Explaining Santa Claus

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I’ve probably got another year before I have to start answering questions about Santa Claus, but I don’t want it to catch me off guard. My son is almost two and a half, and while he asks plenty of questions, they’re grounded in the physical present and haven’t yet turned toward the abstract. Plus, he barely knows about the concept of Santa Claus. Over the Christmas holiday, we rode the Holiday Express train here in Portland, and it was a lot to adjust to even without the addition of Santa and his elves. My son had never been on or near a train before, so that was a surprise, and (thanks to the pandemic of the early ’20s,) he hadn’t been around such a large group of people in an enclosed space before.

When Santa came through our car, he wished us a Merry Christmas, offered my son a candy cane, and asked if we’d like a picture. The toddler just stared and Santa moved on—the guy playing Santa is used to little kids, and they don’t experience wonder at meeting Santa under a certain age. And my son hadn’t received any presents from Santa yet, so he didn’t have any personal association with the man.

A Present from Santa

When I was a kid, I got a particularly memorable present from “Santa” that both confirmed and dispelled my suspicions about the elf in one fell swoop. My family traveled down to south Georgia where my grandparents lived to celebrate the holiday, and I had a plan to prove (or disprove) the existence of Santa once and for all. I had already experienced moderate success disproving the tooth fairy’s existence with an elaborate trap, and this time my method was even simpler: I put something on my Christmas list I knew my parents and grandparents couldn’t afford.

We weren’t a family of means, and that meant most of the presents I received came in under a certain monetary threshold—the sum total of which rarely exceeded about a hundred dollars. I filled my Christmas list from toy catalogs with full awareness of this fact, carefully itemizing my list to ensure the most realistic expectations. Even though I was receiving a few gifts every year from “Santa”, the net sum still seemed to adhere to the rule. My parents say they never tried to convince me Santa was real, but I still got presents from Santa nevertheless—and often at my Grandmother’s house.

The year was 1992, Batman Returns was out, and the associated toy marketing blitz was filling stockings all over the world with Batman action figures, vehicles, and playsets. The item I chose for my test was the Batman Wayne Manor Batcave Command Center, a playset for my Batman action figures that I knew to cost well over $100 alone. My parents could have gotten it for me if it was my only Christmas present that year, my Grandmother might have bought it if she halved the quantity of other gifts she was likely to give, but there was no way I was getting it and a bunch of other presents unless Santa was real.

I had my misgivings about the practical existence of Santa Claus. Flying reindeer were implausible, the time travel never made sense, and the only thing that seemed like it might be true was the part about climbing down chimneys. If the Batcave Command Center was under the tree, amongst a whole bunch of other presents, I would have to concede that there was something happening I didn’t understand. Despite my parents’ insistence to the contrary, there must be some kind of Santa Claus.

When I opened my presents Christmas morning, it was Batman all around. I got Batman and Bruce Wayne action figures, some villains for them to fight, at least one vehicle that would transform into a makeshift Batmobile, and a big box that could have been nothing other than the playset. From “Santa”. I tore apart the paper, ripped open the box, and confirmed with my own hands and eyes that Santa must have been real because I got the best most awesome present in the world on top of all the stuff I got from my family.

I was so elated, I immediately took it into the other room to play with all by myself, neglecting any toys that weren’t compatible with it. I probably spent about thirty more minutes believing in magic before my Dad came in and told me I really ought to go hug my Grandmother’s neck and thank her for all of the presents. I told him I had thanked her for the presents she gave me, but that this one was from Santa. Dad patiently explained that Grandmother was the one who gave me those toys, she had asked for a copy of my Christmas list.

Did I believe in Santa before that Christmas? I don’t know that I did, but I certainly received presents from that moniker throughout my childhood, almost always traceable back to my Grandmother (whom I did hug and thank for all of the wonderful gifts.) While my parents clearly believed there was good reason to avoid telling me the Santa Claus myth, my Grandmother similarly saw good reasons to perpetuate it.

I don’t know that my Grandmother had any more money than my parents when she was buying these lavish gifts. To hear my Dad tell it, she was maxing out credit cards every winter and spending the rest of the year working to pay them off. For her, “Santa Claus” was almost a way to sidestep those sorts of practical considerations—if I got too many expensive gifts from her, it might lead me to feel guilty that she was spending so much money on me, and she didn’t want that. She wanted to see the look on my face when I got something I really wanted, something I knew was impossible—she wanted to witness that uniquely childlike joy.

The Santa Claus myth encourages selfless giving. If you want to give someone a present solely for the purpose of them having it and not to get any kind of recognition or compensatory action in return, you can label the present as from “Santa” and it’s as good as giving something anonymously. It’s better, even, because anonymity can breed suspicion, where as Santa Claus is a character we all recognize as benevolent. Practicing giving with no strings attached, with no expectation of recompense, is an exercise in unconditional love, the highest value to which humans can aspire and something we are uniquely equipped to achieve.

It also encourages the spread of good cheer during a time of year when people need it most. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, and especially prevalent in the places where snow falls around Christmas time. The best way to fight the dreary-wearies of grey skies and inclement weather is with togetherness, something that Santa’s place in Christmas mythology certainly encourages.

Even the association with a historical Saint Nicholas is a positive way to memorialize selfless behavior. As a new parent, why am I even questioning the role of Santa Claus in my child’s life?

While there are several aspects of the Santa Claus myth that are harmless or even beneficial, there’s a concerning worldview it introduces to children that I’m not entirely comfortable imparting to my own.

The Problem with Santa

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows when you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness’ sake!

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

The first question all of us kids asked each other when we were back in school was, “what did you get for Christmas?” Those of us who ascribed to the Santa Claus mythology were well aware that naughty children got coal in their stockings and nice children got good presents. This is encoded into the myth—Santa keeps a watchful eye over all the children of the world, rewarding the good and punishing the bad.

This introduces a value system by which children can judge each other’s relative “goodness” and “badness”. If you or someone you know got a lot of awesome presents from Santa, it must be because you were good enough to deserve them. If you didn’t get any presents, or you got bad, boring gifts, it must be because you deserved them as well—you must have been naughty throughout the year. The logic is sound, given the premises, but this is a particularly sinister implementation of the fundamental attribution error.

Kids in the classroom did not receive better or worse (or more or fewer) presents based on their behavior throughout the year—they received presents commensurate with the material means of the people giving them presents. Under the Santa Claus mythology, richer kids give the impression of being more virtuous than poorer kids by virtue of the demonstrable material consequences of their respective behavior. This is a pervasive classist attitude that persists well into adulthood. Wealthy people grow up believing they deserve to be wealthy and that impoverished people in some way deserve their poverty. Even when it’s secular, this is prosperity theology and in no way reflects the socioeconomic reality that is actually responsible for the unequal distribution of wealth.

It’s a damaging notion to an individual’s psyche, too, apparent through a simple thought experiment. Suppose you’re a poor kid and you work hard to be as good as you can be for the entire year. You eat all your dinner, finish your homework, obey your parents, behave in school, and when Christmas rolls around, you’re counting on Santa Claus to validate all your hard work. Instead, you get a couple of meager gifts because that’s all your parents can afford. If Santa Claus is real, you must somehow be a naughty child despite all the good you did. Maybe you’re so inherently evil and undeserving of presents that it doesn’t matter how much other good you do—no amount of good deeds can make up for it.

Or, suppose you’re a rich kid and you put on a good show of being well-behaved when grownups are around, but when it’s just you and other kids, you push them around, make unfair demands, and deflect blame for your own misdeeds. When Christmas arrives with its cornucopia of gifts, showering you in rewards for your “good” behavior, you realize that you can be as “bad” as you want to so long as you’re “good” in front of the right people. Or, to return to the fundamental attribution error, you might start believing that you’re intrinsically good enough that no amount of misbehavior can jeopardize your riches.

Even if the notion of Santa Claus as being materially real is gradually disabused over the course of a child’s life, they will still inherit this rubric of seeing rich kids as “better” and poor kids as “worse” from an essential perspective where both deserve their desserts. There are plenty of grown-ups who still think this way, who think that poverty is a personal failing and wealth is a personal achievement—which is just ludicrous.

My parents wanted to make sure that I didn’t create an association between affection or deservedness and material rewards because they didn’t want me to feel unloved just because they couldn’t afford to buy me whatever I wanted—if buying a person something they want is even a measure of affection. We were not a family of great material means, but that didn’t mean they loved me any less than parents who could afford lavish gifts. In fact, many of those gifts were paid for in time spent apart from each other, by parents who chose material success over direct engagement with their children.

But I was not so tactful when I got to school. I upset many of my classmates by rudely and unceremoniously dispelling the myth that there was a Santa Claus with my story of the Impossible Gift that was nonetheless from a known relative. While they ended up with a closer relationship to reality, I gave them a puzzle to solve: who’s really giving the gifts?

While I can’t in good conscience tell my son that Santa Claus is real and goes around giving toys to good children and coal to bad children, I want to find a way to explain it to him that doesn’t make him an asshole about it. There are undoubtedly families out there practicing Santa Claus in the altruistic sense, like my dear sweet Grandmother, and I don’t want to take that away from them. If a child in my son’s class receives a gift from “Santa” because someone wants to practice unconditional giving, I don’t want to interfere by forcing a confrontation, I want my son to recognize and appreciate the gesture for what it is.

What I want to explain to him is why this myth is pervasive, how people use it to better themselves, and how people (perhaps inadvertently) use it to inform their prejudices—all in a way that I’m comfortable with him repeating to the friends he will undoubtedly have whose parents will (undoubtedly) have different opinions about it.

The Solution: Anyone Can be Santa

To give unconditionally means to give without expectation of recompense, whether that be something of similar value, words and gestures of appreciation, or public recognition. It is hard enough to give gifts unconditionally due to human nature being what it is (although maybe human nature is more altruistic than we give it credit for), so the myth of Santa Claus introduces a mantle that anyone can don to practice.

If someone receives a gift from “Santa,” they’ve received something from someone who wishes to remain anonymous for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t want a big spectacle of recognition, maybe they don’t want the recipient to be burdened with the internal expectation of needing to reciprocate, or maybe they just don’t want their kids asking how they can afford to spend so lavishly on their grandkids—in any case, Santa Claus is the designated anonymous gift-giver, a friendly and beneficent stranger whose mantle any of us can adopt when we’re in the giving spirit.

Furthermore, material prosperity is a function of economics and morally praiseworthy or morally blameworthy behavior is a function of ethics—the two are completely unrelated, except where the law, on ethical grounds, prohibits materially advantageous actions. (In that case, the material loss correlates to the morally blameworthy behavior because of an imposed value system, not because the behavior itself would result in a material loss.) No one is born into the socioeconomic circumstances they deserve, instead the socioeconomic circumstances into which they are born has a monumental impact on the material opportunities that will be available to them for the rest of their lives.

Poverty, therefore, is not an indicator of moral or spiritual deficiency—and wealth does not necessarily indicate the opposite.

Is Santa Claus Real?

In the sense that people give gifts and say those gifts are from “Santa” to mean that the gift is “from the spirit of good cheer and giving, not because you did or didn’t do anything to deserve it, but because someone loves you and wants to see you happy,” yes. People are Santa all the time, and it’s one way to practice unconditional love.

But in the sense that an immortal elf flies around in a sleigh to visit every human household in a single night, climbing down chimneys and putting toys beneath trees, no. That Santa Claus is a fairy tale like Cinderella or Rumplestiltskin. The only person who is constantly watching to see if you’re doing good or bad things is you, and there’s no good reason to expect your good decisions will result in you getting good things. There are much better reasons to make good choices. Neither does not getting good things make you a bad person. The gifts people receive from Santa are determined solely by what the gift-giver chooses to give, not by any intrinsic worth of the recipient—the same as any other gift.2022-01-08

I still have some time to hammer out the details, but I feel that this explanation will answer the question my son is asking, keeping out some of the more negative implications of the Santa Claus myth while preserving the altruistic spirit of Santa done right. And if I really want to blow his mind, I’ll show him a picture from his first Christmas when he was the one wearing the red suit and puff-ball hat.

I’ll say, “Don’t you remember? You’re Santa Claus.

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

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