Why the Santa myth is bad for your children’s elf

We live in a time of great freedom, however illusory or temporary that freedom might yet prove.

For instance, I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief or its lack in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

It seems that all other western cultural norms are fluid, except for this one. Never this one. The only things powerful enough to grant you a Santa exemption are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then there’s a chance you’ll be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

I baulk at the presumptuousness, the unthinkingness of it all. Really, would a Christian parent ever in a month of Sundays approach a Muslim family and knowingly ask them if they’re looking forward to the birthday of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ? A religious person might very well try to preach to or proselytise my children, but I’d be well within my rights to do everything possible to counter their supernaturally-motivated manoeuvrings, from taking expert advice to punching them in the teeth, and I’d enjoy broad moral – if not exactly legal – support. Santa’s commercialist cult, however, has carte blanche, and few would ever support me in a bid to tear it down.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each wearing the face of Richard Dawkins. As if in the pre-Santa days of Shakespeare and Dumas the kids of the world were witless dullards, and every visionary, artist and poet worth their salt only emerged post-Pole.

Santa began as a folk-tale that may have morphed out of the legends of a Saint. He was a quite different, certainly less sanguine, figure in his early days, and one that children were more inclined to fear than to keenly anticipate. The Santa we know and love today – the darling of TV adverts, movies and billboards – has only existed in his current form – big-bearded, red-jacketed and jolly – for a comparatively short time (the same is true for his retinue: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer only arrived in 1939); but yet we are encouraged to believe that something as malleable and arbitrary as the historical idea of Santa should be considered unchallengeable, unchangeable and eternal.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why does he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my eldest son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, aliens can’t travel through time in a physics-defying police box, there’s no such thing as ghosts, and people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house lost in make-believe or play-acting with his toys.

Strange old ladies don’t stop him in the street to ask if he’s excited about a visit from the talking horse. He doesn’t see a million adverts on TV featuring a talking horse trying to convince him to buy things. He isn’t taken to The Talking Horse’s Grotto every year. In no other sphere of life are children’s fantastical notions so systematically cemented into fact.

Perhaps in the past the Santa fantasy was more innocent and fleeting in nature: a little tale or poem wheeled out every Christmas Eve; a single evening of merry make-believe. These days Santa is everywhere. Literally everywhere; he’s like a God who’s tired of enigma. You can write to him, email him, watch him, read him, visit him, Skype him, tag him. He appears every year at the stroke of November, and doesn’t stop assailing kids with his maniacal mirth-making until the last slice of turkey’s been fed to the dog.

Your motivations may be pure. You may only wish to indulge in a little heart-warming festive fantasy. But you don’t have the luxury of raising your children unplugged from the Matrix. Santa is perpetuated by businesses, not by you.

Money. It’s all about money. Just like everything else.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty. Or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall last year, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed. Ho ho ho.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place. Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few Easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septuagenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

“See?” people will say. “You believed in Santa, and YOU weren’t traumatised.”

You could put forward exactly the same argument for religion. Come on, you sang songs, you listened to some nice little stories, you went on coach trips. What’s your problem? I’ll tell you what my problem is: consent.

Believe me, I’ve analysed my opposition to Santa endlessly. Was I lied to as a child? Did I have promises broken? Is this what’s driving my dissection: are my trust issues bleeding on to Santa’s coat? I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I just have a hard time accepting that This is the way things are. This is the way things have always been. I can’t stop questioning. I have to ask why do we do it? When did we first do it? How has this ritual evolved? What did we do before it? What might we do in the future? What do they do in other countries? What are the consequences of us doing this? What are the consequences of us not doing this? How can the answers to either of those last two questions be measured to any degree of satisfaction?

Whose interest does Santa really serve?

I’m conscious that I’m probably coming across as even more of a misery guts and world-class humbug than Scrooge himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the ceremony and expectation of Christmas. I love the tree, the twinkling lights, the cosy mugs of cocoa on the cold and bitter nights. I’m probably more excited about my kids opening their presents than they are (especially in the case of my youngest, who doesn’t yet know what the hell Christmas is). My partner and I have chosen presents perfectly suited to their personalities, presents that will help them play and learn and laugh and grow.

Maybe I just don’t want Santa to muscle in on that. But, more than that, I find it almost impossible to lie to my kids. Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in, that I have no need for. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

But I won’t. Because I’m as much a sheep as the rest of you. I took them to Santa’s Grotto last week. Me. Wilfully. Accidentally (I didn’t know the garden centre I was taking them to had a grotto), but of my own volition. And stood like a statue next to them both as pseudo-Santa spewed out his lies. I’m a Christmas quisling. A hypocrite. A man who fears the zeal of his festive partner. A man who has more and more respect for apostates and cult-breakers. If I can’t even wriggle my kids free of Santa’s soft grip, what hope would I have had as a doubting Scientologist?

I always want to be truthful with and to my children. But there are always limits. At some point in the future I’ll find myself having the following conversation:

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

Merry Christmas everybody.