Our girl doesn’t believe in Santa; she never has. When she was just old enough to anticipate Christmas, we watched one of those old, stop-motion specials on TV, and she said, “That’s pretend, right?”
“Right,” I told her, reaffirming what she had recently learned about Elmo and Dora the Explorer: fantasy is fun, but it’s not real.
When she was four years old, she announced to her neighborhood pals not only that she didn’t believe in Santa, but that “Santa Claus is made up baby stuff—totally not real.”
The effect was like a cannonball in a crowded swimming pool or the words “public health care option” at a town hall meeting. By the time Alice hurled herself into the living room, half the neighborhood kids were in pursuit like a mob of townsfolk storming Frankenstein’s castle. Even the normally shy followed her through the still swinging door, eight or ten furious children shouting:
“She said there’s no such thing as Santa!”
“There is no such thing as Santa! You’re mad ‘cause I won’t say there is!”
“There is so a Santa! Our mom said so!”
“There is not! It’s pretend! You’re stupid!”
“You’re stupid! Santa’s real—we saw him in a parade!”
In the absence of a more comprehensive guide, I offer these rules of thumb: 1. Do not, under any circumstances, tell another person’s child there is no Santa. Honesty will not score you play dates.
At this point, I noticed a glaring omission in parenting literature: no book I know of explains how to defuse a neighborhood jihad caused by conflicting views on the existence of arctic-dwelling toy distributors. In the absence of a more comprehensive guide, I offer these rules of thumb: 1. Do not, under any circumstances, tell another person’s child there is no Santa. Honesty will not score you play dates. 2. Do not, under any circumstances, laugh hysterically at an angry mob, even if the mob is smaller than you and does not have actual pitchforks, even if you really, really want to laugh.
I herded the other kids outside with a few vague reassurances in my best calm mom voice, sure I’d hear from somebody’s parents sooner or later, and went back in to deal with Alice. Her cheeks were redder than Kris Kringle’s, her jaw set in a stubborn clench. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “but your friends think there is.”
“But there’s not! It’s pretend. You said it’s pretend.”
“I know, but it’s not something to fight about. They can believe he’s real and you can believe he’s pretend and you can still be friends. Their pretending doesn’t hurt you.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll just say I believe in stupid Santa Claus.”
“You don’t have to say you believe in Santa, just don’t talk about it with them,” I told her. “Talk about something you all like. Talk about Christmas lights or cookies or Elf. Talk about presents!”
“I’ll just say I believe in Santa.” She had been too angry to cry, but now her blue eyes filled with tears. She looked absurdly like the kids in the TV special when they realized Santa wasn’t coming and Christmas was ruined. She looked defeated, and I wondered, why was it rude for her to talk about Christmas as she had experienced it?
The leap from Santa to the other big man up north is not, in this case, a long one. I realize that comparing belief in God to belief in Santa Claus may offend some people, and I don’t mean to trivialize the conversation, but the analogy, in this case, holds up. As a non-believer, I have taken my own advice too often. Afraid of offending, I avoid discussing religion. When avoidance is impossible, I dissemble, give vague answers or change the subject. Most people assume that I believe some version of what they believe. Usually, correcting the assumption isn’t worth the awkwardness or potential resentment.
The Santa Fiasco was a teaching moment, but I taught my daughter the wrong lesson.
The Santa Fiasco was a teaching moment, but I taught my daughter the wrong lesson. Instead of teaching her to speak confidently and calmly about her beliefs and to listen respectfully to others’ stories, I taught her to avoid conflict, to keep quiet. If it comes up again, I will explain to the kids that some people don’t believe in Santa (in fact, some people don’t believe in Christmas—imagine that). The next time someone assumes I believe in God, I will also try a direct approach. “Actually, I’m an atheist,” I might say. “Have you seen Elf?”