Imagination and Lies

Thanksgiving is over, and Santa is about.

We tend to be very realist; I have never been able to tell my kids with a straight face that Santa or the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny exists, even in fun. We celebrate St. Nicholas’ feast day with great devotion and excitement. The CCC St. Nicholas movie is our second favorite saint movie of all (his quote “Even if I’m the only Christian left, I will always love you” makes me cry every time and the kids crack up). And we tell the kids that people like to imagine that St. Nicholas also helps us celebrate Jesus’ birthday on Christmas Day, hence the Santa Claus tradition.

With Santa, of course I worry that if we get them believing in all sorts of fantasies that they later discover to be false, they may pull back in their commitment of faith to the other unseen things that ARE real.

But isn’t there some educational philosophy out there that encourages playing with and even believing in fairies and fairy tales in order to increase a child’s capacity to grasp the reality of heaven and the cosmic narrative of Christianity? I have been curious about that for a while but not understood it. Probably because imagination isn’t really my gift. But also I can’t understand teaching children to believe in pretend things.

Any insights?

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  • Charles

    Well, the question begs: what is your favorite saint’s movie of all time?u00a0

  • Jurismater

    Hilarious, I should have specified saint movies of the CCC variety. And St. Patrick is our favorite of those. Thanks so much for asking : )

  • KC

    I tend to be in your camp about “teaching” my children that Santa exists in some form other than St. Nicholas, but last year I know I read a really good article about myths basically fostering imagination in such a way as to make spiritual realities MORE understandable to children… except I can’t find it now for the life of me.u00a0 I’m going to keep digging, though.u00a0 I think it referenced or perhaps was related to the writing of Anthony Esolen, who since then has published a book about killing the imagination.u00a0 One review here:nn

  • Anonymous

    There was an excellent discussion about this on our old blog, December 2009 archives, nnAs for the “philosophy” that encourages fairy tales and the imagination and Santa Claus, I think this is an excellent article on the topic –Ok, Virginia, There’s No Santa Claus.u00a0 But There IS a God.u00a0 also has some great thoughts to add in the book, Letters to Father Christmas, n

  • Anonymous

    Oh and for all of us adults, MaryAlice shared this great Chesterton quote in December 2009–nnOnn Christmas morning, he [Chesterton] remembered, his stockings were nfilled with things he had not worked for, or made, or even been good nfor.The only nexplanation people had was that a being called Santa Claus was somehow nkindly disposed toward him. u201cWe believed,u201d he wrote, that a certain nbenevolent person u201cdid give us those toys for nothing. And … I believen it still. I have merely extended the idea.u201cThenn I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put nthe stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the nhouse, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.u201cOncen I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank nhim for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I nthought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it nonly went halfway into the stocking.u201cNown I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big nthat it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal noutside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the norigin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave nit to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic good will.u201dnnI am thankful for this post tonight because it brought me to this great quote.u00a0 Lots to think about here.u00a0 Now I will try to get my large pregnant body to sleep.

  • Sarah

    Whatu00a0a great question!u00a0 Yes, Iu00a0personally hold to this philosophy and believeu00a0that through imagination and fairytales children intuitively express and experience the truth thatu00a0they are “made for another world” – i.e. that there is somethingu00a0even more “real” than this life and the thingsu00a0they can see and touch.u00a0 Santa Claus and otheru00a0fairytale heroes and heroinesu00a0are ultimatelyu00a0images of the goodness, beauty andu00a0lovableness of God.u00a0 Romance, fairytales and heroes areu00a0important ways through which childrenu00a0grow to understand who God is, not simplyu00a0at their rational level (which can be done through catechesis) but at their imaginative level, which is deeper than the rational.u00a0 I love to ponder this quote from Chesterton: “Romance is the deepest thing in life.u00a0 It is deeper even than reality”.u00a0

  • mjdmom

    I’m with you.u00a0u00a0 Curious to read this whole comment thread.u00a0 We like Santa, we just don’t really “do” Santa.u00a0 One of my kids’ old Montessori teachers put it best- Santa is a fun story that represents the spirit of giving.u00a0 I have to remember that people love him…b/c I get annoyed when people go up to my 5 year old and ask what Santa is bringing.u00a0 A complicated question in our house!u00a0 We don’t break down their fantasies about Santa purposefully, but when asked if reindeer fly or if there’s a Mrs. Claus we tell the truth.u00a0 My theory- I tell my kids all sorts of things that sound crazy- angels you can’t see, bread that is really flesh but looks like bread etc.u00a0 So I don’t want to confuse them.

  • Kath

    I’m in the Chesterton camp except I never flat out lie. u00a0I just tell the kids that “the story goes…” and that St. Nicholas is in Heaven. u00a0I guess my husband and I believed in all those fantastical myths like Santa and now remain faithful catholics who never question the validity of the Eucharist. u00a0I had an imaginary friend for two years. u00a0My parents didn’t say “Stop pretending that Lion is eating your chicken!” u00a0But everyone’s child is different. u00a0I happen to have a very logical child and I don’t think my indirect answers will last long. u00a0But I can understand the concern of some readers, especially if they felt betrayed as children. u00a0

  • Karen

    We try to focus on Christ and not Santa, but we don’t cut Santa out. At first, we just didn’t mention Santa. We have never told them that Santa brings there presents or that they better be good or they are going to get coal for Christmas. u00a0Despite that, they think about Santa all on their own, any televised Christmas special will make sure of that. u00a0So, they will sit on Santa’s lap at the Christmas market or library. However, we don’t decorate our home with Santa stuff.nnHowever if they ask me a question about Santa, I always mention that anything is possible in make believe – taking a quote from Mister Rogers. u00a0I love that show, it does such a good job explaining the difference of reality and make believe. u00a0Knowing that Santa is make believe makes no difference in their Christmas experience as a child, just as they are thrilled to hug someone dressed up in a Mickey Mouse costume, even though they know it is just a person wearing a costume. u00a0nnI just think it is always better to tell children the truth as simply as you can. u00a0Telling your children that Santa is real seems like a lie that will be a lot of work to keep going, I think we are busy enough. u00a0Children spend most of their time in make believe anyway, so it is the perfect place for Santa. u00a0

  • JMB

    I was always pretty laissez faire about Santa Claus (my mom with 8 kids never got around to filling stockings for Christmas!) and I think I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I learned the truth.u00a0 But did it affect my spiritual nature or cause me to distrust my parents and adults in general?u00a0 No, I don’t think I even thought of it like that.u00a0 Sometimes I think adults put too much faith in their own “rational” sense.u00a0 nnThat being said, the problem with down playing Santa, or being a truth teller, is that your kid might just be obnoxious and blow the lid off the mystery for some other little innocent kid.u00a0 That happened to me with my oldest when he was in 2nd grade.u00a0 I felt terrible, and I was the fodder for some nasty playground gossip for a few days.u00a0 So in defense of innocence and child like fun and simplicity, I think I erred in being too adult with my child, and it hurt other people, not just my own jaded 7 year old.

  • Adele

    I think the “there’s no Santa, therefore there is no God” argument is something dreamed up by adults.u00a0 Did anyone actually have his religious faith shaken as a child when he found out it was Mom and Dad putting the presents under the tree?u00a0 That being said, I don’t do Santa because I think it contributes to Christmas being all about presents, and I do not lie to my children.u00a0 We talk about St. Nicholas, and Santa is a separate pretend character. (Incidentally, this is why I don’t like the CCC video, which has Nicholas “becoming” Santa)u00a0 All presents at Christmas come from actual human beings.

  • Jurismater

    The wisdom you all share has me thinking that the Santa thing isn’t really either right or wrong, assuming the parents do not flat out lie and are regularly forming their children in the love of God and practice of our faith. I think a whole lot of it comes down to the parents’ personality. I never ever ever believed in Santa and every year confronted my parents with “seriously? come on” until they finally caved and told me I was right when I was 7. I felt so vindicated. I shoot very straight with my kids, as you said JMB probably making them too jaded and realistic, because I am very rational and unimaginary. I think I need to work on this! But I guess Our Lord will heal my children of their childhood scars from never having been led into fantasy worlds by their mom : )

  • Jurismater

    Sarah, this is beautiful! Are you a philosopher?nnDo you use any certain books or stories to kindle your kids’ imaginations? I’d love some resources, a suggestion of your very favorites. I love the Chronicles of Narnia but that’s about my limit.

  • Jurismater

    Actually, come to think of it, I love romance, both human and divine. It’s the silly childhood fantasy lands that I have trouble with.

  • Jurismater

    This makes so much sense to me, MJDMom.

  • Jurismater

    Thanks Red! I knew we had discussed it but couldn’t remember when, where, or the specifics. Exhibit A: I lose 25% of my long term memory with each birth. Alas.

  • Ellie Lady

    So do you not allow imaginative play or do you just make sure they understand from a young age that they are not actually princesses or dragons? Do those of you who wish to keep the line of reality very clear constantly remind your kids that their games are just games or the the aren’t actually doing dishes in the play sinks. I mean my kids are constantly telling me that a stuffed animal is a doctor and this shoe string is the medicine etc etc .. I think that would be pretty tough. But the Santa logic seems to imply that we should not give into any of our kids fantasies. (Being over dramatic, but I’d like too see where the line is drawn.)

  • Jurismater

    My kids spend most of the day doing their own imaginative play (right now Our Lady and St. Joseph from our nativity set are at a wishing well made by magnetic tiles, and they are wishing for King Herod to love Jesus better : )), and I sit down and listen and help them along sometimes. But, for example, I don’t do much to help them create intricate “other worlds”, and if they ask me if their friends’ other worlds are pretend or real, I tell them they’re pretend but pretending is great. My oldest daughter longs to believe in other pretend worlds, which is why I think I’m particularly sensitive to this, but I just can’t bring myself to get all starry-eyed and tell her they may be real if we just believe hard enough.

  • JMB

    JM, I’m pretty boring and rational myself, but my kids aren’t.u00a0 I’m impressed with the subject matter of your children’s pretend play!u00a0 My 9 year old plays Barbies all the time, but the last time I overheard her playing, her Barbie was inviting the other Barbies over for some Chardonnay!u00a0 I said “My dear, it’s only 2 pm, we don’t drink Chardonnay until it’s 5!”.

  • Mary Alice

    Father Christmas plays an important role in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, bringing some joy into the eternal winter of the White Witch, and showing the Aslan is still out there somewhere.u00a0 Contemplating this changed my thinking on Santa.u00a0 nnSecondly, I am reminded over and over how much temperaments and “love languages” influences our family dynamic.u00a0 Some of my children take great joy in the idea of Santa and the tooth fairy, the gift giver in particular, has been known to act as tooth fairy if she knows that Mom has forgotten.u00a0u00a0

  • Elenaculshaw

    Not specifically about Santa Claus but a very good read on understanding the importance of myth and the truth found within the myth. u00a0The book is JRR Tolkien: u00a0Truth and Myth by Joseph Pearce.

  • Sarah

    Aw, thank you Jurismater! I am not a philosopher, but I love literature and romance.u00a0 I have read a little of Jung and amu00a0fascinated by this question of howu00a0the imaginationu00a0can open children up emotionally and spiritually and “lay the ground” for them to come to know God asu00a0theiru00a0truestu00a0Hero, Friend and Lover.u00a0 Yes, the Chronicles of Narnia are wonderful!u00a0 Our other very favourites are: The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, The Wizard of Oz, Oscar Wilde’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales, the Greek myths told for children e.g. Jasonu00a0& the Golden Fleeceu00a0and The Odyssey, The Sword in the Stone, and Enid Blyton’su00a0Faraway Tree series.u00a0u00a0

  • Jen E Andrews

    What ages are these stories appropriate for? My oldest is 6 next week … I did a quick Amazon search for the titles you mentioned and it seems they are for older, even upper elementary aged children. Any recommendations for the younger crowd? Thanks! 🙂

  • Jurismater

    Sarah, thank you!!!!!!!! We are getting Charlotte’s Web from our local library this afternoon. This conversation has inspired me in many ways, just in time for these “cozy” (ie stir-crazy) days of winter. We will try to travel to brighter, lovelier places in our imaginations : )

  • Jurismater

    HILARIOUS. Bravo! I’m still too overprotective to encourage Barbie play, my oldest is only 6; but if/when we do go down that road, I’d much rather them be drinking Chardonnay with their girlfriends at 2pm than getting ready for a date with Ken.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry I missed most of this discussion, but along the lines of temperaments, I would just add that some kids are unable to handle fantasy or any blurring of the line between real and not real. We have one son like this and know many others from special ed playgroups with Aspergers or anxiety of psychological conditions that reject this form of play. We have many meltdowns when he perceives others playing in ways that can’t possibly be real.u00a0nnThat said, they can often tolerate allegories or parables. Such as the story of St. Nicholas as an example of sharing/giving.u00a0nnWhen we read the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe to our son, he told me that the part when the girls were walked with Aslan reminded him of the Stations of the Cross. He can’t pretend play in that world like our other children, but he can accept the underlying truths that the stories seek to convey. Just in case anyone is reading this and feels like their child can’t really engage in this world. It is ok for them to be who they are and to do what works best for your family!

  • Sarah

    Hi Jen, I am so sorry for the late reply! :(u00a0 nnI am not completely sure renage-appropriateness, butu00a0personally I feelnit is never too early to startu00a0children on the classics! 🙂 I think the Amazon recommendations might assume the child is reading the story himself, rather than being read to by a parent?u00a0 Even if they don’tnunderstand all of the language and some of the themes are quite sad/sombre,u00a0I have found theyu00a0love being read to and understand enough to enjoy the characters and the “world” they create.u00a0 Inthink 6 is appropriate for these stories, even 4 or 5 in some cases.u00a0 Perhaps start with the first one in the Faraway Tree series, which is delightful.u00a0 For youngeru00a0children I would recommend the Beatrix Potter stories, ThenStory of Babar and The Velveteen Rabbit (and older children love these too).nnn

  • Sarah

    You’re welcome!!u00a0 Enjoy!! 🙂

  • Jen E Andrews

    Thank you for the reply. I think you’re right.