Monday, November 23, 2009

Santa stories

This blog post at Free Range Kids, and the comments it generated, reminded me of a few largely-unrelated-to-each-other Santa Claus tales, offered here in no particular order.

1. About 20 years ago I had a boss (younger than I was, even then) who was an Evangelical Christian. Three details that I recall in particular. One, as a young father, he and his wife had occasion to take his child one Sunday to be christened. What I remember specifically is they didn't call it baptism, but a "dedication" -- which was intriguing to me, because, of course, that's what we UU's typically call it. (I was myself not yet a father, but had already witnessed several beautiful dedication ceremonies at my UU church.) Now I knew better than to assume he was "just like me" because of that -- I fairly quickly inferred that his non-denominational church was a practitioner of adult baptism, as is common among many Evangelicals. Still I was intrigued by the commonality, however superficial. A second detail was his disapproval of Halloween as a holiday -- something I had not at that point come across among Evangelicals. But the third detail (and really the point here) is that he and his wife made a point of not telling their children about Santa Claus. His reasoning actually made sense to me. He felt that telling kids about a mythical supernatural being, knowing that sooner or later they would learn the truth of its non-existence, would simply set them up to lose faith in God in a similar fashion later. By not pretending in the existence in Santa, he felt, they were not creating the sort of cognitive dissonance or breach of trust between child and parent that could prompt later skepticism in the existence of God.

2. In a somewhat similar vein, I had a high school English teacher who also wouldn't tell his children about Santa. He had a very different reason, however. He described growing up in relative poverty. When he was in 8th Grade (I'm pretty certain about this detail), his family got for Christmas an expensive television. He was absolutely certain that there was no way his family could have afforded that, so his only explanation, even at that late age in his life, was that it was from Santa and that Santa, therefore, was real. Eventually he learned the truth (and just how they were able to get this expensive TV, I don't think he ever told us); he was so ashamed at his credulity that he decided it was wrong to perpetuate the Santa myth with his own kids, and so he didn't.

3. And now to the story I thought of first when I read the FRK post. Some years ago, my church had an intern minister. One Sunday in early December she preached a sermon in which she made direct reference to the shedding of the Santa myth. It was mostly in passing, in the service of a larger point that, quite frankly, I've forgotten. Fast forward to the end of the service. Out in the vestibule, as people are getting ready to leave, I see friends consoling one of their children, who might have been as old as a 4th grader at the time. He was sobbing. Later, I learned why: he had skipped Sunday school that morning and sat upstairs with his parents -- and not until he heard the sermon did he realize that Santa was, indeed, an imaginary being. To say that he was completely flummoxed by the experience is an understatement. (I believe that the intern who had been inadvertently responsible for his disillusionment was taking part in the effort to console him.) Now, I want to point out that the parents involved did not hold it against the intern minister in the least for having accidentally shattered the myth (nor, I think, would I have, nor did anyone that I know of). But, more to the point, they acknowledged that they didn't even realize that their son still believed it literally at that age.

I do have a fond, wistful recollection of when DairyStateKid#1 first figured out that Santa might not be real (at about the age of 7 or so), and diffidently brought that up with his mother* and me. It was a very sweet moment. If I remember rightly, he actually expressed a bit of sadness about it all and decided to willfully believe a little longer because of that, even though he knew "the truth." DSK#2, meanwhile, I think pretended to believe to a much older age, and we all dutifully played along. I see no big problem in the Santa myth myself, obviously. I suppose if I wanted to rationalize it intellectually I'd say something like, well, it is an opportunity to help teach about how myths and stories come about, represent deeper truths, or blah blah blah. But mostly, it's just harmless fun, as far as I'm concerned.

Besides, I always rather liked what a friend used to tell his kids about believing in Santa: "You know what happens when kids stop believing in Santa? Their parents have to buy them presents!"

*not DairyStateMom, for regular readers...

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