For a very long time, parents have struggled over what to tell their children about Santa Claus, and particularly the question: At what age should we tell them the “truth about Santa Claus”?
We know certainly that this dilemma dates back well over 100 years, as evidenced by the now-legendary 1897 newspaper editorial popularly known as “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. In that piece, which subsequently became the most reprinted editorial in the entire English language, New York Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church answered a little girl’s letter with an emphatic declaration that Santa Claus not only exists, but that his existence is necessary.
We can certainly sympathize today, 118 years later, with Church’s assertion that the children of that day “have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” Is it wise, we still wonder, to encourage our children to continue to believe in something – or someone – that can’t be seen or heard? (Never mind that most of the religions of the world propose exactly that.)
As is so often the case, the problem lies not in the answer but in the question. In asking what to tell children about Santa Claus, we have created a false dichotomy, in which our children must either believe in Santa as a living being who magically flies around the world, physically enters their homes on Christmas Eve and leaves them presents, or they must reject him as nothing more than a fairy tale for the ignorant. We can hardly be surprised that such a choice is as unappetizing as that rock-hard, decade-old fruitcake that is still being regifted among our friends and relatives every year.
If we want our children to have an adult understanding of Santa, should we not begin by having an adult understanding of him ourselves – one that allows for nuance and incorporates something of philosophy? Church pointed us in the right direction when he wrote that Santa “exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist”. I can recall in my childhood, on Christmas Day there would be presents under the tree with tags that read, “FROM: Santa Claus”, but they didn’t all have my name in the “TO:” line. Some were addressed to my mother, and some to my father. In this way, I was taught early on that Santa Claus isn’t just a figure who brings toys to children, but represents something much more universal.
Coming as he does at the one time of year when we are encouraged to forget our woes and try to be kind and generous to one another, is it not an honest answer to say that Santa Claus is the personification of the spirit of human kindness, generosity and love – particularly toward children, but really toward everyone? (I welcome you to go back and watch the classic 1947 Christmas movie “Miracle on 34th Street” and ask yourself if the little girl played by Natalie Wood is the only character whose life Kris Kringle affects for the better.) If we choose to imagine that spirit as a jolly fat bearded man in a red suit, is that wrong? What is the correct visualization of a spirit?
We ought to be able to say, without hesitation, that Santa Claus truly exists as long as we can know the joy of giving; as long as we are capable of feeling love for friends and family, and kindness toward strangers; as long as we have not forgotten that man does not live by bread alone, but that we all from time to time need something – or someone – to inspire us to rise above thinking only of ourselves. People who believe in Santa Claus are people who can love. When parents tell their children about Santa Claus, they are not perpetuating a childish fairy story; on the contrary, they are telling their children about the very nuanced and multifaceted concept of love in a simple way that children can accept and understand. If, as we grow older, we come to have an enlarged understanding of that concept, it does not mean that we must discard or reject Santa Claus, any more than we reject 2+2=4 when we have learned to do algebra. Let us not become so one-dimensional in our thinking that, like Shakespeare’s Horatio, we earn Hamlet’s admonition that “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
So let me state as vigorously as Church did over a century ago: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. To tell children otherwise is to do them no favor. I am past the age of forty, and I believe in Santa Claus, and I plan to keep on believing in him.