It will be one of the enduring contradictions of our family’s identity that we “do” Santa. The jolly old elf of ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ with his miniature sleigh, twinkling eyes, and goodie-filled peddler’s pack does not easily fit into the world Ava and I are trying to build for our kids. It’s not that we find him devilish or antithetical to some ‘true’ nature of Christmas. It’s just that bringing the world of Santa into Pip and Polly’s lives means having to fudge around with some things that we usually would just avoid. For example,
1) Santa is not real.
Polly and Pip have wonderfully creative minds. They can turn a plastic crocodile into handyman’s drill and kitchen utensils into violins. Frequently, they will imagine themselves to be different animals – a dog, a bear, a spider, a woodchuck – and will crawl around the house making what they feel are the appropriate sounds and movements. They also spend a great deal of time pretending to undertake a host of real world tasks from serving food to building skyscrapers to caring for sick babies.
Ava and I love all of this creative energy and constantly encourage them to explore scenarios they have not considered before. At the same time, we strive to draw clear lines between the real and the imaginary. Oftentimes this line drawing comes into play while we are reading a book. We will come across something like a talking animal or a flying car or a Dr. Seuss creature, and Pip will want to know something more about them. At this point I will be sure to mention something about the author’s imagination in order to establish the realm in which we are working before continuing on to answer his question. I feel like this helps him better understand the workings of his mind and the minds of others as well as heads off any fear-inducing confusion about what creatures the world actually holds.
With Santa all of that care must go out the window. Elves, flying reindeer, toy factories at the North Pole all become possible and plausible because we don’t claim otherwise.
2) The naughty and nice lists
People are complicated. They do things we think are good. They do things we think are bad. Often there is a lack of consensus about which of those things fall into which of the categories. Even more frequently people do things in different ways that are neither good nor bad. They are just different.
All of this can be confusing for the kids when it comes to Santa’s naughty and nice lists: Is Santa tabulating all of these differences and deciding which are good and which are bad? How many bad things must one do to end up on the bad list? If I get fewer presents than another kid does that mean Santa thinks the other kid is better than me?
3) Santa’s ubiquity in holiday advertising.
Santa is an exquisite pitchman. During the holidays he shows up everywhere – shopping malls, supermarkets, the drug store, the bookstore. And where ever he goes his presence reminds you that you need to buy stuff for Christmas. In this he is the henchman of the market. Santa spreads happiness and cheer by showering everyone with gifts, and so you too must do the same. His presence urges us to buy more stuff because that is how we are supposed to show our love for one another at Christmastime.
And yet, Santa arrived at our house two weeks ago loaded with gifts and spreading cheer. The precedent was established last year, just as Pip was turning three and becoming old enough to remember things from one year to the next. Ava and I debated Santa’s merits and initially decided not to bring him into our home. But something about that decision did not feel right to me. I had a history with Santa, and it made me wonder if cutting the kids off from him was really the right thing to do.
When I was sixteen, my mother announced that she would not be doing Santa anymore. That Christmas my sister and I were going to be playing some music for midnight mass at the local Catholic church, and Mom had decided the logistics of creating a visit from Santa were going to be more than she wanted to juggle. It seemed a good time to bring Santa to a close.
It was no secret to us that Santa wasn’t real. That had been established long ago. But through the years we had fallen into a kind of Kabuki arrangement whereby we continued to play our roles with respect to Santa in spite of his obvious immateriality. We still set out cookies and milk before going to bed on Christmas Eve. My sister still got up at 5:00 AM on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought. My mom still wrapped the Santa presents in their own special wrapping paper. All of this was part of our Christmas ritual, and we played our roles with knowing smiles and only a few judiciously selected side jokes.
Mom’s declaration of the end of Santa ripped through all of this, and I wasn’t ready for it. Though I could not have articulated this at the time, I really enjoyed the process of a visit from Santa. It added an extra bit of mystery and excitement to Christmas morning. It filled those early morning moments before my parents woke up with a feeling of exuberant expectation that often outlasted the excitement generated by the presents themselves. It also added an element of playfulness to the day and the season. Talking about what Santa brought and what Santa did was like being in on an inside joke – we all knew what was going on but could have fun talking with each other as if we didn’t. It was a bit of silliness, but a silliness that we created together.
My immediate disappointment at Mom’s bringing the era of Santa to a close must have been obvious because the moment I said something about enjoying Santa’s visits with us, she began to backtrack. She had thought that this decision was going to be no big deal and that my sister and I had stopped caring about Santa a long time ago. If we still cared, she said, then she would figure out how to get Santa to come around that year as well. I told her that I would really like that.
That Christmas Santa made his regular visit to our house. We played our roles and had our fun. I don’t remember what I got that year, but I do remember being particularly happy. Santa continued to return to our house each Christmas for the next decade or so, stopping only when I no longer made it to my parents’ house for the holiday.
I think it was this idea of Santa as an enabler of silliness that made Ava and I reconsider doing Santa with Polly and Pip. Beyond everything else that Santa is or has become, having him visit brings us together into a shared world where playfulness is the rule. He encourages us to be fanciful by leading us to talk about elves and flying reindeer. He allows us to be silly and coy at a population scale that few other idioms can reach. In many respects Santa really is the spreader of merriment and cheer during Christmas, not because he brings gifts, but because his presence tinges everything with a layer of childlike playfulness that may be the true magic of the season.
As a parent this kind of playfulness seems like a quality worth passing on to our kids.