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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
“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.