Among atheists, Santa is rather controversial. Some believe telling your kids that Santa comes down the chimney and gives them presents is lying. I’ve even known some radical atheists who discourage anything make believe with their children, and considering what solace I’ve found in imaginary worlds I find that to be downright harmful. Then there are atheists who believe that Santa is harmless fun.
The author in the above post makes the point that Santa is a myth best conceptualized as the Spirit of Giving. While there may not be a man in a red suit who climbs down chimneys, the Spirit of Giving is real. The more I think about it, this is what sums up my experience with Santa growing up, though I’d also extend it and say in some ways, though I could never articulate it as such, I realized I was partaking in a ritual.
I know some people, my mom for instance, were devastated when they learned Santa wasn’t real. When my mom had the talk with me I remember thinking, “this is it.” I would insist Santa was real, but deep inside I knew I was playing a part in a ritual. In other words, I wasn’t surprised by my mother’s admission. I took it in stride. It was part of growing up. My parents pretended to be Santa and I received gifts. While I wanted to believe, every logical thing I knew about the world told me it wasn’t possible for a man to drive a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers to deliver presents worldwide. But I was expected to play the role of the believing child, so I did.
And when my mom brought me to reality, I asked to help them play Santa with my sister. Adults and children old enough to know the truth had to play the part of the Spirit of Giving in my mind. It wasn’t earth shattering, it was just the way things were.
Andy and I talked a little bit about how to address Santa with our kids. I don’t think Andy’s family seriously did the Santa thing. We decided to go through the routines and let our kids come to their own conclusions. Sissy is still so young, but Buddy knows who Santa is. Strangely, he knows him through “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but Buddy seems to understands that there is something special about him because unlike the other characters from the movie, Santa pops up at the mall and other media. Santa is one of the few things we can point to a picture of, ask Buddy, “Who is that?” and he’ll respond enthusiastically, “Santa!”
I don’t know if Buddy understands that he is a fictional character like Jack Skellington and Sally or if he thinks Santa is real. I don’t know if he believes that Santa brings him presents or if he thinks Mom and Dad gave them. But I know he loves Santa, and seeing Buddy respond with such joy dispels any doubt about the merits of playing Santa with him. Santa may be fictional, but he helps Buddy interact with the regular world. And atheists who downplay the importance of imaginary worlds do a disservice to the critical role that the imagination plays in child development and language development.
Might Buddy or Sissy feel betrayed when they get older? I hope not. I hope they take it in stride like I did, though I can’t say for sure. What I think is more important, though, is that giving becomes more important to them
Like Amy Weir, we focus more on giving out of love and grace, not because someone earned it for good behavior. My mom always strongly insisted that Santa gave gifts because he loves us, and that’s what we’re doing with our children. And more importantly, I want to see my children be gracious and to give themselves.
For me, part of growing up was focusing less on what I was getting and more on what I was giving. I can honestly say that I look forward more to seeing someone’s reactions when I give them a gift that I spent a lot of time picking out than opening a gift that’s for me. I hope my children get to that point, and I hope that they go out of their way to give.
Right now I’m still waiting for them both to get a bit more mature, but when they do, I have a few activities in mind to help them give back to their communities. But not just at Christmas. That’s something that needs to happen year round.