The Great Santa Claus Fraud

Mom and me, before the truth came out.

When I was six years old, Robert West told me there was no San­ta Claus. It was a cou­ple weeks before Christ­mas, a sun­ny warm day for that time of year. We had climbed an old oak tree on his grandfather’s farm and we were sit­ting side by side on a big branch, tak­ing turns spit­ting at a wheel­bar­row down below. The wheel­bar­row stood about ten feet from the tree, so it was a long spit. Robert could beat me at almost every­thing, but it turned out he wasn’t much of a pro­jec­tile spit­ter. All his attempts fell short. I hit the mark every time, and it was get­ting under his skin.

We hadn’t been talk­ing about Christ­mas when he dropped the bomb on San­ta Claus. It caught me off guard. “What?”

There’s no San­ta Claus. Your par­ents buy the presents and put them under the tree while you’re asleep.”

I didn’t believe him. We had a big argu­ment, where­upon Robert pro­ceed­ed to dis­man­tle brick by brick the fortress I had built in my sub­con­scious mind to pro­tect Santa’s mag­ic from the real world’s cold log­ic.

Rein­deer can’t fly, he point­ed out. A fat old man can’t slide down a nar­row chim­ney, much less claw his way back up to the roof. No way he could vis­it every house in the world in a sin­gle night even if he flew on a jet plane. And so on.

By the end of it, I knew Robert was right, and I was on the verge of tears, which seemed to be what he want­ed. He couldn’t stand los­ing to me at any­thing, even a spit­ting com­pe­ti­tion, so he used the truth about San­ta to put me in my place.  

San­ta Spread­ing Christ­mas Cheer

I climbed down from the tree and slouched home. On the way, my grief over San­ta turned into anger at my par­ents for play­ing me for a fool. By the time I found Mom in the back yard, hang­ing clothes on the line, I was out­raged. I con­front­ed her with what Robert had said. “You and Dad lied to me about San­ta!” I shout­ed. “What else did you lie about?”

Mom didn’t take much guff off any­one, least of all me. “Don’t you dare say we lied to you,” she said angri­ly. “We didn’t lie. We told you a sto­ry. A good sto­ry about a nice man who does right by chil­dren. We went to a lot of trou­ble to make Christ­mas fun for you and you should be grate­ful for it.” She picked up her clothes-bas­ket and marched away.

East­er Bun­ny Eat­ing Child’s Head

I didn’t have the temer­i­ty to argue with her. It was a good sto­ry, like she said, but it was also a lie, and it didn’t take me long to fig­ure out they’d lied about a lot of oth­er stuff. San­ta was the big one, but the East­er Bun­ny ran a close sec­ond. That sto­ry nev­er made sense to me. Rab­bits don’t grow to be six feet tall and walk on their hind legs, thank God, but I had bought into it any­way, naive­ly believ­ing every­thing my par­ents said.

The Tooth Fairy was anoth­er lie, but I didn’t care much about him/her/it. At only a quar­ter per tooth, there wasn’t a big enough pay­off to wor­ry about.    

A host of addi­tion­al minor char­ac­ters also fell like a row of domi­noes – the Sand Man, Jack Frost, the Lep­rechaun with the pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow. One guy I was glad to see bite the dust was the Boogey­man. My uncle claimed he lived under my bed. “You’d bet­ter behave your­self, or the Boogey­man will get you.” I nev­er real­ly believed in the Boogey­man, but I looked under my bed every night before I turned off the light just to be safe. It was com­fort­ing to know with cer­tain­ty he wouldn’t kill me in my sleep just for sass­ing my uncle, who usu­al­ly deserved it.  

I felt betrayed by all these lies. My bond of trust with my par­ents had been bro­ken, and I was angry and hurt for a while, but as best I can recall, I for­got about it with­in a few days.

Over the six decades since then, I hadn’t giv­en the death of my child­hood myths much thought. Then last month a news sto­ry broke that remind­ed me of those days long ago. A sub­sti­tute teacher at Cedar Hills School in New Jer­sey told twen­ty-three first graders that San­ta Claus didn’t exist, con­fronting them with the same cold log­ic Robert had heaped on me. After that, she mowed down the East­er Bun­ny and the Tooth Fairy. “Mag­ic does not exist,” she told the kids. “There is no such thing as mag­ic any­thing.”

Pro­fes­sor David John­son

This set off a firestorm among the children’s par­ents, result­ing in the school super­in­ten­dent ban­ning the sub­sti­tute from teach­ing in the dis­trict. Cable news pun­dits pounced on the sto­ry as anoth­er skir­mish in the War on Christ­mas. In the debates that fol­lowed, most every­one agreed the teacher’s actions were wrong, but spir­it­ed bat­tle lines formed around a dif­fer­ent ques­tion: Should par­ents trick their chil­dren into believ­ing the San­ta sto­ry?

I was sur­prised to learn that a lot of experts believe San­ta is tox­ic. Pro­fes­sor David John­son thinks the San­ta sto­ry impairs a child’s devel­op­ment of crit­i­cal think­ing skills and that learn­ing the truth, after so much parental decep­tion, trau­ma­tizes chil­dren. He tells the sto­ry of a child who defend­ed San­ta in front of his school class on the sole basis that his moth­er wouldn’t lie to him and then burst into tears lat­er when read­ing to the class an ency­clo­pe­dia entry about San­ta that proved she had indeed lied. “Lying to chil­dren about San­ta,” John­son con­cludes, “is immoral and unjus­ti­fi­able.”

Pro­fes­sor Christo­pher Boyle and Dr. Kathy McK­ay believe lying to chil­dren about some­thing so spe­cial and mag­i­cal could under­mine their trust in their par­ents for­ev­er, throw the children’s moral com­pass per­ma­nent­ly off-kil­ter, and leave them vul­ner­a­ble to “abject dis­ap­point­ment” for the rest of their lives.

Pas­cal-Emmanuel Gob­ry

Pas­cal-Emmanuel Gob­ry may be the most mil­i­tant of the anti-San­ta advo­cates. In his arti­cle, I Tell My Kid San­ta is a Lie and You Should Too, he prais­es an event at a Catholic dio­cese in France where church offi­cials told chil­dren San­ta was not real, denounced him as a heretic, and hanged him in effi­gy. “Join the move­ment,” Gob­ry says. “Togeth­er, we can kill San­ta.”

Seems a lit­tle extreme to me. My mom used to say, “Some peo­ple are too smart for their own good.” The San­ta Truthers may have fall­en into that trap. I agree lying to chil­dren is usu­al­ly wrong, but the San­ta sto­ry makes Christ­mas a lot more fun for a lit­tle kid, and chil­dren are more resilient than the experts seem to under­stand. Look­ing back on it now, I wouldn’t for­feit my child-hood belief in Christ­mas mag­ic just to avoid the short-lived dis­ap­point­ment that came from learn­ing the truth.

Of course, every child is dif­fer­ent, and each par­ent should make an informed, care­ful deci­sion about San­ta.

My parental deci­sion was nev­er in doubt.

Shhh! Don’t Tell

I was watch­ing the weath­er report on tele­vi­sion Christ­mas Eve forty years ago when my four-year-old son came bounc­ing down the stairs. I told him the weath­er­man was track­ing San­ta Claus on radar. “He’s over Pomona right now, head­ed our way!”

We ran out in the back yard and stood by the pool, star­ing up at the sky.

There he goes!” I shout­ed.

Where?!!!

There!” I point­ed. “He just streaked over the house!”

I didn’t see him!”

Dang! Maybe we can see him from the front yard!”

My son ran around the house as fast as he could, des­per­ate for a glimpse of the fly­ing rein­deer and the jol­ly old man, who didn’t exist.

It’s not a lie, I told myself as I jogged along behind him. It’s a sto­ry. A good sto­ry about a nice man who does right by chil­dren.

 

Post Script: Hey, Robert, wher­ev­er you are, I still hate you.