When I was a kid, my parents (I think especially my mother) did the whole Santa Claus thing right to the hilt. One year, I think I was about seven or eight, on Christmas Eve, my brother and I were sent off to the family room, on the other end of the house from the living room, where the tree was, and instructed to wait, because my parents had just heard that Santa was in our area, and would no doubt be stopping at our house soon. Compliant souls that we were, we went off to the family room and shut the door firmly. We didn’t want to get caught trying to sneak a peek at the Big Guy, no sir.
After a while, my mom came to retrieve us, telling us that, yes indeed, Santa had just been there. We went to the living room, and, lo and behold, there were presents piled up under the tree, and spreading out across the living room floor! Just then, my dad came in, all flustered, telling us that we had to get back in the other room, because Santa was still at our house – he had just gone back up to the roof to get a couple more presents. So we ran back to the other end of the house, hoping like crazy that we hadn’t ruined everything by coming out too soon.
A few minutes later, they came to get us, saying that everything was okay now, we had all the presents, and Santa Claus had left. This time, when we came to the living room, there were a few more presents left near the fireplace, and a bright new sled (a Radio Flyer!) sitting right in the fireplace! Obviously, with us having come out before, Santa had been in a hurry, and rather than place the last few presents under the tree, he had just dropped them by the fireplace and left in a hurry.
It was a masterful ruse, and it kept me safely in the ‘believers’ camp for another few years. I mean, what could be more obvious – we came back the second time, and there was a sled that hadn’t been there before!
But, of course, in the fullness of time, I figured it out. And, in a way, I was a little sad when I did. Santa Claus was a sort of godlike figure in my imagination – “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good. . .” And, when I knew that Santa wasn’t ‘real’, it only seemed natural, by extension, to wonder about God Himself.
When I was in my teens, I came into a serious Christian faith, and, odd as it may seem, my whole ‘Santa Claus experience’ was a hurdle to be overcome on my road to faith. Both God and Santa were these benevolent old men (in my imagination; also the pictures I’d seen) who I never got to see, but who were looking after me, and keeping track of what I was up to. So, ‘no Santa’ seemed to point suspiciously in the direction of ‘no God’. Of course, I eventually figured out the difference, and all was well in the end.
So, when Molly and I began having children of our own, we didn’t want to sow the same ‘seeds of doubt’ for our kids – we didn’t want to set them up for future disillusionment that might possibly make it harder for them to believe in God. But, we didn’t really want to cut Santa Claus completely out of their lives – we had enjoyed the ‘experience’ of Santa Claus. So, we told our kids that Santa Claus was a fun game that people play at Christmas time, and we told them what the game was about, and how to play it. We especially told them that some kids don’t know it’s a game, and we don’t want to ruin it for them, so we should act as if Santa Claus is real – that’s part of the game – we know it isn’t really real, but pretending it is, is the fun of the game.
It seemed to work well enough for our purposes. To my knowledge, none of our kids ever ‘spoiled’ Santa Claus for another kid, and we did have fun with the ‘game’ – we would label some portion of the presents every year as ‘from Santa’, etc, etc.
You might imagine that, in the kind of ‘serious’ Christian circles we were traveling in, different people took different approaches to the ‘Santa question’. One family we knew insisted on strict factual accuracy with their kids – they taught them the story of St. Nicholas of Myra, who left little bags of gold coins to provide dowries for the daughters of poor families, and so on, and how St. Nicholas had lived long ago, and wasn’t alive any more, but his legend had been passed down to the present day and, like a game of ‘Rumor’, had sort of morphed into Santa Claus. Which seemed to me like a lot of trouble to go to, but, hey, I could respect what they were doing. And, my ‘it’s a game’ approach worked just fine with those kids, too.
One year, when 1F was maybe six or seven, we took the kids to mass on Christmas morning. When mass had ended, our priest, who was Indian, was greeting parishioners in the back of the church. He mussed the hair of one boy, from the family I was describing above, and asked him if Santa Claus had been good to him.
The boy straightened himself to his full height, and, with a tone of righteous indignation, shouted, “SANTA CLAUS IS DEAD!” The poor priest was taken completely aback, and before he could even come up with anything to say, the boy continued. “HE LIVED A LONG TIME AGO, BUT NOW HE’S DEAD! HIS NAME WAS REALLY NICHOLAS, BUT NOW WE CALL HIM SANTA CLAUS!”
I don’t know if the priest or the parents were more flustered. Father was looking around for someone, anyone else to talk to, and the parents steered the boy toward the door, while the boy carried himself with a look of smug satisfaction – he had set Father straight, and given him the real story!
And, intermingled with stifled laughter, Molly and I congratulated each other for being one notch happier with the approach we had taken.