COMMENTARY: Navigating the Santa Claus question with children

COMMENTARY: Navigating the Santa Claus question with children


Pamela Courtenay-Hall, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Prince Edward Island at Charlottetown, wrote the following opinion piece.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was overwhelmed with joy. Like most mothers, I wanted to do whatever it took to help this little creature grow healthy, safe, strong, wise, and beautiful in spirit.

A few months later, as the commercial Christmas frenzy began in November, I wondered how I would handle the “Santa Claus question” once our baby was of legal age.

This is a question every parent who desires an open and honest relationship with their child must ask themselves… the question:

Are we getting involved in getting our children to believe in Santa Claus so they can experience the innocent joy of Christmas?

Or do we step out instead and tell our kids the truth about Santa, to be honest with them?

cultural dilemma

Christmas celebrations are so ubiquitous that this question is asked even for non-Christian families who must decide: Are we expanding our family traditions to include this ritual that our children will see everywhere? Or do we endure it so as not to dilute our cultural heritage?

Even for people who grew up in the Santa Claus tradition, there are many reasons to defy the tradition. This includes the problem of Jesus-Santa Claus inversion.

Christmas was invented to adopt pagan traditions through the Catholic Church’s expansionist drive to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader said to be the Son of God who taught people to care more about their relationship with God and the welfare of their neighbor than their own material comforts.

Yet most of us celebrate Christmas by buying gifts for family members and friends who have had enough already. And our children are encouraged to dream of a happy man in a red suit who could give you all the gifts you’re hoping for, no matter how much you already have… if you’re good.

The idea of ​​Santa Claus thus takes on the cultural significance of the birth of the “Son of God”… and in this inclusive glow children can absorb the idea that children who are “good” (or whose families are wealthy) deserve more gifts. Learning this principle of entitlement and acceptance of social inequality at a young age can help people later in life feel at ease about housing shortages, exploitative labor practices, the harms of colonization, the losses and damages of climate change, and many other tragedies caused by the selfishness of beneficiaries happen.

Even for people who grew up in the Santa Claus tradition, there are many reasons to defy the tradition.

language games

The other problem is that the socially maintained illusion of Santa Claus enables parents to systematically lie and pretend their children about a wild fictional character for years, while otherwise trying to raise their children in open and honest people in everyday life.

How would I deal with this dilemma?

My first attempt at a solution came in a philosophy class when I was introduced to the concept of “language games” invented by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the mid-20th century. Wittgenstein argued that most philosophers are captivated by the belief that our words are “signs” for objects that exist in the world independently of our perception and thought.

Contrary to this naïve belief, Wittgenstein asked us to imagine early human groups struggling to survive in their environment. The sounds shared by these early humans were likely sounds that served a survival need or a collective need of the people who used them. Think of phrases like “Look out!” “Help her.” “Try this.” “I like you.” “I need water” – all of this has its body language equivalents.

Wittgenstein’s insight – shared by every parent who has taught their child to speak – was that words derive their meaning from the way they are used. Learning each of these phrases in order to achieve the associated goal is what Wittgenstein called learning the “language game”…fetching water, finding solace, etc.

What makes this relevant to the Santa Claus tradition is that Wittgenstein also referred to doubting as a “language game”. He argued that some things are worth doubting and others aren’t… and children learn the language game of doubting at an early age.

And then I thought: yes! The Santa Claus shared illusion gives children experience (albeit lengthy, drawn out, and socially involved) to learn what is appropriate to believe and what is appropriate to doubt — even if most people in their society do seem to profess to believe in the matter in question.

Getting children to believe in Santa Claus can prepare them for the important moment of social and intellectual maturation that will come when they find out that just because toy advertisements and public signage and many parents and teachers take something as true, it’s not true represent means it is true.

Still, wouldn’t participating in the Santa Claus myth enable me to lie to my beautiful, innocent, trusting little child?

Maybe not. Drawing again on things I had learned in philosophy class, I realized that a “critical thinking” approach could save parents from this dilemma.

Brendan, Maren and Ronan bend down to speak to a socially distanced Santa Claus at Charlottetown's Confederation Court Mall in 2021.  John Morris • Special for SaltWire Network
Brendan, Maren and Ronan bend down to speak to a socially distanced Santa Claus at Charlottetown’s Confederation Court Mall in 2021. John Morris • Special for SaltWire Network

relationship of trust

A “critical thinking” approach to education takes something that is problematic in a society and rather than censoring or avoiding it, treats it as a fair topic for children to explore.

So I approached the Santa Claus tradition for what it is – a set of beliefs and practices prevalent in our society that I should a) teach my child, b) help them experience the good about, and c) should help him to discover the forces at work in it.

And so every time I taught my child another layer of the Christmas tradition, I would introduce it with “People say…”.

“People say that Santa Claus comes down the chimney every Christmas season with presents for children.”

When my kid asked, “We don’t have a chimney, how does Santa Claus get in?” I replied, “People say he comes in by magic. I do not know how.”

There’s also, “People say if we put out milk and cookies and carrots, Santa will eat the cookies and give the carrots to his reindeer.”

Of course, you must secretly consume the milk and cookies and carrots if the child’s growing hopes are not to be dashed on his first thinking Christmas. Finally, you must engage in some pretense to raise a child to provide the framework they need to learn what is appropriate for their age and to grow in awareness and self-confidence.

But when the emphasis as a parent is on “People say” and not on me telling my child a lie as if it were true, the parent-child bond of trust doesn’t become as strained and the child focuses on where it should be: enjoying this shared cultural experience, but also, as the child matures, reflecting on whether the social messages they are receiving are true. … and not whether he can rely on his mother’s truth.

With this early step, the rest of the critical consciousness—about commercialization and social inequality and myths supporting capitalist culture and colonization—will come in due course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *