The Santa Fiasco (and owning our Unbelief)

Guest post by Amy Watkins
G* day 113 - my own little elf

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?”

Comments on The Santa Fiasco (and owning our Unbelief)

  1. I’m glad that you’re being up front with your kid! I had a suspicion that santa wasn’t real for a few years and finally confronted my mother when I was somewhere around 10. She confirmed my statement that “Santa isn’t real, it’s just you and dad, isn’t it.” but was very shaken up and upset, and said that my dad/grandparents would be disappointed. So I pretended to not know for years, just to keep the adults in my life happy. “Santa” still brings stockings to my parent’s house, and leaving out cookies and hot chocolate didn’t stop until sometime in high school. Thanks for not being so attached to the warm fuzzy feelings that you get from being Santa that you make your kid pretend.

  2. Late to the party, but I wanted the conversation to have this perspective:

    I’m Jewish, and did NOT grow up with Christmas. I didn’t feel deprived, and with the other Jewish kids, all laughed about how silly Santa was. What did break my heart, though, was being told that if you look closely at Elijah’s cup on Passover, you can see the wine level go down…only for Passover to come around and not have that happen. I think the use of the words “game” or “imagine” might have made that easier to take.

    Anyway, I think it’s good that you’re teaching her to see it as something fun and silly rather than the gospel truth. I’m just sorry the other kids were jerks about it! I guess other people trying to push their celebrations is in the spirit of the season…

    Also, as an addendum, if you ever have hard financial times and can’t go all out on presents it’ll probably be easier for a kid to take than if she thought it meant she’d been bad and Santa was punishing her.

  3. Seeing a Santa at two different malls, solved my son’s mis-beliefs. Daughter wanted to go to a friends house because they believed in Santa. We survived.
    We did Christmas eve church then came home and unwrapped the presents, let the kids stay up until forever, finally went to sleep. I got up Christmas day and did the Christmas day shift at work. All is well except having the play the Santa game for great grandchildren. Family time celebrations.

Read more comments

Comments are closed.