December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Santa is watching

By |2018-03-21T18:47:18+01:00December 28th, 2011|Features Archive|
What to tell a child about Santa, man or myth, depends on your values system.

y wife: “What are we going to tell Melissa about Santa?” Me: “Oh, I don’t know. How about nothing?”

This question is the latest in a string of “What are we going to tell…?” questions we’ve been patiently addressing for years, since before we even decided we wanted children. It’s a natural consequence of holding non-traditional views on a number of life-and-death issues.

I imagine many parents don’t worry about such things and just tell their kids what they were told by their parents. Propagating the Santa myth is effortless; it seeps in culturally (unless you live in a place like Iran). Fighting it, however, takes grit.

Why fight such a harmless tall-tale, anyway? What’s wrong with the jolly old mensch from the North Pole, who — in an improbable 24-hour arc — manages to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls the world over? Let’s look first at that tiny adjective, “good.”

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

Here we have an iconic portrait of Santa Claus as Big Brother: he’s always watching, waiting for you to slip up so he can vengefully mete out due punishment. Compare with Psalm 139:

It is you who know when I sit and rise,

you fathom my thoughts from afar.

I submit there is essentially no difference in these two verses, one a pious hymn penned over two millennia ago by an unknown hand, and the other a hit song written by Haven Gillespie in 1934. And they’re both downright creepy if you ask me (the Psalm ends with a declaration of “utter hatred” for the Lord’s enemies). Why would any sane parent want their children to live in fear of an omniscient being? We’ve decided not to teach our daughter to believe in such a god, so why substitute that with Santa’s Secular Thought Police?

Moving on, there’s the issue of lying to children. Is it moral? Bertrand Russell once wrote, “There is no excuse for deceiving children. When … they find their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.” And lying it is. Every parent knows perfectly well that the Santa story is just that, a story, and all of them know it’s a matter of time before the kids figure it out for themselves.

That said, secular parenting author Dale McGowan writes, “Santa Claus … is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had.” McGowan sees Santa as a dry run for God. He argues in a spirited essay that if children are encouraged to apply logical thinking to the Santa story, maybe they can learn to apply it across the board. And once they realize it’s hooey, the balloons will begin bursting one by one in a triumph of skeptical inquiry.

I don’t recall the moment when I realized there was no Santa Claus. Maybe my parents never played it up much at home. For me Santa was that obese fellow in a red suit at Hunt Valley Mall surrounded by fake snow and bad lighting. The smell of glazed ham and cheese wheels from the nearby Hickory Farms store must’ve hinted at something artificial. Kids aren’t stupid — they know baloney when they smell it.

Then again, I understand the practical use of Santa — much like God — in frightening children into obedience. If you can get youngsters to believe that there is someone watching them while they sleep, reading their thoughts, taking extensive notes and evaluating their performance, then you have a pretty good chance of keeping them in line — for a while.

I also realize that children need to fantasize and develop a vibrant imagination. We are a story-telling species, after all. But I think there is a difference between giving them free reign to blur the line between fantasy and reality and actively promoting deception. I think Santa belongs to the latter category; and, say, Pinocchio to the former. (No parent ever tells their children that the boy with the long nose is going to come in the window once a year and bring them gifts, do they?)

My wife’s question remains, though: What are we going to tell Melissa? As a parent who’s also an incurable rationalist, both Russell and McGowan persuade me. But all those discussions over what to teach our daughter about the world (“We have to tell her something!”) are giving way to a broader principle: teaching her to think for herself. Do that, I argue, and the rest will take care of itself. Do that and we won’t have to lie to her. Do that and she’ll be better prepared for a future of hustlers and hucksters.

Parents can make use of the Santa myth either way. We can use it to pave the way for a life of credulity, or we can use it to turn our children into thoughtful, independent people capable of sniffing out a proverbial slice of baloney.

If we can’t ignore Santa, then we might as well own him.

About the Author:

Marc Alan Di Martino runs a small language school in Perugia where he teaches English as a Foreign Language. He wrote the "Man About Rome" column from 2008 through June 2013.