“You don’t believe in Santa,” my daughter said to me the other day, her voice dreamy and absent-minded as she colored away at our kitchen table. I didn’t quite know how to respond. She is five now, old enough to clutch at my arm as we walk past the toy aisle in a store, old enough to stare rapt at TV commercials, old enough to write lists of all the presents she hopes to receive. But we had never talked much about Santa, because I never knew quite what to say.
My own mother was practical. When my two sisters and I inevitably came to her and asked if Santa was real, she calmly looked at us and said, “No, he’s not.” Later she told me she had no interest in lying to us, but she didn’t go out of her way to dispel the myth either.
Now I am a parent; I am the one who wants her child to grow up safe and loved and experiencing a magical Christmas—while not growing up to feel entitled and viewing the holidays as a consumeristic transaction. “You don’t believe in Santa,” my daughter told me, and it’s true. I don’t believe in that jolly man manufactured by corporations (it was Coca-Cola who decided his suit should be their trademark red, after all). But do I want to dictate how my daughter participates in our cultural myths? Why can’t I just let her pretend?
We had been to a craft show at an older church in our neighborhood. There, in the corner, were Santa and Mrs. Claus passing out candy canes to the little kids and posing for pictures. My daughter was too nervous to approach until Mrs. Claus sidled up to her. “Don’t you want to tell Santa what you want for Christmas?” she asked in her cheery voice. My daughter looked up at her and lit up in excitement. She went over and sat next to Santa and told him all the things she wants: mermaid costumes and Play-Doh and a wig so she can look like Elsa from Frozen. I stood to the side and realized this is what Santa is: a grown-up who listens to little kids talk on and on about all the things they want, and then he promises they shall get them. My daughter walked away ecstatic, sucking on her candy cane, sure that she would get everything her little heart ever desired.
I felt torn. I appreciate the ministry of listening Santa conveys, the warm feelings he gives to so many. But I resented the fact that it was now up to me to bring my daughter’s expectations down to earth, to remind her once again that no one gets everything they want, no matter how good they might be.
It also reminded me of how unjust the modern-day myth of Santa is. How it is all-pervasive in our cultural tales, yet the “magic” of the season only works for children whose families have money. For the rest—the kids on the margins of our society, who grow up knowing what Christmas is supposed to be like yet never experience it—Santa is just one more confusing example of inequality. Of how some kids get presents, and how some kids do not.
Where we live, many immigrant and refugee families are struggling to reconcile the vision of the American Dream with their complex reality. Christmas is a time that puts a glaring emphasis on how different their lives are from those of children on the holiday TV specials or toy commercials. Santa, in many ways, is a symbol of how far removed they are from the rest of the country. He passes them by in favor of those who can afford to believe in the myth, a striking contrast to the man who actually became St. Nicholas.
I felt a pang of guilt as I looked at my daughter, coloring away. Like me, she wants too much from this world. Like me, she would like to believe in happy endings for us all. But the reality of the world is too important to gloss over like a fairy tale, and I believe in a Christ who came to earth to liberate us al—spiritually, but also in our actual flesh-and-blood lives, regardless of income, ability, or “goodness.” This radical gift is what I believe in, it is what I have staked my life on, and it’s available to both me and my neighbors at all places on the spectrum.
Now my daughter had somehow picked up my own lack of enthusiasm for Santa and his promises. “You’re right,” I told her, “I don’t believe in Santa.” Because sometimes even the best myths we have can ruin us to the real miracle we have received, the shining star that came to shed light on us all.