When my oldest son was five, my husband and I told him Santa Claus wasn’t real.
Before anyone accuses us of crushing his Christmas spirit, know that we only told him the truth because he asked us, point blank, what he was supposed to believe. Did Santa really use reindeer to fly around in a sleigh delivering presents? Did he really have a toy workshop at the North Pole? Was he going to come through our back door while we slept and leave gifts under our tree?
We had been dreading The Santa Question for a few years. As Catholics, we wanted our son to appreciate the significance of St. Nicholas and his role in the Santa mythology. We didn’t want to tell tall tales about elves and reindeer and the North Pole, because the true story of St. Nicholas is impressive, too. It’s certainly harder for a younger crowd to grasp, but worth celebrating. We wanted to focus more on history and less on fantasy.
What we didn’t realize is how powerfully our culture promotes and endorses the Santa mythology. From Thanksgiving to December 25, Santa is ubiquitous. He appears invasively in songs, movies, TV shows, and books. He can be found at the grocery store, at the mall, on the town green, at the office family Christmas party. Throughout the season, random strangers walk up to small children and freely ask them about Santa. Are you being good for Santa? Are you excited for Santa to come? What do you think Santa will bring you for Christmas?
Belief in Santa is readily presumed, and we couldn’t keep the story from creeping into our son’s social awareness. At first, we tried to make a natural connection between St. Nicholas and Santa. We told our son about how St. Nicholas was a real person, a bishop in Turkey, who was generous and had a vocation to help children. We said that this was where the story of Santa comes from, and that Santa is just another name for St. Nicholas. We thought this was the easiest way to avoid controversy without compromising our beliefs or the truth.
But no matter what we told our son about St. Nicholas and Santa being one and the same, he couldn’t reconcile the differences between the two. Did St. Nicholas have magical reindeer in Turkey? Was he married to Mrs. Claus? And what about the elves? He was understandably confused, and that was when he came to us for answers.
My husband and I reiterated that Santa is another name for St. Nicholas, but only St. Nicholas was a real person, while the Santa story is just that: a story. So Santa wouldn’t be flying to our house on a sleigh full of reindeer and putting presents under our Christmas tree. St. Nicholas could do that, if he really wanted to, because he’s a saint and saints can do magical things. Maybe St. Nicholas was responsible for some of the “unmarked” presents under the tree, or the blanket of snow on Christmas morning we all prayed hard for. But the jolly old bearded man with the bright red suit and twinkle in his eye? No, that wasn’t real.
Then our son did something that surprised us: he decided to believe in Santa anyway.
“Well, I think he’s real,” he said. “I don’t know how he does that stuff, but I don’t care.”
We nodded. “Okay. That’s fine.”
“I can still believe in something, even if I don’t know how it happens.”
With that, my son had settled it. If there’s anything to admire about the Santa mythology, it’s exactly that: you can still believe in something, even if you don’t know how it happens.
My husband and I spent a lot of time worrying that my son wouldn’t appreciate the true meaning of Christmas with Santa serving as a constant distraction. We worried about how we would tell him the truth, and if by doing so, we would rob him of a valuable childhood experience. We worried that if we didn’t tell him the truth, he would be bitter and angry that we lied to him for years. We worried, worried, worried, and all for nothing.
My son figured it out long before we did. It’s good, and necessary, and important to believe in something you don’t understand or can’t explain. There’s magic in that, regardless of what the thing itself is.
It’s been two years, and we are still having the same conversation about Santa and St. Nicholas. Every December my son asks if Santa is real, every December we tell him he isn’t, and every December my son chooses to believe in him anyway. And that’s totally fine—all along, we had only ever set out to tell my son the truth.
Whether or not he believes it is entirely up to him.