He’s a tradition that parents have been repeating since the mid-1800s, with an idea that carries back to the 3rd century. For nearly every child, he’s the source of excitement and suspense in the latter part of the year. He can even become motivation to be on your best behavior, with parents citing the inevitable coal in your stocking if the opposite occurs. He’s the fruit of a tradition that sprung up with good intentions but has spiraled down into a commercial mess that pulls us away from what’s most important about the Christmas season. That’s right: he’s Santa Claus. And we need to stop lying to our kids about him.
The idea of Santa Claus began with a Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who lived around 280 A.D. He was known for his generosity and even was ascribed credit for saving three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them with a dowry so they could marry. Over time, his popularity spread, and he was celebrated each year on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death.
According to History.com, Santa Claus entered American culture in his current form around the 1840s. Children began visiting department stores with the promise that they could see a real-life Santa. Later, the Salvation Army began sending red-and-white clad unemployed men onto the streets to raise money so that meals could be provided for families in need around the Christmas season. Gift-giving as a Christmas tradition was also made popular in the early 1800s, with stores advertising the concept to consumers.
Many variations of Santa have existed around the world, using different names across continents and cultures. Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Sinter Klaas and La Befana have all made their ways into nighttime tales or threats to misbehaved children. But what’s the harm in this little lie? Surely it can’t bring about negative consequences. At best, it’s a sweet tradition that brings magic into the snowy season. At worst, it’s a little, white lie that that gives parents some much-needed leverage during December … right? The problem here is not just Santa; it’s the practice of parenting by lying.
Now, you may accuse me of being a Grinch or a Scrooge, or maybe just a sad, child-hating, Christmas party pooper. Not so! I love the holiday season with all its gift giving, seasonal music and food, and fun traditions. My own parents raised my siblings and me to believe in the legendary Saint Nick. I was 9 years old when I started questioning the veracity of Santa. In my young mind, it seemed something almost as important as religion or family themselves. I don’t think that my parents put disproportionate attention on Santa relative to the other things, but because of his otherworldly nature and magical powers, he seemed to be on par with God himself. I tried every way possible to justify the existence of Santa within a religious context and I thought I was successful.
One year, my family participated in a “Sub for Santa” project for a family who needed extra assistance during the holiday season. The mental cogs started turning and I suspiciously asked why we were substituting for Santa. Why couldn’t he do his job? If he was so magical, surely this family wouldn’t need anybody else’s help to provide basic needs. My dad responded frankly and let me know that Santa wasn’t real, that parents were behind the North Pole façade, and that this family needed help this year. Though I had already suspected that there was something odd about Santa, I still felt a little betrayed. I was young, but I was old enough to think that if something was carried on for so many years, it could not possibly be a lie.
With the high regard I had placed on this legend, it was a hard pill to swallow. I got over it quickly, but I remember the feelings of embarrassment that I had believed something so silly and that my parents had lied to me. It was simply jarring that someone who I had started to regard as godly was suddenly fake.
Research conducted at a large (yet unnamed) North American university indicated that there could be long-term and short-term effects of parenting by lying. Though the study was limited in its scope, it indicated that children who are lied to as a method of parenting are more likely to lie to their parents in their adulthood. It also indicated that children raised with this method were more likely to experience antisocial personality problems in adulthood, potentially as a result of missing out on opportunities to learn about problem solving and conflict resolution.
My parents were good parents, and I have no quarrel with them. I don’t know of any other times that they told me lies, and Santa was never used to manipulate me. I got over the issue a long time ago, and ultimately the tradition was fun while it lasted. But will I perpetuate him to my children someday? That’s a tough call to make, especially without a wife with whom decisions about raising children must be made. But I think that kids would be better off without Santa. Christmas can still be every bit as sentimental, charming and happy as we focus on charity, giving and above all else, the birth of Jesus Christ.