kids the truth about Santa.
Last year, after a holiday party, my then-5-year-old twin girls cornered me and asked me flat out if Santa was real. My wife and I had deflected these questions in years past, using the classic “What do you think?” dodge, and then chasing threads of the resulting conversation to lead the kids so far from the original question that there was no turning back. Another tactic was to ignore them.
I acted as if I didn’t hear the question.
(My wife, by the way, did not share my anti-Santa sentiments and had in fact looked forward to playing Santa, since she grew up having ascetic Christmases that involved a lot of Jesus and no gifts, much less competing mythological characters. She did, however, respect my genuine discomfort with lying to our kids; so the temporary compromise was to deflect questions and half-ass the Santa ritual such that it was a small part of the celebration, barely meriting discussion.)
“Daddy! I asked you if Santa was real!”
The kids had grown too shrewd to be easily distracted, and I had had a number of eggnogs (OK, bourbons) at the party. It felt like the time was right.
“Do you really want to know?” I asked them.
They assured me that they did.
My wife was in the next room, well within earshot, and didn’t rush out to stop me, so I went for it.
“Nope,” I said.
There were no tears, no apparent disappointment, no sudden shattering sound as the “magic of childhood” crashed at their feet.
“I knew it!”
“I told you!”
“Well, I already knew before you told me!”
“So who puts the treats in our stockings? Is it you or Mommy?”
“Do you eat the cookies and carrots?” (We had done the cookies and carrots bit at relatives’ homes.)
Yes, yes, yes! The parents are behind the whole thing! You had already figured it out! That’s good thinking!
We talked for a long time (we’re talkers) about the how’s and who’s and why’s of Santa, including a serious admonition from me that they must try to resist the urge to disabuse their Santa-faithful peers of their beliefs.
“But why can’t we tell other kids?”
“Because then their parents will get really, really, really angry at Daddy.”
“But why, Daddy? Why does it matter?”
It wasn’t easy to explain why the parents of Santa Truthers are so reviled, but I did my best, and gave them some pointers about how to steer conversations away from the topic if it should come up on the playground.
We have talked about Santa several times since the big reveal, and they are still glad they know the truth. They feel empowered by their knowledge, and they know their parents respect their intelligence enough to be honest with them. Their childhoods, as far as I can tell, have not been destroyed. There is no shortage of real stuff in their worlds that provides them with a “sense of wonder,” one of the common benefits touted by Santa advocates.
And here’s maybe the best part. We asked the kids if they want to “play the Santa game” this year at Christmas time, and they do. My wife can go as Santa crazy as she wants, and I can too, without feeling the slightest bit of guilt over participating in the disinformation campaign against American children.
I can even avoid the annoying conversations with other parents who think I’m a monster for not wanting to perpetuate the hoax. Tell almost any of the people I hang out with that you are an atheist, and they are totally cool with it. But that tolerance doesn’t extend to Santa Deniers. Unless you have a “valid” cultural reason for shunning Santa, you are pretty much considered a child abuser, and even strangers will tell you as much.
But this year will be different. “Sure, they’re excited for Santa to come,” I’ll say in response to the inevitable Yuletide small talk. And with a wink to my kids: “Aren’t you?”
As much as I think my children are geniuses, I’m pretty sure that most other kids are capable of the willful suspension of disbelief as well. Kids can get totally absorbed in movies, books, video games, daydreaming, and playing good old-fashioned make-believe.
We don’t try to convince them that those things are real (in fact we do quite the opposite), but their spells remain strong. Why is that level of (temporary) buy-in not adequate for Santa Claus? The acknowledgement that Santa is a fictional character does no more to stunt a child’s imagination (one of the awful fates promised by Santa evangelists) than real talk about dragons and flying ponies.
Secure in the knowledge that my kids trust their instincts about the bright line between fantasy and reality, and devoid of guilt, I’m looking forward to having some fun playing Santa. There will be full stockings and Santa presents for sure, and maybe some sleigh bells jingling outside their window on Christmas Eve. Cookies for Santa and carrots for Rudolph? Check. I might even arrange for some reindeer poop on the roof. (That’s a thing people do, right?)
But there will be no Elf On The Shelf. Because fuck that little snitch.