In Defense of Santa Claus

I’m a Christmas geek. I won’t listen to the music or put up decorations until the first day of Advent or the first of December (whichever comes first), but it haunts my subconscious all year long, popping up in dreams and doodles in the middle of May or the heat of August.

To me, it is more than a holiday. It’s even more than a holy day. It is mythic and universal and deeper than either the shopping malls or my Catholic religion can make it. I want to share it with everyone, whatever their own beliefs or traditions or financial status: Christmas is about hope! It’s about humanity gathering together to keep each other warm as they cheer on the arrival of the sun! It’s about light coming to burn away darkness, both literally and figuratively! It speaks to the deepest longings of our souls.

I say you can celebrate or not celebrate this time of year however much or little you want to, in whatever way you like, as long as you’re happy and you’re not purposely making anyone else unhappy (there are of course people who won’t be happy no matter what you do: they don’t count). And yet I still get up in arms about people who do it wrong.

The ones who are so intent on making everything picture-perfect that they forget to enjoy themselves. The ones who police others, insisting other people say the right things or believe the right things or do the right things to make the holidays look how they want them to look. The ones who say “Celebrating is in poor taste when there are atrocities happening in the world!”

This, I think, is missing the point.

As parents, one of our most hotly debated Christmas issue is Santa Claus. What do you tell your kids about Santa Claus? Do you go all out, enlisting an Elf on the Shelf to help spy for the dude? Do you refuse to play along because there are kids who don’t get visits from Santa and you don’t want to give the impression that this makes them “naughty”?

Neither way works for me and my family, but for yours, go ahead! There’s only one thing I won’t stand for: the insistence that telling kids that there is a Santa is lying to them.

Lying is the word I don’t like here. If something is not factual, why is it automatically a lie? Is it lying to write, read, or tell a fictional story? Is it lying to play dress up and make-believe? Is it lying, on a more profound level, to speak of Heaven or of God when no one has any proof that either actually exists?

Yes, some people will tell me. That is exactly what a lie is. But I don’t buy it. I think fact vs. falsehood isn’t the strict dichotomy they’re insisting it is. Somewhere between the two and far more profound than either is truth: an intangible wisdom, a metaphorical understanding about meaning. It’s mythic, and I love the mythic. Sure, the word “myth” is often used synonymously with “lie,” but that’s a mistake. Myths are metaphorical stories that shine light on underlying Truth.

Santa is not a lie. Santa is a myth.

Santa is the Spirit of Giving, a being who gives generously without expecting anything in return, save a few cookies perhaps. Santa is not concerned that you reciprocate with a gift of your own of approximately equal monetary value. Santa does not demand your gratitude. Santa doesn’t even particularly care if you don’t have any cookies to leave. Santa just gives because it’s the giving that is so nice.

Santa is on the simplest level is a game of make-believe. I, being the oldest child in my family, kept playing that game for years after I knew no magical man was coming down our chimney. I still half-believe Santa comes to my parents’ house, and I know no one there thinks a mythological break-in actually took place. Just pretending that maybe it DID happen adds a bit of magic, of fun, and maybe most of all a True Spirit of Giving.

Santa is a myth, but that doesn’t make him any less real. Santa exists. Santa exists because we bring that spirit to life by giving without thought of getting. The code name “Santa” allows us to stay humble, to give (even if only playfully) anonymously–to give without that tagged-on expectation of Reward. Santa exists when each of us takes on that responsibility. Santa exists, and will go on existing as long as people keep giving to each other in that same Spirit.

That’s not to say it doesn’t come with a few catches. When your child’s wishlist includes an iPad, several new game consoles, a trampoline, a ride-on car, and a child-sized robotic pony that sings, and you can’t afford even one of those, so you gently point out that that’s an awful lot of money so they probably shouldn’t get their hopes up, and they reply, “Oh you don’t have to get it for me. Santa will!” you wince a little. But a kid’s got to learn to be grateful for what they do get anyway, and in the excitement of the morning, just one perfect, well-wanted gift can be satisfying (and hold their attention so thoroughly that you can’t drag them away to open the other gifts).

Besides, you can have fun juggling the logistics of Santa. My first house had no fireplace, and I worried that Santa couldn’t come. My dad assured me that we still had a chimney, a little one that vented the furnace, and that was more than enough for Santa. This made me love Santa all the more. The other day my cousin told us how they always ended up with Halloween candy in their Christmas stockings, to which my aunt replied, “and I always said, ‘Santa must have seen a deal even he couldn’t pass up!'” It’s a sense of humor that levies what could easily be spun into something negative: “We can’t afford new candy for Christmas” suddenly becomes “Isn’t Santa a thrifty shopper? And isn’t it fun to get a chocolate bat in your stocking?”

Which leads us to the financial disparity catch.

Yes, some kids get significantly more from Santa than other kids do. Some kids, well-off or not, don’t get a visit from Santa at all. I think the key here is to lay off the “naughty or nice” gimmick. What you get has nothing to do with what you’ve done. Santa, after all, is about giving out of grace, not because the beneficiary earned it. I personally believe that grace, to get slightly religious on you for a moment, is given to the undeserving in the hopes that they will come to deserve it. In other words, having more doesn’t make you better, it just gives you more responsibility to help those who have less (or in geekier terms, with Great Power comes Great Responsibility).

So I’m training my little ones to become Santa themselves. Every year, no matter how well (or not) we’re doing financially, we choose a gift for someone in more need than us, through an Angel Tree or another service. I involve them in the decisions, in the wrapping, in the giving. I outright explain that Santa needs our help to bring a Merry Christmas to all. I get them excited about being Santa, which is a lot more fun of a way to encourage generosity than simply insisting that they share.

I am proud to be an avatar of Santa. I love the little touches of magic, the silly surprises, the opportunity to imbue Christmas morning (and in a sense every day) with unexpected Joy, not Joy because of getting stuff, but Joy for the effort put in to make others smile. It’s a special responsibility, giving this way, not out of obligation but out of love.

Maybe the Christmas Spirit would be purer if, instead of less Santa, we had more Santa– if we all had the courage and the heart to give regardless of what we might get back.

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Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 9yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 7yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.