While Santa remains a necessary part of many Americans’ Christmas experience, not many people stop to wonder where this tradition comes from and the effect it could potentially have on children’s perception of their parents and the world around them.
The origins of this iconic Christmas figure can be traced back to around 300 A.D. in what is now Turkey. There an early Christian, St. Nicholas, followed Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” There are many stories of St. Nicholas’ generosity: one story tells of a poor family with three daughters who were destined to be sold to slavery over the lack of a marriage dowery. Suddenly, bags of gold started showing up in their stockings and shoes that were left by the fire.
St. Nicholas acted in secrecy with his generosity, and this act of selflessness and kindness, amongst others, has now morphed into a surveillanced and fear-based tradition that can harm parents’ credibility as well as a child’s ability to decipher the truth.
Highlighting the not-so-helpful things that Santa brings to the holiday plate seems like something Ebenezer Scrooge would do, but there are plenty of other traditions to get the whole family into the holiday spirit without convincing children to believe in a constructed narrative. Families can still bake cookies together, wrap presents together, host a Christmas party, volunteer for charity or even invent their own household Christmas traditions.
Parents should never make a habit of intentionally lying to their kids. While like in this scenario it is often harmless, children deserve to grow up with the ability to trust that their parents would never feed them lies. Parents usually follow this lie in order to avoid stifling their child’s creativity, but there are plenty of ways to be creative with Christmas traditions without lying to children. It is okay for children to still believe in the magic of Christmas without having to believe in Santa Claus.
The claim that parents must encourage “creativity” through the Santa myth negates the fact that doing so can also stifle a child’s ability to practice critical thinking. While it may seem like a long jump from believing in Santa to other ludicrous and baseless conspiracy theories, the reality of the world we live in must instead inspire parents to foster critical thinking in children.
The increased denial of scientific facts simply to support one’s own personal beliefs, or rejection of narratives that do not fit one’s own worldview is not helped by teaching children to believe baseless stories. Teaching children to weigh fact from fiction at a young age will only benefit them in their future ability to measure the truth and keep an open mind.
There are more underlying issues that come with the facade of Santa and his magical reindeer. When children of a lower socioeconomic class receive gifts from Santa that are less expensive and less flashy than kids from a more affluent background, it can create self-doubt within some kids who assume that Santa doesn’t like them as much. Most of the time, the reality of that situation is that their families sacrificed a lot to make sure they still got presents.
Parents need to be able to take credit for the gifts they give their children. Giving gifts is an act of love, and children can appreciate it even more when they know someone they are close to cares enough to get them a gift they will really enjoy.
When Santa is in the picture, children’s focus on Christmas becomes more about the material possessions obtained rather than being with family, or any religious events they might celebrate.
Another issue arises when the cultural and religious diversity in America is considered. Other winter holidays that are celebrated in the United States, such as Kwanzaa, Diwali and Hanukkah, do not necessarily have the same traditions surrounding Santa. While some schools still largely celebrate Christmas and the tradition of Santa, this practice creates confusion to kids who did not grow up in the same context. There is the potential that students could begin to believe that Santa doesn’t want to bring gifts to kids from their cultural or religious background.
Many parents also use the myth of Santa as a crutch for discipline. It can be used as a way to instill fear in the child without the parent actually coming off as the bad guy. The idea that if a kid will be on the naughty list for not being good all year is a lazy substitute for disciplining a child while deflecting the blame to a third party. While it is important to set good patterns of discipline with children, it is also important to ensure that children understand that love from their parents is not contingent on good behaviour.
While the decision whether to tell children about Santa or not seems like a small issue, it can set an unhealthy pattern and affect some kids in deeper ways than can be imagined. It is important to consider the effects of traditions that are perpetuated for children in order to equip them with every tool that is necessary to have a fulfilling and successful future.