The Santa Problem

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Lie To My Kids

I said I was always going to be honest with my kids. It’s not totally working out.

I was never much of a Christmas sentimentalist until having children. It’s a nice holiday, I can get in the spirit, but there really is just something to be said for seeing it through the eyes of children. 

“How many days until Christmas, Daddy?”

“It’s August 3rd.”

“But how many days?”

“I don’t kn… a lot??”

[five minutes pass] “How long now?”

[sigh] “A few more weeks. After Halloween.”

“…. how many days until Halloween?”

They love it, and I get it. It’s a magical time when you’re young — candy and presents and Christmas lights and new stories and different songs and all of that. I want it to be magical for them. Youth is precious and there’s a lot that I haven’t told them about the world yet and it’s nice that they’re still mostly positive about it. Most adults aren’t. When you’re four years old and the biggest things on your mind are “volcanoes?” and “Spider-Man!” and “I don’t see why we can’t have a gingerbread house for breakfast,” the outlook is still pretty rosy. 

It brings us to the Santa Claus conundrum, though. Working from an awkward grab-bag of early European Christian tradition and 1950s commercial advertising, I’m now lying to my children about a man who’s going to break into our house a week from today and bestow gifts on them based on how well they’ve performed under constant omniscient surveillance. Everyone does it, though, right? It’s tradition! Yes, tradition is why I’m threatening to call Santa on the phone to short-circuit a tantrum in the middle of the cereal aisle at Target! Just like Saint Nicholas of Myra intended!

It’s problematic.

First of all, it’s a constant improv class. You want to engage in some science-fiction world-building? Have a clever four-year-old quiz you. They’ll spot inconsistencies right away, and you’d better think fast. My son noticed the other day that we have a narrow chimney with a cap on it, and how is Santa going to fit down that? Well, you see [sweating], Santa has a special key he’ll use, you can’t see the hinge, but there’s a hinge, and so that cap keeps birds out of our chimney but of course Santa will be able to use his chimney key to get in [nervous chuckle] don’t you worry about that now. Oh, you want to know how he gets to all those billions of homes within the span of a single night? Uhhh, magic! That’s right, this is science-fiction-fantasy now. Magic. [awkward pause] Who wants ice cream!?

Here’s an incomplete list of other details I have had to rationalize in recent weeks:

  • No, the reindeer feet won’t come through the roof into your bedroom. The reindeer are very light. They’re filled with helium. Yes, their voices are very funny as a result.

  • What if the reindeer have to go to the bathroom? Well, they stop and go right away, just like Daniel Tiger said.

  • Uh, they use the McDonald’s bathroom just like we do when we’re going to Grandma’s. No, Santa has a special key to get into McDonald’s, too.

  • No, our dog Holly isn’t going to scare the reindeer off. Yes, I know she barks at everything but on Christmas night all dogs become reindeer. It’s a special Santa magic thing. It wears off by morning.

  • Santa’s still going to your friend Cooper’s house, I know he pushed Jackson in class the other day but he said he was sorry, Santa forgives

  • Yeah he’s probably going to Pokemon’s house too

  • No, not Scar’s

[exhales] It’s exhausting. These kids can spot a plot hole a mile away. In response, I’ve completed my thirty-year journey of becoming the dad in Calvin & Hobbes. (It was always meant to be.)

Meanwhile, I’m giving up all sorts of credit here. Santa has a magic workshop at the North Pole and a bunch of elves building toys, so the story we’re now telling goes, but I’m the guy who had to drive out to the Wal-Mart in Clarksville — that’s not even the good Wal-Mart, mind you, it’s the one in Indiana — because it’s the only one that had the specific toy that the boy asked Santa for, and it sure as hell isn’t Santa’s debit card it went on. I spend all fall being the joyless reluctant-authoritarian parent who tells them they can’t have everything they want, and now when I finally do cave into their demands, I’m giving away all the credit to some mythical German elf?

There’s also the trust issue. I mean, we’ve worked hard to we’ve set up a safe, stable home environment where everything is under control and they have an expectation of stability, we’ve told them not to talk to adults that they don’t know, and then this strange man who they may have met once briefly at the mall or the fire station, he’s going to sneak into the house while we’re all sleeping, and that’s supposed to be okay? It’s troubling. 

(Don’t get me started on that damned Shelf Elf. We don’t let snitches like that into our lives.) 

Of course, none of this is really the point. The struggle is in keeping up this story of a benevolent figure who does good things for everyone in the world and does so equally, with no ulterior motive, profit or otherwise. It flies square in the face of what we want to teach them about understanding privilege and inequality, in the face of what we know to be true about the world and how it works. It’s a lie. Why do we perpetuate it?

They will need to understand that it doesn’t always work this way. That many children will go without the things that they’re taking for granted this year. That many parents will wish with all their heart that they could provide those things but won’t be able to.

Look out the window today. Open Twitter or a news site. It’s all shit. All of it. The world seems like it’s on fire every day, and as an adult aware of the world, it’s hard to believe in anything. Today specifically, we’re going to see the people in charge of things displaying some of the worst behaviors imaginable, and we’ll barely blink because it’s what we’ve come to expect.

Maybe for one month a year it’s okay to let the idea ride, to see what it’s like to still believe in someone so inexplicably generous and fair. To let them believe that someone could do good for everyone even if it doesn’t make sense. Maybe they’ll believe things can be better.

Maybe they’ll want to be that someone.

But if you hit your sister one more time he’s going to let the reindeer eat your presents.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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Friday’s newsletter will be a big pre-Christmas edition of our usual jam-packed digest of recommendations, with BONUS CHRISTMAS DOGS. (If you have a Christmas dog to share, please reply to this email or @ me on Twitter with it).

Have a great day.