Yesterday, a friend asked me what I think about Santa Claus. I have a three-year-old son, so this question is on my mind as we approach the holiday season.
I like the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra. He was legendary in his concern for the poor, bringing them gifts to lift their burdens. Legend says that he even paid the dowries of some poor young women so they could afford marriage and not fall into prostitution. This is amazing, and this is the kind of lesson I want my son to learn.
Unfortunately, the Santa Claus of today bears little resemblance to the saint of old. Our Santa Claus has become the happy, bearded patron saint of commercialism and corporatism. His tightly-run, efficient North Pole toy factory is a marvel of modern industrialism. His elves are willing workers who, much to the jealousy of managerial staff everywhere, never seem to gripe about hours or higher pay. To his credit, Santa Claus does provide his elves with all guaranteed basic necessities: food, shelter, health care, all in the comfort of his magical snowy village. This is far more generous than corporate America.
But his promotion of greed, and the idea of getting the latest and greatest gifts from Santa Claus, is the primary reason I choose not to promote this myth with my child. My husband tells stories of childhood Christmases in which Santa did not bring very many or any toys to his poverty-stricken family, while Santa reigned lavish gifts on his richer friends, who promptly flaunted their new treasures at school as soon as Christmas break was over. This is tragic and not a lesson I want my son to learn.
Unfortunately, I know I will have many teaching moments like this in the future, whether I teach him about Santa Claus or not, because I am raising him in a culture that is driven by ego and greed. I am already struggling with the best way to show him how to deny his ego and learn to care for the needs of all those around him. I want him to understand our human connectedness and the importance of his soul journey, both paths that are treacherous when mixed with greed, holidays or otherwise.
Another problem I have with Santa Claus is his stereotypical perpetuation of a cultural superiority. 99.9% of the time, Santa Claus is portrayed as a white man who visits children who live in nice, big suburban (or, maybe, country) homes by sliding down their chimneys. Now, I realize that this image has come down through the centuries from a European background and a time when most people probably did have chimneys, or at least fireplaces, but this image today is that of a middle-class or wealthy white family. That is not the face of my family; that is not even the face of America. What message am I really sending my mixed-race child by telling him that a White Man is responsible for Christmas presents and holds a list of all the naughty and nice things my son has done?
Considering the point of naughty and nice, this is another conflict I have with Santa Claus. No child, and no adult for that matter, is purely naughty or nice. The world exists in shades of gray. Even if Santa Claus puts all the naughty and nice acts on a scale to find out who is worthy of the gifts, who gave Santa the authority to determine the meaning of naughty and nice in the first place? If little Jimmy grabs a toy from the shelf while he sits in the cart at the store because the toy appealed to him, does that go on the naughty list, or is it simple immaturity? What about if little Jaleisha grabs a cookie from the deli and runs out of the store with it because her stomach was growling and her parent’s food stamps had run out for the month? In America, I know which child would get the most blame. Does Santa Claus think the same way? I want my son to learn how to grapple with situational morality, not lists of black and white crimes. Santa Claus does not fit very nicely with this life lesson. To that note, there is a children’s movie, Fred Claus, that I enjoy immensely that confronts these very questions.
Another children’s Christmas movie that I like with Santa Claus is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I’ve watched that movie with my son before. We talked about how Rudolph was special, and a very important reindeer, even though the other reindeer made fun of him because he looked different. I also talked with my son about the Isle of Misfit Toys and how there are no misfits on earth. Everyone is special and made to be loved by someone. We all must learn to love and accept each other. Rudolph is a great lesson in this.
Now, some people believe that it is wrong to lie to children about Santa Claus, to lead them to believe in supernatural myths. I actually don’t mind that part. I want my son to believe in the imaginary, see all the possibilities of the supernatural realm. I encourage him to make up stories, have imaginary friends, and believe in unicorns, dragons, fairies. How can we know whether these realms exist or not? I believe they do.
So my take on Santa Claus is that he is a cultural icon that surrounds us this time of year and my son will learn about him whether I want him to or not. I just use these moments and his questions as a springboard to teach him about the greater truths of loving and caring for each other during the holidays and all the time.