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To Santa or Not to Santa

A surprised looking Santa with the word "I Ruined Santa, Kinda" written across.

Yes. This is yet another random internet mom talking about Santa. I know. I know. There is so much of this on the internet, adding this one is going to be screaming into the void. I get it. I get it and I am sorry. But I'm still gonna do it. Not because I feel like I've got the solution to one of the biggest and most contentious debates on the parenting internet. No, because I've been on both sides of the debate and now rest comfortably in the middle.


We shall begin at the beginning. I was a Santa Girlie. I lived and breathed for that magic. It was a mountain top experience for me, Christmas Eves spent staring into the night sky looking for a glimmer. I was probably four or five when the night before Christmas turned foggy and grey. My parents were trying to lay me down for bed so they could get on with the rest of their incredibly busy night of making Christmas magic when a bright flash of red streaked across the sky. I don't remember this but my mom said I lost my ever-loving mind swearing up and down I'd just seen Santa's sleigh. It was red and moved so fast it had to be Santa and his trusty reindeer led by Rudolph himself.


In reality, we lived by both a major airport and an entire Air Force Base. It was probably a plane in the misty fog but my parents let me have that one. I went to bed that night practically vibrating with anticipation. He was real and he was so close to my house.


It would only be a few years after that my parents marriage would finally give way. Our already tight budget on an enlisted man's salary dwindled down to the barest of bones. My mom, with her job, was able to keep the roof over our heads, the lights on, gas in the car, and food enough in our bellies (albeit the menu lacked both variety and flavor. We were one with the Tuna Casserole in those days; cheap, filling, and easy) but not much else.


It was in my ninth year when my mom sat me down on Christmas Eve. She calmly explained that Santa would not be able to come this year. She told me to take a good look at the tree.


"What you see now is exactly what it will look like when you wake up. There will be no presents," she said.


Not because I'd been naughty. Far from, she'd explained, urgently. But because there was no Santa. Not a real one. She'd always been the one to buy the presents, wrap them in the special santa paper and label them "From Santa." But there was no money this year.


I'd known that. About the money. It had only been a month-ish prior when my mom burst into tears because some anonymous saint had ding dong ditched us, leaving in their wake an entire Thanksgiving feast in a box on the porch. Had it not been for that kind soul, or organization, or church group, whoever it was, there would have been no Thanksgiving that year either.


But that Santa thing. That made my stomach drop. To absolute bedrock. There was no Santa? The magic...it had all been in my imagination? Damn. That hurt. Looking back on this conversation now as a mother, I don't know how my own mom got the words out of her mouth with all those lumps in her throat. Her eyes must have been burning holding back the tears. To have to look at your kid and explain there'd be no Christmas gifts in the same breath as breaking the Santa spell.


I was not mad at my mom. I was disappointed but not in her. Maybe just a touch heartbroken about the Santa thing, but I understood my mom and what she'd been trying to do. Even when my parents were together, they hadn't been together. There was a lot of arguments. More than either was proud of. And in our 700 square foot house, there weren't many of those arguments I hadn't been privy to, even if I was supposed to have gone to sleep before they broke out. But Christmas, most holidays in fact, they kept their shit together and mouths shut for the sake of their daughter.


No. The anger would not come until the next day. And it still wouldn't be directed at my mom. The following day, under the tree had been barren as promised, but we still put on our Sunday best and made our way to Christmas Service at church. Christmas isn't JUST about the gifts, of course. Everyone was friendly and chipper and high on holiday cheer. And they kept asking me, what did Santa bring you? Was Santa good to you this year? Were you on the nice list, Gwenna?


My mom had been sure to explain that knowing that she'd been Santa all along was a secret I was to keep. Because lots and lots of other kids still believed in Santa, it was their Mom's and Dad's job to tell them, not mine. So I kept my mouth shut. I warily stared at every adult who approached me, especially if they were smiling too hard. The kids, my peers, rattling off their epic North Pole hauls didn't bother me. It wasn't their fault and I reasoned their parents would tell them when they were good and ready to do so.


But all these other adults. They knew. A bunch of them were well beyond having small children to play Santa for. Some of them were grandparents and even great grandparents. They knew the Santa Secret. They also knew my mom was broke as fuck. And they did nothing to help. No one contributed a single dollar store toy or pair of winter mittens. Not even a hand-me-down dress or pre-loved toy moved out of a playroom to make way for the new Christmas treasures. They knew and did nothing. They forced my mom to share the secret I didn't need to know yet. My friends and fellow third graders still got to play the Santa game. But I couldn't anymore. And they let it happen.


Again, through adult eyes, I know this wasn't a possibility either. Plenty of other adults had either barely scraped together a Christmas for their own family, lived on fixed incomes, racked up a shade of credit card debt to pay for the holiday, and many (likely most) did not know our financial situation. I accept these facts now. But at nine, these things were beyond my comprehension. I'd lost Santa and his magic and so much of what I looked forward to about Christmas and I was mad. At the world.


 

As the years passed, I learned more about how being an adult actually works, and my anger ebbed. I understood and the sting of that first Santa-less Christmas faded away.


Fast forward a solid fourteen years later, and I had a kid of my own. Luckily she was only three months old for her first Christmas, but I decided I would not be "doing the Santa thing." Not because I was still mad at anyone. I fully understood what had happened and why by then. But I wanted to spare her that sinking feeling. That moment when the bottom fell out of Christmas and the magic was stripped away.


Instead, I made magic with her instead of for her. I opted for the "Santa represents the spirit of giving" schtick. When my eldest got to school age I explained it this way.


"You know how we sometimes do nice things just because they are nice? How we hold doors open for people, even when we don't know them? Or when we picked the can up off the store floor so someone else wouldn't have to, even though we didn't knock it down? Well that's the spirit of giving. That faint little nudge to do something nice for the sake of being nice and the warm, happy feeling you get when you've helped someone...that's the spirit of giving."


Keep in mind I was talking to a five year old. I'm not saying I was good at this, but it's how it went down. To her credit, whether she understood or not, she paid attention and nodded at all the right spots. I soldiered on with this very overwrought explanation.


"Well, some kids need a little help learning about the spirit of giving. So some moms and dads tell their kids about a nice man called Santa. He isn't real. He's like an idea. Or a mascot. Remember how we saw that Barney wasn't really a purple, fuzzy dinosaur, but a man in a suit?" Again with the nods.


(An older child at daycare had brought a picture of a Barney actor standing with the mascot head off. Many, many children at my daughter's school had Barney spoiled for them that year. I'm sure the daycare director truly enjoyed fielding all those pissed off phone calls.)


"And remember how knowing that he's a man in a suit doesn't make his songs any less fun or the lessons like helping and listening any less important?" More nods. God, she was patient with me.


"Well, some parents use Santa Claus to help teach their kids about kindness and helpfulness and being nice just because it's nice to be nice. And here's what's important. You can't tell the other kids that Santa isn't really real. Their mom and dad will tell them when your friends are ready to know."


"Okay!" That's all she said before bounding off to do whatever a five year old girl does after having just learned about and had spoiled Santa. To the best of my knowledge, she never did spill the Santa Secret to any of her peers.


Instead, we played Santa several years, as our own fairly tight finances allowed us to. We volunteered at food pantries together and were even able to ladle out gravy and hand out slices of apple pie at a holiday homeless shelter one year. We placed mittens on the mitten tree for foster kids and caroled at the assisted living center down the road from our apartment.


We put as much good into the world as we could, making sure that the spirit of giving, the spirit of Santa burned just as bright in our home as in those who set cookies out for Santa. Eventually I gave her more of the history of Santa and where the legends had come from. She enjoyed those.


But I saw it. I saw the light in her eyes flicker every time some well meaning soul asked her what Santa brought her. She'd shrug and say something like "My mom got me a My Little Pony," and if the adult thought that was a weird response, they never made an issue of it. I saw her cast about looking for words or appropriate responses when all of her friends were comparing notes for their annual letters to Santa.


I saw her sit idly by while those same kids swapped stories of how they for sure saw Santa and those were definitely sleigh bells they heard outside and one kid swore they heard hoof beats on the roof. I didn't know why that bothered me, watching her navigate life with a secret they'd all learn eventually. But it did. I'd figure it out though, why it bothered me. Because she would straight up tell me.


 

Eleven years after holding my first infant in front a glittering Christmas tree, vowing not to "do the Santa thing", I had two more infants and more questions. I would have sworn I'd made the right decision about the Santa issue all those years ago. I just knew I'd hit the mark with that excellent explanation of St. Nick. But something wormed inside me, a question about just how right I'd been. So, I decided to ask my daughter her thoughts.


"Okay. Santa. You've always known the truth and now that most of your friends do too, what do you think? Should Santa come to our house and we can tell them the truth when they get older or do we not celebrate Christmas with Santa just like you did when you were little?"


She thought about it. For a long time. Especially for an eleven year old. Days actually. Once she'd finally sat with it long enough she decided she did want Santa to visit her baby brother and baby sister. For as long as they believed, she wanted Santa to come. I asked her why and to this day, years later, I'm still astounded at the wisdom inside that little head.


"I always knew what Santa was." She said, quite matter of factly. "And why other families needed Santa. It didn't bother me that they had Santa and I didn't. It was always the parents buying and wrapping and building the stuff. So it didn't really matter." It was my turn to nod at all the right places.


She continued. "But I always wished I could feel it." Oh. Okay, well that was a knife to the gut. "I wanted to play the game with them and I couldn't. It's kind of like when someone tells you the end of the book and even though lots and lots of stuff happens before the end, the book just isn't fun to read anymore. It was the same thing. I couldn't pretend with them because I already knew that Santa wasn't real." My throat was painfully tight and it was through sheer force of will that my eyes did not let out a single tear. I kept my shit together right up until she said,


"I want them to play in the magic. I wanna be the magic," Aaaand cue the waterworks. Had I made the worst possible call by denying her that magic? No. No, because the heartbreak I'd felt, the pure rage that hit me when I found out, that hurt too. But so did denying my kid a taste of that magic. I may have carried the Santa Secret younger than was necessary, but I still had a good number of years in the glow of anticipation.


Turns out there's no right answer. As with most things in parenting, there's not a right answer. There's a few wrong ones and far to many possibilities that lean toward correct to ever be sure you're making the right call. The Santa Secret is no different. There are definitely wrong ways. But what my mom did wasn't a wrong way. What I did with my eldest wasn't a wrong way. What I am and will be doing with my youngest two isn't wrong either even though it is the complete polar opposite to what I did with the first kid.


It's just...a very grey issue. Red and white and glittering gold and grey. I do apologize that you've made it this far through this article to not have a definitive stance. To Santa or not to Santa, that is the question. Whether tis nobler to live in the magic or to be it, that's a question only you can answer. I'll take neither option from you. Happy Holidays and I hope Santa brings you what you wish.


<3 Gwenna Laithland

Does Santa visit your home?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Undecided


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15 Comments


My son is 5 years old and has always been told the truth about Santa by me. He STILL gets super excited anytime he sees someone dressed as Santa, even when he knows who is in the suit they are "Santa" until the suit comes off. He, to my knowledge, doesn't tell other kids Santa isn't real.


I'm not sure how he has so much enthusiasm for something that is very much a myth/legend, but he does (maybe he gets it from me? I do tend to get excited when I see Santas, mainly because of how happy they make children).


I had a not-so-good childhood and finding out Santa wasn't real nearly destroyed me. I couldn't hurt him in…

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❤❤❤❤❤

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We never told our kids that Santa is real, or any of the other characters like the tooth fairy. And it was the best decision we ever made. Everyone received gifts, and we added extras under the tree on Christmas Eve for an added surprise. The reason that us and our kids were all happiest with this decision is because we stressed honesty and integrity, and so telling them a fake story about Santa just wasn’t going to work for us. The honesty and transparency we practiced had a huge positive effect on our relationships long term.

Besides being dishonest, the other problem I have with the Santa story is something that makes me cringe every year when I…

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Okay, yup I feel this in my soul. In our household the big gifts under the tree are very clearly from mum and dad. But the stockings stuffed with socks, a new toothbrush and little silly things. Those are from Santa, because santa cares about dental hygiene and warm toes. You can't eat that my cookies, and mince pies with good dental hygiene. I know... The toothbrush thing is wierd, but as you always say "What works for my family may not work for yours"

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Ashley Farinha
Ashley Farinha
Nov 28, 2023

Not done crying. Ok sobbing alright I'm sobbing, for your mom, your broken heart, your oldest's wisdom and huge heart. Just sobbing. But also grateful, because you gave me an idea. My children are blessed with lots of 'stuff' and I think I want to adopt your teaching of Santa being about the nice things we do. This year instead of just asking them to thin out their toys, I want to ask them to be Santa. I want them to find a nice toy that's still in great condition that they don't really or never played with that we can be Santa for someone else with. They're only 2 and 4 so well see how it goes....so Than…

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