When I was a child growing up in a semi-conservative Christian home, Christmas was a magical time. Santa Claus was as real as God, as loving in his discernment of my deeds, and even more tangible and deliberate in his showing of approval. I knew Santa Claus was real because my parents told me he was real. After Thanksgiving, the entire world around me put so much weight on the virtue of belief and scorned skepticism that he had to be real, and believing in him had to be the right thing to do.
Both of my parents worked full time and my mother frequently reminded me of the need for frugality in our home. However, Christmas was exempt. On Christmas morning, the tree was a testament of abundance. Our stockings were stuffed full until the seams were pulled visibly taught. Piles of presents wrapped in festive paper and adorned with shiny bows overflowed onto the floor and dominated our living room. Each year, I beheld a veritable miracle. It was real. It was there and I could touch it and keep it forever.
Every gift from Santa was wrapped in “Santa” wrapping paper that was different than all the rest of the paper. They were expensive gifts. They were the things I couldn’t dare hope for if I asked my parents. So, I appealed to a jolly old entity and promised to be good, and I was. Even Santa’s handwriting was different than that of my parents’ handwriting. The “S” was made in a grand, swooping script, taking up half of the tag. Santa wrote that. He made out each tag, signing his name there just for me and my little brother, telling us in no uncertain terms that he was real and that he thought we were good.
I believed in Santa until I was thirteen years old. The merits of “having faith” and preserving my “innocence” were of utmost importance to me and to my god. But, I was a smart girl, and the cognitive dissonance was a cacophony that I carefully overlaid with this image of myself that must be preserved. When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t so hard. A younger child that believed in Santa was normal and adults encouraged it. Other children sometimes would mention their doubts, but I was no doubter. No. I had faith. I was a good girl. I would never, ever turn my back on Santa or any of the other entities that must exist.
Santa was my mystical lynchpin. If Santa was real, then anything could be real, and I lived in a world of perpetual make-believe. Somewhere in the forests of Appalachia, there were unicorns and faeries. Mermaids lived out in the mysterious deep blue ocean. Angels and other protective guardians hovered over me or around me, loving me and keeping me safe while both of my parents were busy at work. Every hardship I faced and endured was a test passed. I was a good girl, and I would let nothing, not even the harshness of reality, change that.
And yet, about the time I turned ten, doubt nagged at me each Christmas. I asked my father about the “realness” of Santa, and he said that Santa was a spirit. I suppose, what he had hoped I would glean was that the idea of Santa was in keeping with the spirit of generosity and cheer. However, I understood it to mean that Santa was not so much a corporeal being as something more like God or an angel. He was no less real, but not “human”. This seemed fine to me and it patched spackle into the cracks of the physical feasibility of Santa’s doings. He was a spirit and could do…anything. Well, that was good enough. Certainly God worked similarly in the world doing much greater things, so why not Santa?
One Christmas, I received a small tool set from Santa. I was thrilled at receiving tools from Santa because Santa and his elves used tools, so it was kind of like they were sending me a little piece of themselves, and not to mention, they were tools. They came in an unfinished wood box and after the unwrapping, when it was time to inspect my gifts more closely, I found a “made in china” sticker on the inside of the box. This did rankle me. Why would Santa need help from China? This and other similar findings rattled about in my mind for a few years, but I still couldn’t let go of the belief. I had to believe. I had to have faith.
Another holiday tradition in my family was going to Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. My entire extended family attended and I got to see all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles. We ate good food and one of my uncles would always get a little drunk and be hilarious. Another event was that Santa would visit. Of course, we never saw him, but somehow, he managed to fill up two dozen stockings in the house while all of us were up and about. He did it all without being seen even once by anyone, and he did it every year.
My entire family, I was certain, would be downstairs watching something boring put on by the adults or tearing open our gifts to and from each other, and then sometimes we’d hear sleigh bells. Other times, there would be a decidedly muffled “ho, ho, ho” coming from upstairs. Someone would say, “Did you all hear something?” and everyone would fall silent. This was the only time all night that the children were silent. I am the oldest of all the grandchildren, but in that moment, we were all the same, holding our breath to maybe hear something, anything, coming from upstairs. A few heartbeats would pass, our pulse drumming (par-rum-pa-pum-pum) in our ears before we all thundered upstairs to find each and every stocking filled by magic, of course. It happened this way every time, and every time, I was affirmed in my belief.
The Christmas after I turned thirteen happened a little differently. The order of events for the evening was, for some reason, a bit out of whack. Usually, we went caroling after opening presents downstairs and finding our stockings filled upstairs. However, this time, everyone seemed to want to go caroling after presents, but Santa hadn’t come. Our stockings hung flaccidly on the stair rail, but we went. Only a few adults joined us and the usually drunk uncle was sober. It felt like some weird twilight zone version of Christmas Eve, but I liked to sing, so I went cheerfully. We made our usual rounds and received some cookies and candy canes for our efforts before returning back to Grandma’s house.
All of us piled back into the house and found the stockings filled. In that moment, for some reason, all the evidence against the existence of Santa that I had been pushing down under the mantra of “Have faith” and “Believe” became leaden and fell into the pit of my stomach. Without a word as to why, I began to cry. The younger children were quickly ushered into the living room, passing by me like specters of Christmas Past with their oblivious, effervescent joy. My grandmother hugged me and whispered into my ear, “Sometimes it’s hard growing up.” I knew I had to get through the night, somehow, and that I had to stop crying. My shock and sadness quickly oxidized into resentment.
I ignored my stocking and played out the events of past Christmases in my head as I waited for it to be time to go home. I felt tricked. I felt like a rube. Instead of being lead gently into adulthood, my family simply watched as I skipped blithely on and slammed into an invisible brick wall. I thought of all the times I had been made fun of in school for believing. For my entire childhood before that moment, the entire world had wanted me to believe, and I did. But why? And for what? Was this just some sick rite of passage each child had to endure? Was it a game for adults to lie continuously to children? I wondered if there was some prize for those who made their children believe the longest.
It was an awkward Christmas morning. My face was still puffy from crying myself to sleep. Even without Santa, the presents were still there, but they seemed a bitter pill to swallow. I feigned joy as I unwrapped what I realized my parents worked very hard to give me, but I spent much of the Christmas break reassembling my belief system and trying to figure out how much of it I could salvage.
God and all of the baggage that comes with it remained. All of the scary parts of Christianity held fast, but the magic was gone. I scoured my Bible to figure it all out. I began reading it carefully each night and continued to read it. I accepted that Santa was nothing but a story, as not even the Bible could lend it any credibility. I accepted that I was lied to, as was tradition. I entered into a new brand of fiction where demons and hellfire awaited my every misstep and my quest for goodness became more an effort in self-preservation than an appeal to benevolent things for frivolous distractions.
What followed was not a joyless life, but it was a heavier one, and when I had my son at the age of twenty, I was still a Christian. I played into the Santa tradition, and I realized why my parents had, as well. I could live as a child again in watching my son believe in magical things. He was thrilled, and so was I. It is a weird sort of selfish act to live vicariously through one’s children, but that is what Santa seemed to be about. We make our children unimaginably happy with simple things and then we get to feel a small piece of that, adding some much needed levity to otherwise stressful lives in a way that society says is wholesome and good. We give our children this experience, and we are deemed good parents.
I was agnostic about religion for several years as I tackled being a single mom and the inequity of the working world. Making enough money to make ends meet didn’t leave much time for God when I had so little of it to spend with my son. I perpetuated the Santa experience, however, because in having a child, I had grown to love it again.
I became an atheist when my son was about seven years old. When he was eight, he asked me if the Easter Bunny, and Santa, and God, and the Tooth Fairy were all just things that people made up. I told him that I thought they were, and that was okay for him. He didn’t seem upset and when he asked why, and he accepted my answer of, “Some of those things are just fun for people to believe in.” In answering his first question about these things honestly, I had spared him what I had gone through. To him, I had just been playing along with a fun story.
My son still loves Christmas movies. He loves the lore and the season. He loves getting presents and eating holiday treats and having time off of school. It is okay to love stories and to love fiction. I think we need stories and fiction. We need frivolity and to do things just because they are fun and we like them because our realities are often harsh, and we all need a break from that from time to time.
I’m expecting another son in February, and I really am not sure what story I will tell him. I thought that I could just do the Santa thing and answer his questions honestly when he is old enough to ask them, thus allowing him to hone his skepticism. I considered telling him about holiday traditions in the context of fiction and indulging them, but explaining that they aren’t real and that we do them because they are enjoyable. The decision about how to handle a holiday custom, I believe, is a very personal decision, and one that each parent has to make for themselves and their family based on their individual needs.
However, I have decided that Santa and Elf of the Shelf shall not be means by which I manipulate desirable behavior out of my kids. I do not want them to fear doubt or to think that not believing means being left out of the rest of their childhood. I think we can play make-believe with our children without playing it on them, and I think it is vastly important that we instill a sense of humanism in our children. The goodness, kindness, and generosity in each of us should be an ever-present quality, and the holidays can magnify these aspects and combine them with a communal sense of warmth and abundant goodwill. The idea of Santa can be a character that stands for these human attributes, but instead of “better watch out, better not cry”, I think we could all benefit from just being good for goodness’ sake.