I’m far from the first parent in history to weigh up the pros and cons of indulging their child in the wonder that is the Santa mythos.
On the one hand, as somebody who values rational thinking, I find it hard to reconcile my desire to encourage an appreciation for the wonders of the universe with the necessity to lie, or at least play word games, in order to weave such fantasy. But I also cannot downplay the power of social beliefs, nor simplify the processes by which we learn how to think critically into a strictly didactic exercise.
In raising this dilemma among other parents, a common response is an aghast,’Oh, but Santa adds such magic to a child’s life,’ followed by the insinuation of how it’s important to facilitate imagination and wonder with folktales. Perhaps, but the Santa mythos hardly communicates the social values I want my son to embrace.
For example, I’ve never been comfortable with using material goods – whether it’s a present, food or money – as a means of discipline. Sure, teaching a kid to work towards a reward is great, but telling a child that a magical being will bring them a toy if they behave isn’t in line with my form of behavioural management (either as a teacher or parent). Thankfully in modern Australia, I can avoid the need to deal with the traditional European contrasting figures of Black Peter or the devil Krampus, who physically punish or kidnap those who are naughty.
Secondly, the ‘magic’ of Christmas is tangled with the joy of a stranger bringing them something. Less than being about family and the joy in engaging in gift exchanges or cooking together or visiting friends or relatives you don’t get a chance to see often during the year, the excitement is more about the supernatural transportation of loot into the living room on Christmas Eve.
If it sounds like I’m staunchly anti-Sinta Klaas, you’d be half right. There is a side of me that feels that there are potentially useful lessons that can be communicated via the Nick narrative. For example, unlike most religious beliefs, it is one that is traditionally accepted as having an end point. Nobody expects adults to continue to believe that a fat, bearded elf will bring them white goods and i-Pods care of gravity-defying hoofed mammals if they refrain from breaking the law. This ‘exit clause’ (*ahem*) provides social pressure for older children to critically consider the role and persistence of myths.
Just as I believe religious schools combined with critical thinking in the curriculum creates more atheists, it’s possible that the Santa mythos – in spite of its conflicting values – might paradoxically teach the beauty of science and reason in the face of impossible tales. Could the disenchantment of a relatively ‘harmless’ belief system act like a practice run for religious stories? Is there merit in the thought of Santa’s demise founding the way for other iconic deaths?
Maybe. But that still doesn’t make it an easy sell for me. I’m not sure how I’ll comfortably nod at my son at Christmas when he asks if Santa is coming. I don’t think I’ll find it any easier to spin answers to ‘Is he real?’, claiming ‘He is if you believe enough’. Yes, I can turn it back on him when he asks, reflecting the query and nudging his critical evaluation in the right direction, as I would with any other curious inquisition.
But as others speak enthusiastically of this traditional jolly fellow’s nocturnal gallumphings, how loud will my silence on the matter sound? One thing I’m sure of; on Christmas morning in years to come, when he is old enough to appreciate it, there will be at least one gift under that tree addressed to my son that isn’t labeled ‘from Santa’.