Why We Need Santa
The innocence of childhood is like a creamy white jug of milk – wholesome, pure, beautiful and marked with a looming expiration date. All children must grow up. We wouldn’t have it any other way. But those moments of revelation that leapfrog your child closer to their grown up self can be wrenching. I had one of these recently and it turned me into a philosophic wreck.
As my 8-year old continues his walk on the path of growing up, beloved bastions of childhood have begun to teeter precariously on the head of a pin. The unavoidable forces urging him toward maturity began converging on one big, red thing: Santa Clause.
To believe or not to believe…
Earlier in the year he began talking about how many of his friends no longer believe. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with how our culture employs a certain theme about Santa – that kids who don’t believe are lacking a special quality. That it’s somehow a character flaw. I love Christmas and Santa, but I have always hated the weird subtext that derides children for listening to their inner voice. Do we really want to give kids the message that they shouldn’t trust their instincts? Or that they are somehow doomed to become accountants instead of poets once they stop believing in Santa?
So when my son started raising the topic, we were prepared to go with it and not implore him to believe. The topic kept arising. One thing led to another and, the next thing I knew, I walked into our dining room to find my son sitting on my husband’s lap, sobbing hysterically.
Sweet mother of mercy.
In one fell swoop, we hacked off a beautiful, cherished branch of childhood. The worst part was, this limb was still alive… still needed. In hindsight, I realize that in broaching the subject, my son wanted to be assured that Santa was real. But the cat was out of the bag.
He was devastated. We tried to understand his despair. Did he feel like we tricked him? Did he think he wouldn’t get any presents? No, what made him sad, he said, was the feeling that Christmas wouldn’t be as special. I could see right away that it was the magic that we took away. Not just the magic of Santa, but all the magic that he still believed could exist in the world.
Perhaps we all need to believe sometimes.
Magic, wonder, the feeling that there is mystery in the world, that we cannot explain everything. That miracles can happen. This dims as we get older. But it is still needed, perhaps now more than ever. Life would be dull, drab and depressing if all magic and mystery were off the table. I tried to focus on that as I consoled him.
I said that just because it was us who put the presents under the tree, that it doesn’t mean that there is no magic in the world. That magic is about all of the things we cannot see. That we believe in God, even though we cannot see proof. I told him that even if Santa didn’t leave gifts at Christmas, maybe he is still real, unseen, working miracles, curing sick children and answering prayers. I told him that there is a reason adults often turn back into children at Christmastime. Because there is a genuine, special magic at work, especially when you help other people. And that we could do that.
I essentially created a composite of God-Jesus-Santa, confirming all the worst “war on Christmas” fears that Santa has ruined the true meaning of the holiday with his widespread secular appeal.
But in my son’s innocent hurt, I saw how Santa is a sweet and lovely embodiment of the religious ideals of Christmas. He taps into the spirit of goodness and kindness, translated into the language of children. For cynical us, Santa might mean shopping, debt and someone profiting off of us, which they are. But for children, he means something radically different. Even though the world is cynical, that doesn’t mean we always have to be.
I was raised Catholic. But my religion is more of a cultural marker, an unbroken line connecting my great-grand parents to my children, rather than a literal belief of everything the church says. Like many Catholics, I see the church as the keeper of beautiful, ancient rituals, a one-time steward of culture, knowledge and art, and the root of treasured family traditions that bring richness and deeper meaning to the important moments of my life. The grand ideas are lofty and inspiring. The silly ones, I take as polite suggestions, which I kindly then ignore (like the other 99% of Catholics who, for example, practice birth control).
Something to believe in…
But even though I disagree with church teachings on many things, I concur that the historical Jesus is an undeniably awesome guy, telling the money lenders to suck it and speaking unrelentingly for the poor and vulnerable. He was a radical, a disturber of the peace. It’s a miracle that his revolutionary embrace of goodness, kindness and charity over power and greed comes across after 2000 years, even through an often tainted lens. I agree that this message is the true meaning of Christmas and I believe in it.
But these are complicated ideas. Children wouldn’t understand them. What they do understand is that the pure, otherworldly goodness of Santa makes Christmas special. For a little while, at least, that is all they need to know.
Growing up means learning Santa is not real. But maybe we can break childhood’s fall by teaching kids how to create magical ripples in the air around them, just by making other people happy. After months of searching for a way to volunteer with my son (you’d be surprised how hard it is to find opportunities for kids younger than 14) I finally have us set to help at our church’s food pantry. If he must grow up, I hope that he can see how being on the giving end, like Jesus, and yes, like Santa, is another kind of magic he can believe in.
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