This article originally appeared at americanchronicle.com on Dec. 8th, 2008.
I am not a curmudgeon. I won´t tell you that Santa´s name is unsettlingly close to Satan´s or that by believing in him you´re paying homage to the wrong mythical being. I think there is plenty of love in this world and inside everyone to love as many mythological beings as you want. I do, in fact, like the Santa Claus myth. I liked playing Santa when my children were young. I liked the look of amazement in their eyes as they came down the stairs and saw all the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. I loved to watch their excitement as they ripped into the wrapping paper. It warmed my heart as they expressed their joy at receiving a gift they truly wanted. It always reminded me of the simpler times I enjoyed when I was a child and dreamed of Santa Claus and the magic of Christmastime.
My children have been getting older, as we all have. As they´ve grown they´ve figured out the Santa thing and have expressed concern over why I´d lie to them. It seems my children actually figured things out quite early in life mostly due to my unique handwriting and the fact that the tags on Santa´s gifts looked quite familiar to them. I had no idea they were so observant. I tried to explain to them that I still believed in Santa Claus, that I felt like he was the spirit of giving that´s in all of us. They´d have none of that. Their disappointment in their father that he would lie and try to fool them was total. They wouldn´t even pretend to listen to my explanations of good intentions and allegories. In the end, I could only shrug my shoulders and carry on hoping they´d eventually forgive me.
Come to think of it, I don´t believe my kids ever confronted their mother about this same thing. I wonder why that is. I guess there are some things a mom can get away with that a dad simply can´t. Or perhaps unbeknownst to me she was confronted and came up with better answers than mine. Maybe someday I´ll ask her.
All this got me to thinking and I decided to ask my parents what it was like when they found out Santa Claus was a fiction made up by adults to bring the children happiness and a sense of magic at Christmastime. After all, these were the people responsible for my own Santa experiences and for my decision to pass the mythology on to my children. I was a bit surprised to find out the answers to my questions.
Both my mom and dad grew up during the Great Depression, my mom being quite young during those years and my dad coming of age. My mom told me that of course she believed in Santa Claus and that it was not clear to her when she found out he wasn´t real.
She did not seem to suffer any disappointment at the discovery and had nothing but nice experiences with the whole Santa Claus myth. Back in those days, times were simpler and many of the presents she received were handmade. These included clothes and food as well as maybe a couple of toys. It wasn´t the presents she remembered as much as it was the feelings of love and caring that permeated home at Christmastime. This, to her, as well as the spirit of giving, is what Santa Claus is about.
My dad confided in me that he still believes in Santa Claus. At eighty-four years old he still believes. This is quite amazing considering his childhood. His father died in a coal mining accident when he was eleven. I can´t begin to imagine what a crushing blow that would be to a child, but my father had to live it.
He told me that he first began to realize that Santa Claus wasn´t a real person when he caught his father putting Christmas presents under the tree one Christmas Eve. He told me that as an Italian, it was a sin to interfere with Santa Claus and that he was very surprised to see his dad doing so. Still, he says he wasn´t disappointed to find out Santa Claus wasn´t real. He told me he tried not to be disappointed back then.
After his dad died, he told me he didn´t expect too much from Santa Claus. He didn´t want to be set up for a let down. He told me he didn´t want to dream too big, that he understood the limitations of his family and the times. He said he didn´t dare dream that Santa Claus would allow his father to come back to life and visit for one last Christmas. He knew this was impossible. Still, that must have been an emotionally heart rending thing for a child to have to deal with.
It may seem that the danger of perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus is the disappointment that comes with discovering he is not real. This is not so. In fact, in many cases I find this to be a positive thing. Learning to deal with disappointment is a part of life. The sooner one learns to realize that life will more often than not be disappointing, the better off one is when that disappointment comes to visit. He who lives a life free from disappointment can be very blessed, but he can also be very ignorant. There are lessons to be learned in life and woe to the one who doesn´t learn them. It is not the disappointment that is dangerous, but rather how one learns to deal with it.
Santa Claus is more or less a universal symbol in our society. Yet it seems to me that he has come to mean more than he was meant to mean. It seems to me that society is in some sort of state of denial. The majority of people seem to believe that Santa Claus will come out of nowhere and take care of them. They seem to believe that they will receive something without having to earn it. They seem to have transposed Santa Claus onto the government and they are certain the government is there to help them in their time of need and that it will magically relieve them of all their responsibilities. In short, they seem to have come to the belief that the government is some form of Santa Claus. There seems to be an entitlement attitude pervasive in our society similar to one in which Santa Claus in some form shows up to give us all what we want. It's as if we as a society have become entrapped in a permanent childhood where the truth eludes us. This is the danger of perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus, that he will come to represent some sort of savior to the collective rather than someone loving and caring to each individual.
The idea of Santa Claus is a fine idea, so long as he is kept in perspective. As long as he is held close to family and friends, to those who we care for and who care for us, then it can be a good thing. So long as the idea of Santa comes from a place of love and caring, a place of genuine giving from the heart, then he is fine a decent myth worthy of a special place in the annuls of childhood. As long as Santa is a voluntary notion taken on by those who only wish to give of themselves for the sake of others, the myth poses no real danger except perhaps to disappoint those who discover the truth too soon.
The danger steps in when more unscrupulous people seek to take advantage of the myth. The danger manifests itself when those who only care for themselves would try to fool the less fortunate into believing they are selflessly taking care of them when in reality they are stealing from others to complete the illusion. The danger manifests itself when it steals from future generations to finance the current one. Santa is one who gives of himself to another, not one who takes from one and gives to another while profiting from the transaction. It is always important to look at a would be Santa Claus and ask oneself if that Santa has indeed given of himself and not another. If the answer is no, then it may be wise indeed to reject that Santa Claus and hold dear to his true spirit of selfless giving, love and caring.