In recent years, my interest in Santa Claus has returned with renewed wonder. Around this time in December, I rewatch nostalgic movies about the guy, and ponder how he might manage filling millions of stockings around the world in one night. Yes, I know, at my age I shouldn’t be sustaining such childlike fascinations because, after all, the man doesn’t really exist. Ironically though, the whole “Santa doesn’t exist” spiel never satisfied my curiosity about him. He doesn’t exist as I had hoped he might have as a child, but for some reason there are vestiges of his existence that haven’t gone quietly.
So when the question regarding Santa’s existence arises, I support sustaining a child’s belief in him for several reasons. The first reason that comes to mind is that—in an often-overlooked way—he kind of does exist.
I’m not saying he literally lives in the North Pole with elves, and I’m not just talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the Santa Claus living in a child’s imagination, because that Santa still does have priceless value in the reality we encounter everyday.
Most adults hold onto the same sense of wonder they had when they believed in Santa Claus—it’s just manifested in different ways. Take Star Wars for example. It’s a fictitious story, but if I said, “The Star Wars movies, and all the books, media, and culture surrounding Star Wars, really haven’t impacted our world that much,” then many people—Star Wars fans or not—would raise an eyebrow or two. We all know the story has had a huge impact on our world.
Can something have an impact on our real world if it isn’t real itself in some way? I’m not convinced it can. Star Wars is a very real saga with very real movies, real video games, real action figures, real books and a really strong influence on various cultures and subcultures. Even though we know the actual events and characters aren’t real, the story still exists in many hearts and minds in a very real way.
Santa, like Star Wars, is not a part of our primary reality that we can see, touch, taste, smell and hear; but he is part of a secondary reality we can imagine and viscerally feel. Most people would agree, stories like Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street can touch us more deeply than anything in our real lives at times.
For generations, Santa has been a ubiquitous source of joy and charity during the Christmas season, and—while he may not have flying reindeer—we still sustain the folklore involving him. Why do we bother? Because there’s something about the songs, old-fashioned movies, and decorations that point to a person and place beyond our everyday reality. The etherealness of Christmas folklore makes it all real in it’s own unique way, and reality wouldn’t be the same without it.
The Value of a Childhood
There is something children have always known and adults tend to forget: Many things exist beyond the physical universe, and it’s these things that truly animate us—giving us the audacity to dream.
Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).
When I think of Santa Claus, I don’t think of the consumerist icon that’s decried by some Christians. I think of the Christmas Eves when I would hear boots on the roof and the jingle of bells with every step, then a big jubilant laugh. Sure, part of me said, “That laugh sounds kind of like my dad,” but I don’t think my childhood would have been the same without those nights before Christmas.
It was all part of a great family tradition, and our parents knew its importance. The phase where we imagine and believe the impossible is an essential part of every childhood. When we played pretend as children, part of us knew the things we pretended weren’t real, but part of us also understood the importance of believing there was at least some truth to it all. What would childhood be without that power of imagination, without that sense of wonder? To deprive a child of that by not teaching the lore of Santa Claus would be like telling him to skip over a chapter in the book of life.
And Then There Was Christ
Probably the most important part of learning about Santa Claus is the way his story seamlessly leads into learning about the birth of Christ.
A child’s years of accepting the truth about Santa, and learning the true meaning of Christmas, can be an illumination rather than a reality check. Those years can be gently intertwined with the story of a bishop from the Middle Ages who put gifts in the stockings of the poor when no one was looking overnight, so they may know the humbling love and charity of Christ on the solemnity of his birth.
When I was a child, around Christmas time my mother would put out a statue of Santa kneeling before the Christ child in a manger, reminding us of how this great bearer of gifts is humbled by the greatest gift of all: the Lord of the universe becoming an infant. My mother then taught us that we give gifts on Christmas to celebrate Christ as a gift to the world, and that on his birthday he wants everyone else to receive presents rather than receive them himself.
As I grew older, the evergreen Christmas tree became a symbol for everlasting life, and not just something pretty under which to place presents. My anticipation the night before Christmas became anticipation for the lighting of each Advent candle. Christmas morning’s gifts dimmed in the light of joy and charity I saw shining in people’s eyes—even during the darkest and shortest days of the year. The spirit of anticipation instilled within me as a child through December now has a different kind of potency, as I notice the new graces the infant Jesus has in store for me in the coming year.
The seed of wonder planted in me as a child by the mythical story of Santa Claus prepared me to accept the miraculous story of Christ. When I learned Santa wasn’t real, I wouldn’t have accepted it unless there was a better story to take its place. And to this day, you can’t tell me that God becoming man isn’t real. I believe every myth is told to sustain our capacity to believe the “true myth” of the Incarnation. All great myths have some truth in them, since they appeal to the universal desire for the true story that began with Christ’s birth.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you think Santa Claus makes it easier or harder to teach children the true meaning of Christmas?