Most people would agree that there’s nothing troubling about millions of adults working together to convince children – and only children – of a lie. However, if an adult did such a thing to an adult, it would be met with something less than delight. Is it an innocent tradition or an example of how pervasive and deep-seated childism really is? It’s worth a discussion at the very least.
Let me say at the start here that I am not judging what you do. I’m not suggesting we burn down modern-day Christmas into a heap of social justice-scented ashes. I do, however, wonder if we’ve thoroughly thought this through and if, maybe, there’s a better option.
Childism, A Graphic Explanation
The Jolly Man in Red
Our favorite jolly man in red arrived in New York for the first time by way of Dutch immigrants in the late 1700s. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Christmas became a big shopping holiday, and Santa got a big boost. He was, after all, the face of Christmas! Around that time, in 1823, minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” in which Santa was conceptualized as a magical man who flew from house to house in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. Years later, in 1881, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew his vision of Santa based on Moore’s poem. His drawing of a man with white beard, red suit, North Pole workshop with elves, and lovely wife Mrs. Claus, solidified our national image of the portly, jolly fellow. For all intents and purposes, Santa Claus is only 196 years old, which is fairly recent considering the expanse of human history. His story was written when my great-great-great-grandparents were children.
The Real Santa Claus
As you may already know, Santa Claus is the modern incarnation of a real man, Nicholas of Myra. He was born in the 3rd century and grew up to become a bishop. Because of his faith, Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned by Roman Emperor Diocletian who had a terrifying reputation for persecuting Christians. In fact, he imprisoned so many Christians that the prisons could no longer accept criminals for a time.
Nicholas, now famously, threw bags of gold into the home of a poor nobleman who couldn’t afford the dowries his daughters required in order to be married. Although the act was done is secret, the nobleman found him out and anonymous gifts began to be attributed to Bishop Nicholas. Legend tells that the gold landed in stockings or shoes that were left by the fire to dry. This is where our custom of stockings derives.
How My Family Honors Saint Nicholas
Since we are Orthodox Christians, we have a special feast day during which we honor St. Nicholas: December 6th (which is December 19th on the Gregorian calendar). In my family, this is the day our children receive their stockings. Prior to St. Nicholas Day, we choose a family service activity to do together in reflection of the good works done by St. Nicholas in his day. We also read a book about St. Nicholas and his works on the evening of December 5th, and we choose toys to donate for other children to enjoy.
On St. Nicholas Day eve, the children receive their stockings! Each year, their stockings contain:
- Money (for their savings accounts): Representing the money St. Nicholas threw into the window of a poor nobleman’s house.
- A Toy: Representing the toys St. Nicholas commissioned a toymaker to make for children whose families couldn’t afford any.
- A Prayer Related Gift: Representing the saint’s devotion to God.
- A Treat: Representing the food he would give to people who were hungry; including a candy cane to represent his staff.
- Clothing: Representing the clothes St. Nicholas gave to people who couldn’t afford any.
We do not participate in the modern myth of Santa Claus, because we already celebrate the real man! Our children aren’t old enough to spill the beans to other children, so to speak, but our plan is to explain to them that other families have traditions they hold dear, and we respect those traditions out of care for our family and friends. We will also tell them all about St. Nicholas and encourage them to tell their friends about all the wonderful things he did. If they are pressed to tell if they believe in Santa Claus, they will be able to say “Yes, I believe in St. Nicholas!” and leave it at that.
I recognize that other parents, including Peaceful Parents, enjoy the Santa Claus tradition. My intention is not to be abrasive or cruel, so while I want to encourage people to think through how the tradition may impact kids, I do not advocate purposely interfering with how other families celebrate Christmas.
Addressing the Childism in the Myth
Why do we not view the Santa Claus myth as childist? I ask to generate contemplation; not to judge. Here are some of the reasons that gave me pause when Peaceful Dad and I considered how we would handle Santa.
- If it looks like a lie and behaves like a lie, it’s probably a lie. It’s a culturally acceptable one, but it’s a lie nonetheless and we consider lies coming from our kids to be unacceptable. It’s a double-standard.
- Santa Claus is used in popular culture to manipulate children into “being good.” Even if families don’t do this themselves, their children are still going to be exposed to this mentality outside of their homes.
- Children are often heartbroken and embarrassed when they learn the truth.
- Caring parents have been compelled to manufacture even more lies to explain away the Santa myth in a less destructive way.
- When parents talk about when and whether they should tell their children the truth about Santa, invariably, their decisions are based at least in part on how the parents feel about this developmental milestone. It’s not really about the kids.
- Lying about Santa isn’t the only way to engender the Christmas Spirit.
- Bonus: Santa rose to fame as a result of the commercialization of Christmas. The modern image of Santa was first used to sell a cartoonist’s work and then used to sell Christmas products in the 19th century stores. Not exactly the pure Christmas tradition we like to think about.
As a Peaceful Parent, will you take all of this into consideration? What are some other ways we can include Santa Claus at Christmastime that don’t involve culturally-encouraged deception?
3 thoughts on “Squaring Santa”
These are great things to think about! It’s a tough one, in light of the pervasiveness of the myth. When my oldest was a toddler, we told him St. Nicholas was a real person but Santa Claus with the reindeer is a character in a fun story, like a mascot for Christmas. But as we added kids to our family and they had more exposure to the story in the wider culture, they started feeding the belief in it amongst themselves. I don’t think we’ve fed the belief, and if they ask, we say, “it’s a legend/character,” but they just don’t believe us 😂 We never use the “you have to be good for Santa” thing, and we refute that if they repeat that part of the story. But… Short of saying, “you’re wrong! It’s all lies!” I don’t know what to do differently.
It really is tough to navigate. I think it’s much like all the other -isms, though. Some things have become so ingrained that we almost can’t see an alternative.