Santa Claus; this jolly old fellow is everywhere. They are the main contributor of our three and a half year olds Christmas candy stash. In a movement with the times Santa has also provided two children’s books this year, three if you count the work of an elf in Santa’s name.
Despite this good work there is a tide of disapproval rising against Santa. My older brother who dresses as Santa to walk up and down his local shopping strip has adults come up to him regularly (to what end?) to whisper “I need to tell you, It’s terribly commercial.”
Santa won’t be coming to our house this year. There is no need with a sole child who is only one of two grandchildren on my side. That’s a lot of presents heading her way already. I’m tempted to re-badge a part of our present to the kid as from Santa but there’ll be no last minute “I’ve got to get something from Santa” panic.
It’s not that we’re anti-Santa at our place. Last year was as close to being anti-Santa as I’ve ever got. With a two year old the Santa tradition was a huge imposition into her developing fantasy life and for a two year old it’s a pretty dull fantasy. There was absolutely nothing for her to do but stick out her hand to receive candy (which her parents largely intercepted) or presents. Think about it, when have you ever seen a child “play Santa” with other kids? If they did it would be a fairly dull game for the non-Santa participants. That’s why instead of Santa we developed our own variant of Bubba Yugga last year. At Christmas time our Bubba Yugga tries to eat children’s fingers but can easily be defeated by pepper on their head; much more interactive.
I also resent the way that people just assume that Santa will be a part of your child’s life. Strangers (good people no doubt) ask your child point blank “Will Santa be coming to your house this year?” Where’s the respect that Santa is not a part of every person’s Christmas? I don’t want strangers coming up to my child and saying “Will you be praying to Jesus this Christmas?” nor do I want a whole heap of religiosity at my kid’s kinder. Why is Santa evangelism any different? Just like when people ask me my star sign I want to say “Hey, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion”, but it feels a little harsh.
Those are my objections to Santa. The Santa story is imposed on us in a way I shouldn’t have to tolerate for such a narrow cultural symbol and it’s completely uninteractive for children to engage with. But that’s where my objection pretty much ends. I don’t share in what seem to me to be the two largest objections to Santa; that Santa is not “real” and that Santa is inherently part of a culture of greed. In fact I want to write specifically against these objections.
1. Santa is not real.
Our child has asked us whether Santa is real or imaginary. We asked her what she thought. She replied that she thought “Imaginary”. Guess what? This didn’t devastate her. She is still happy to play along with anyone dressed as Santa. She also will ride on your back if you whinny loud enough.
Anyone who is concerned that they are teaching their child things that aren’t true when they tell them about fairies, dragons or Santa needs to remember that your children know the difference between “telling stories”, “tricking” and “teaching”. Or if they don’t you may want to work on that. It has safety implications.
Unfortunately not every adult understands the difference. Some people have no room for fantasy. Every bible story has to be absolutely accurate or it’s a dreadful lie. That’s a position that can be taken by theists or atheists. We also see a lack of moral distinction between the fantastic and the real when playing with guns needs to be replaced by building bridges and slaying dragons has to be replaced by protecting fragile dragon ecosystems.
With Santa this lack of distinction forces people into two equally ludicrous camps; those who try to physically explain with pseudo-science all of the Santa story (his ability to reach every child in one night for example) and in the other camp those who feel it is necessary to point out to a three year old that Santa is just made up. I can’t think of any more boring ways to engage with the Santa myth.
There’s also a bizarre and unnecessary crisis faced by parents when their kids “grow out of Santa”. That crisis never happens with the Easter Bunny. It never happens with dragons either. Prepubescents, adolescents and teenagers walk around with fake (or real when they can get it) dragon tattoos, biting the heads off their chocolate bunnies but Santa is for little kids and adults. I think this is entirely due to all the caring whether Santa is real malarkey. We force kids to choose – stay completely and embarrassingly naive about physics or lose Santa altogether. What a mean spirited choice. It’s not a choice we are obliged to make about fairies.
2. Santa is all about greed.
Nothing could be further from the truth than that Santa is all about greed. Santa works all year round making toys for no profit, not even drawing a wage which he then distributes to kids without any reward other than a beverage and a cookie. Ask any Santa suit wearer in an Australian summer whether they felt greedy being Santa and they’ll shoot you a big “Ho, Ho, Ho”. It’s possibly the least selfish time of their life. Think of bikers dressed in Santa hats on their toy run. Santa is actually symbolic of our better natures and putting on a Santa hat allows tuff and gruff men to soften themselves.
Best of all Santa is a way we can give anonymously and yet still be personal about it. Every year the guise of Santa is a means for charitable gifts to be distributed without any credit to the original giver or often even the distributing organisation. All of this is achieved without depersonalising the gift. Santa doesn’t give cheques or subsidies but presents. While this isn’t all families in poverty need it is important. And because Santa gives to all kids this charity doesn’t have to threaten even the proudest parent’s ego.
Businesses do exploit the image of Santa to sell to us though and the super effectiveness of Santa as a selling tool can’t be denied. Parents with a real hunger to give their kids a “good Christmas” (often unlike their own growing up) can be real suckers for anything with a Santa face on it. Kids also recognise the image giving dodgy candy and toys a brand credibility that they don’t deserve. In this way Santa is all about some people’s desire to make money.
I just don’t think that this commercial story overwhelms the story of our people’s Santas, the Santa riding a fire truck to kinder or the one in high heels who came to our play group. Let alone those “real” Santas; those retired gentlemen who wood-turn toys for kids who have none or ladies who knit teddy bears for orphans. I really don’t think that the corporate Santas are winning over our local representatives nor should we let them.
The trick to recognising the virtue of Santa Claus is simple. It is to remember that Santa is something you can be, not just someone else you meet on the street. There really isn’t much to recommend the Santa kids receive other than the tastiness of candy or the quality of the gift but let them peek under the beard a little, stop trying to convince them that it really is an eternal being from the north pole and they will see that Santa is something that one day they can become. That someone is generous and giving without a desire for credit or reward. That someone is one who knows the joy of a child is the greatest treasure, or should be. To me that’s the Santa that works; the Santa you grow into not out of.
Ho, Ho, Ho.