Let the kids believe in Santa
Atheists shouldn’t crush the magic of Christmas, says Myra Zepf
My parents invented a bespoke Santa for us as children. A mysterious character who could only read letters written in Gaelic, who shunned branded goods and favoured craft materials. Everyone else seemed to have the mainstream incarnation, whose electronic gifts and Disney merchandise didn't fit my parents’ style. I introduced my children to his unique brand of magic instinctively and without hesitation. Their German father did likewise with “Nikolaus”, who fills their shoes with nuts and chocolate on 6 December. For a household that prizes reason, scientific evaluation and critical thinking, we are currently so steeped in magic that the air almost glitters.
Regardless of whether the story is of Father Christmas, the “Christkind” (the winged baby Jesus who flies through windows in Germany), or “La Befan”, (a good witch who flies on her broomstick down Italian chimneys), these myths are united both in their capacity to instill spine-tingling excitement, and by the bald fact that they all require us to lie to our offspring. And let’s be clear here. This is no tiny white lie like telling Aunty Polly you like the scarf she knitted for you. This isn’t an attempt to insulate someone from hurt feelings, or even an oversimplification of the truth. It is a bare-faced and unnecessary lie, and one that weaves an increasingly elaborate web of deceit with each passing year.
Humanist parenting stands apart from other parenting styles in one very significant way. It champions respect for the developing intellect of the child and encourages critical assessment of the world around them in logical, rational, unmagical ways. We teach them to look for evidence to test the veracity of ideas and concepts. It is completely understandable, therefore, that many humanist parents reject the dubious practice of inventing an omniscient supernatural being, especially one who judges and rewards children for their behaviour. And as if presenting a fictional character as real wasn’t bad enough, we then proceed to provide hard “evidence” of his existence. Answered letters, half-eaten mince pies and of course the presents themselves. Our deceit is so complete that, even upon scientific evaluation, Father Christmas seems to exist. If not downright unethical, it is certainly anathema to the principles we hold so dear for the rest of the year.
So why don’t I feel remorse or contradiction? Why do I not only perpetuate this lie, but positively wallow in it every year? To be honest, it simply brings us lots and lots of pleasure and seems to chime so perfectly with my kids at that age. Up until the age of seven or eight, fantasy and reality are inextricably intertwined for children. As yet, they lack the perspective and the abstraction required to make these distinctions properly. I adore the way they naturally dip in and out of the ridiculous and serious, the rational and the magical. There is scope for infinite fun, creativity and learning in this world of make-believe. And it passes so very quickly.
I have just watched my daughter, now eight, as she emerged from this fantastical wonderland into the phase of reason. The questions about Santa came first in a trickle and then in a torrent. They were incisive and intelligent. “How could Santa’s sleigh carry so many presents? There must be thousands of Santas to get around the world like that, but even then, flying reindeer are impossible. I mean, if magic exists, then it wouldn’t be only for Santa. Mum, the tooth fairy’s not real either, is it?” I sat back and listened to the workings of a healthy and maturing brain with satisfaction, sharing in her pride and glee at her own intellectual achievement.
Whether or not to enact the Santa myth is a very personal decision and one that every parent must make according to their own conscience. But to those, like me, who decide to suspend disbelief and to effectively ride a sleigh and reindeer through common sense and reason, I hope I may suggest a few caveats.
Firstly, I don’t think it helps to overdo the “evidence” of the big man. There is no need to stomp chimney soot into your rug, or to make fake videos from the man himself on the “Portable North Pole” site. And when they do begin the process of questioning, a respectful “What do you think?” beats a fresh batch of far-fetched lies. This way, we can support them in their intellectual journey. As for Father Christmas himself, I would avoid the creepy judgemental and all-seeing variety, opting instead for a generous-spirited one who loves all children equally. And it probably goes without saying that the whole glorification of blind faith thing is a no-no, the antidote to which is the simple statement that Santa will still bring you presents regardless of whether or not you question his existence.
The final restraint must come in ensuring we don’t contribute to the frenzy of cultural bullying over the issue. Santa-free households are not home to Scrooges, spoil sports, or Grinches. This is a free choice and children can learn that different families have different traditions. It is a choice that even this card-carrying Santa-lover respects very deeply.
What do you tell your kids? Or what did your parents tell you? Please share your stories in the comments