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To Santa or not to Santa, that is the question

To Santa or not to Santa, that is the question. More than ever, it takes a lot of effort and maneuvering on the parents’ part to keep this magic alive. Some will say that the fight is worth it, others will argue it’s time to stop lying to our kids—because yes, that is what it takes sometimes to keep it going. Lying.

If you are under the age of 8 and somehow stumbled upon this page, turn back. You won’t be able to unsee this and I promise you, you will FOR SURE regret reading this if this is the way that this happens for you.

Go watch some episodes of Bluey on Netflix instead.

You gone?

Okay now that it’s just us adults who have no idea who Bluey is…

Growing up in a home that was a hybrid of fourth generation and shin-nisei, holiday traditions were a bit of a shitshow for us. I know my mom tried her best doing it all alone, but I don’t remember the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa being a huge part of my childhood. I think I got a few dollars here and there in my Tooth Pillow that I eventually lost, and my mom still gave us second gifts from “Santa” into our young adulthood. I definitely don’t have a hilarious story of when I found out Santa wasn’t real from my classmate and then crying myself to sleep over it.

My husband, on the other hand, comes from a family of Sanseis who grew up kind of like me and wanted to do better for their own children. His parents went pretty all out on the whimsy and magic of the holidays, so much so that when he found out that the last of his magical friends were in fact, not real (for him the Easter Bunny was his last hope even after Santa ended up being a fake fat man) he exclaimed “Is ANYTHING real??” causing a bit of an existentialist crisis—and I only half-joke about that. Which puts us at an interesting place for whether or not we Santa with our kids.

While this decision stresses me out, a simple google search on this topic gave me articles from the Times and the Atlantic and Washington Post. I certainly wasn’t the only one ruminating and worrying about this—and even more surprisingly, a lot of families actually opt out of the tradition all together these days.

But for those keeping the magic alive, it seems the work has gotten harder. If you know people who have kids, you might already be aware that the big thing right now is the Elf on the Shelf—a new tradition that’s been all the rage since 2005. This didn’t exist for us growing up. The idea is, there’s this Elf friend who is “assigned” to your home to watch over the kids and report back to Santa how they were behaving. So parents would name this Elf, move them around the house every day, maybe have them get into shenanigans like knocking over a box of cereal or getting stuck in the dryer or something—all in all, good fun. Just another not-real-but-real-but-parent-operated Christmas bit. There’s also of course the good ‘ole classics like letters to Santa, putting out cookies and milk, so on and so forth.

So where does that leave our family, with a mom who finds the idea romantic because it was not something she had and a dad who is game to do it but cautions against deceiving our children (remember that existential crisis?). Our son is right at that perfect age where this stuff is going to be pretty epic. He is a talking and curious 3-year old who loves Christmas decorations, and I know he is going to eat this shit up. But how do we jump in? Would it be wise for us to also think of an exit strategy before we start, or am I simply overthinking the whole thing?

I certainly wasn’t the only one ruminating and worrying about [Santa]—and even more surprisingly, a lot of families actually opt out of the tradition all together these days.

“So I’m stressing out about the Santa thing,” I said to my husband one afternoon, making sure to whisper the S word since our toddler was nearby.

“What? Like, for him?” my husband looked dumbfounded, as he usually does when I bring up any of my anxiety over our parenting decisions. He pointed to our son, who has been naked for the past year since being potty trained. “That thing? You’re already worried what he’d think? He doesn’t even have clothes on.”

“I mean yeah, this is like the age when they start remembering shit like this.”

“I haven’t even thought about it. What is there to stress out about?”

Well, a lot. There is, of course, the danger of doing something that may or may not age well. If the past few years have taught us anything, whether we agree or disagree with the social justice movement and cancel culture, it is that we live in a world that has the luxury to always be reflecting upon our practices and wish to better ourselves. I think that’s amazing. But it does put the fear of “Will I one day be the topic of a Buzzfeed article about the shit our parents did that are totally fucked up?” into the minds of parents. At least for me, it does.

Then there’s the logistics of it. Raising a kid to believe in this kind of whimsy is getting harder and harder because kids are getting more knowledgeable. I won’t say smarter because that’s an opinion for another article, but we live in the information age. Information is available to them at the palm of their hands, the WORLD is available to them at the click or the swipe of your fingertips. A toddler can learn to operate Alexa pretty quickly. Content is everywhere, and while many holiday movies and shows are trying to do the tradition justice by either playing along or at the very least leaving this bit of “are they real?” up for interpretation, there are plenty of opportunities for the magic bubble getting not just burst but obliterated. More than ever, it takes a lot of effort and maneuvering on the parents’ part to keep this magic alive. Some will say that the fight is worth it, others will argue it’s time to stop lying to our kids—because yes, that is what it takes sometimes to keep it going. Lying.

Cue the mom guilt. Pretty much any time I try to come to a decision about my kids, I enter this debilitating and paralyzing realm where I second guess myself and my beliefs as I fast-forward into the future of how my choices have fucked up my children. Like, oh he’s never going to learn to trust anyone because I told him the black drink in my In-N-Out cup is coffee so no, he won’t like it (just kidding it’s coke, I KNOW he’ll love it). Having kids sound real fun right?

Because the thing is, I both joke about the effects of lying and truly believe in the long-term damages of it too. In an interview for Fatherly, psychologist Dr. Justin Coulson argues against the elaborate Santa myth because “kids who are lied to by their parents are more likely to lie themselves.” There was a study at UCSD that found children learn to lie from adults, and that kids who were told lies will both cheat and lie about having cheated. Well, shit. So not only will my son never trust anyone again, he’ll also learn to lie from my stupid coffee/coke bit. Great.

Santa has about 3 layers to him. One, he’s a fun holiday tradition. Two, he represents the spirit of kindness and giving during the holidays. Three, he is a tool used to inspire good behavior during the year.

At the time of writing this article, I’m already 6 days late on our Advent Calendar which probably won’t happen at this point, and it’s just about game time as game-time decisions go on whether we Santa or not. For now, our strategy is as follows:

  1. Santa will not bring the best gift, that honor of “best gift ever!” will be reserved for us or family members.
  2. He can maybe request gifts from Santa when he’s older and able to write letters.
  3. Santa’s gifts will be delivered in the stockings.
  4. If he ever asks about Santa, we will be honest and tell him the truth.

Upon looking into this Santa dilemma, I came to realize that Santa has about 3 layers to him. One, he’s a fun holiday tradition. Two, he represents the spirit of kindness and giving during the holidays. Three, he is a tool used to inspire good behavior during the year.

And it’s that last bit that made me weary of the whole practice in the first place and adds to the “deception” aspect of Santa. Because if we want to teach our children to be generous, wouldn’t a gift that is unconditional do that better than one that hinges on an arbitrary judgment of your behavior? Isn’t a lie all the more hurtful when you realize that the dishonesty came with a benefit to the liar, with the one lied to made to be a sucker? There are plenty of well-adjusted, trusting adults who were duped into behaving well to get on Santa’s nice list and they’re doing fine, so this is not at all judging families who decide to go all out on Santa. But that’s the thing, it’s a decision. And I hate making decisions… have I mentioned that yet?

But for now, our strategy seems concrete enough, with an exit strategy built in so I feel pretty good about it. And when the day comes where our children request some extravagant gift from Santa that Santa will definitely not buy—well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

“Then they just won’t get that gift, and that’ll be a lesson in disappointment,” said my husband. He loves an opportunity for lessons in disappointment and failure. Builds character, he says. He read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes growing up. “See? Easy. Done. Santa problem solved.”

“For now, I guess. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Let’s just make sure he’s not going around saying Santa isn’t real ruining it for other kids like an asshole.” Touché. But that’s an issue for another overthinking episode all about teaching empathy and not raising assholes.

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December 2021
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