Everyone knows Santa isn't real
December 24, 2009 10:10 PM   Subscribe

As households across the world quietly deploy presents from St. Nick, Kate Beaton, author of the charming historical webcomic Hark, a Vagrant! (previ ously) remembers the tradition in a bittersweet light. In spite of venerable op-eds (and their animated offspring), such pain moves some to question whether parents should teach their children to believe in Santa Claus at all.
posted by Rhaomi (24 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I love, love, love Kate Beaton. If she doesn't become the next Big Deal in webcomics, there is no justice in this world. I usually don't like her autobiographical comics as much as the history stuff, but this was an exception.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:18 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree, the Santa myth is awful. And then when kids learn the truth, their parents have to say, "Alright, yes, Santa Claus doesn't exist - but that whole Jesus thing? That one's true." Which is probably why a lot of adults' religious beliefs seem to amount to: If you're really good, a big white guy will fly down from the sky and bring you presents.
posted by anshuman at 10:50 PM on December 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've been thinking about the best way to deal with the Santa Claus thing with my son. I found this blog post particularly helpful. The Santa Claus myth is not intended to be believed forever, and it can be used to teach kids about critical thinking. I think this is a pretty a pretty valuable lesson.
posted by lexicakes at 10:57 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree, the Santa myth is awful. And then when kids learn the truth, their parents have to say, "Alright, yes, Santa Claus doesn't exist - but that whole Jesus thing? That one's true." Which is probably why a lot of adults' religious beliefs seem to amount to: If you're really good, a big white guy will fly down from the sky and bring you presents.

My brother and his wife did not tell their children about Santa Claus precisely because they were afraid doing so would establish a dynamic that made it impossible for their child to believe in Jesus.
posted by jefficator at 11:10 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

My pre-teen kids don't "believe" as in the religious sense. They're bright and they have a pretty well-developed sense of fun, and I think they'll carry their "belief" in Santa into their adult life with no trauma at all, just as Mrs. Clave and I have.
posted by Clave at 11:13 PM on December 24, 2009

I think it taught me a pretty valuable lesson. My parents never pushed religion on me, but it was pretty easy to make comparisons between Santa Claus and "that whole Jesus thing". That made it clear that both were just stories that people told to convince others to behave a certain way.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:15 PM on December 24, 2009

The Santa myth can be pretty fun if it's done in a low-key way, and most children (up to a certain age, say, 10) have a hard time differentiating between what's imaginary and what's real, anyway. It's not really comparable to a fully-developed belief structure like Christianity, and, besides, St Nicholas was real!

On another note, my own 7-year-old son doesn't know who or what "God" is, or who Jesus is. I don't know whether I am a success or a failure.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:03 AM on December 25, 2009

My brother and his wife did not tell their children about Santa Claus precisely because they were afraid doing so would establish a dynamic that made it impossible for their child to believe in Jesus.

Hey, that's the reason my parents never taught me to believe in Santa! (Seriously.)

When I was a kid and my dad was in seminary, I got into an argument with some of the other neighborhood kids about whether Santa Claus was real. I, of course, said he was not. We went around and around about it until the other kids' mom came outside to see what the fuss was about. I demanded that she explain why she was teaching her children lies.

Wow. I was a kind of a brat. No wonder Santa didn't come to my house.
posted by brina at 12:07 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nick was a rich kid from Greek colonial territories in Turkey. When his parents died in an epidemic, young Nick was raised by his uncle Nick (they were Greek), a bishop who founded a monastery. The younger Nick naturally became a priest himself and eventually a bishop, and he gave up all his worldly stuff (if you don't count living like a bishop lives and having extra bags of money lying around) and helped out the poor. When a local family had three daughters and no dowry money, so that it looked like the girls would of course end up whores rather than wives, Bishop Nick secretly delivered bags of gold for each of them. And then there was the time an evil butcher killed three children to sell as meat, but the bishop brought them back to life. And now, to this very day, if you collect the water that forms on his bones, you can do supernatural stuff with it. Oh, I almost forgot: now the same Nick of the watery bones is also a big fleshy guy in a red suit who lives at the North Pole with elves and flying deer. Once a year, like Ceiling cat, Nick checks you in bed and reviews your recent record, and if he approves, you get the stuff you've been whining to your parents about. Oh, and something about adorable baby barnyard Jesus (unlike insufferable teenage Jesus: "You're not my real father! God is my real father!") and a guiding star and three inappropriate gifts from wandering magicians and the animals talking at midnight.

I still believe all of it. It's what gets me through the day.
posted by pracowity at 12:30 AM on December 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

I love the Santa-God connection. I CAN'T wait for my daughter (who is just over a year old as I type) to approach me in five or six years and tell me "Santa's not real; the stuff he's supposed to do is impossible."

I will respond "Yeah, but God's totally real, huh?"
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:52 AM on December 25, 2009

This was the year we dropped the dime on Santa with our eight-year-old. She had been hinting around that she had figured it out on her own, so when she asked point-blank if Santa was real, I wasted no time in saying "no".

I told her that Santa was just pretend, just like Jesus, God, and the Easter Bunny. Since she's grown up knowing that Jesus and God were just pretend, that made sense to her. But I think she was holding out hope for the Easter Bunny.
posted by briank at 7:40 AM on December 25, 2009

Kate Beaton's line work is so fucking charming it hurts.
posted by The Whelk at 8:49 AM on December 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Growing up Jewish, the whole "Santa" thing seemed slightly absurd to me, but I guess I always figured the idea was to have all gifts come from the same "source" so you wouldn't have kids thinking "Aunt Jenny's cheap, she always gets me stupid books, but Uncle Mike's awesome for video games!" I mean, I had Hanukkah, and I was directed to give my parents/relatives a list of things I'd like, just like my birthday. This seemed straightforward; I figured Santa was the same thing, just with a little roleplaying that, compared to the rest of the Christian mythos, was downright pedestrian. Then, when I was a teenager, I realized for the first time that kids were really, truly being raised to believe that Santa Claus was real, and I remember feeling almost personally insulted that kids would be getting presents their parents had worked long hard hours to buy them, and not even getting the credit - it's not "Dad got me this awesome thing," it just showed up under the tree by fat-man magic.

Then again, I never really believed in God either, so maybe I was just equipped for atheism from the get-go.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:19 PM on December 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm personally teaching my sister's hyperactive kid that santas are all actually child molesters and serial killers. Then next year I'm goimg to feed her a bunch of sugar, give her a can pepper spray, and turn her loose in the mall that has the "Meet Santa" display. It should be good for an youtube spectacular.

Oh and Kate Beaton is brilliant, both for writing and artwork. I STILL think she should be the next writer for Wonder Woman.
posted by happyroach at 1:44 PM on December 25, 2009

My atheistic parents led me to believe that Santa was real. Except that in the second grade, I performed an experiment to determine if he was real or not. I told my parents one list of presents I might like (and being skeptical, I told them the stuff I really wanted). Then I sent a letter to Santa, with no return address, asking for a totally disjoint set of stuff. Guess which list of stuff my gifts were from that year. After that, I laughed at my parents when they pulled the Santa thing.

Also, Kate Beaton's comic is nearly incomprehensible to me. It loses me somewhere between the nervous sketches and the illegible handwriting. I can kinda read the text if I pull up the magnifying tool, though.
posted by Netzapper at 2:29 PM on December 25, 2009

On another note, my own 7-year-old son doesn't know who or what "God" is, or who Jesus is. I don't know whether I am a success or a failure.

It seems like a useful legend to teach him about, just like Zeus or Mithra or whatever, yes? It would certainly save him a lot of confusion once he started to read English-language books, many of which are written by or about theists, including Christian theists.

I am going to bore people with a story about my eldest goddaughter. I am probably the only person she knows well in the entire world who has ever gone to a church for a regular service: her mom is an atheist child of two atheists, and her dad grew up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, so I am her go-to person on religious matters, I guess.

One day, when she was around five, we were at her grandmother's house and we were looking through a big coffee-table book of Renaissance art. She was asking me who different people were, and many of them were Mary or Jesus or both, and I was explaining who they were.

"Why do they paint Jesus with a big gold circle over his head?" I explained that it was a halo, and that it was a symbol, not something that was real, but it was like a stop sign--it told people looking at the painting, "Hey, this is someone with religious significance."

She was fine with that answer, and then a few pictures later, she said, "Was Jesus real or pretend?"

"Kind of both," I said. "Many people think that he was someone who lived 2,000 years ago and said some wise things about how it was important to be kind to each other and share what you had. And some people think that he wasn't just a person who said wise things, but also a special kind of being. And then there are other people who think it was all made up."

"And is that why the gold circle?"

"Yes, gold was the most valuable thing in those days, so they painted a gold circle to show how special they thought he was."

A few months later, we were looking at a catalogue of Doring Kindersley books (illustrated non-fiction books for kids), and the one about Buddhism has a photo of a gilded statue of Buddha with a halo on it.

"What's that?" she asks.

"It's a statue of Buddha. He was someone who lived long ago and said wise things about how we should be kind to each other and share our things--"

"Oh!" she says, cutting me off. "One of the people who is both real and pretend and made out of gold."
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:15 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

We're not going to do Santa, but I'm not sure that it makes much difference whether you do or not. I wasn't seriously disappointed when I found out, except that I didn't get extra presents in a stocking anymore.

Our son is four; we do a low-key Christmas w/out Santa, which still includes oodles of presents from us and relatives, and he seems completely unaffected by the whole thing and not really all that interested in Santa overall. We let him watch Santa movies (except Polar Express* becuase it's fucking creepy and I hate Tom Hanks), because that seems to put Santa on the same level as Wall-E anyway. Elves and Santa are exactly the same as witches and ghosts on Halloween; just part of the game.

Best part: No Santa-picture ordeal.

*Besides which, it is part of the Santa Is Totes Real, Haters! genre, which includes Miracle on 34th Street and other irritatingly preachy movies that have always bugged me. Let people believe or not believe, moviemakers, quit telling us what soulless automatons we are when we don't.
posted by emjaybee at 7:27 PM on December 25, 2009

We tried talking about Santa last year when my daughter was three, and she was fucking TERRIFIED. The mailman came to the door, and she'd freak out, thinking Santa was coming. UPS driver? OMG MOMMY SANTA HELP ME PLEAAAAASE!

We thought about it, and you are telling your kid that one night, while they sleep, a magic man will bypass the doors, locks and alarms on your house, and leave *something* behind. We stopped talking about it at that point.

This year, we mentioned it again to see if she wanted to get involved with Santa, and again she wanted nothing to do with it. She started getting scared just talking about it, so to settle her, we told her that Santa was 'just pretend'. She feels better, and the more we think about it, the more it makes sense to us that there is no need for the lying.

But, of course, guess what she said to her classmates the following day at preschool?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:15 PM on December 25, 2009

Just like everything else, my mom took Santa and turned it into a fucked up, twisted thing. Basically as soon as I noticed we had 200,000 people living in our city alone, I realized there was no possible way Santa could do things like visit every good girl and boy's house in a single night. The logistics just didn't work out.

Most parents would probably be impressed with their kids but my mom got very angry, said I was bad for not believing what I was told, and not only would I not get any Santa Claus presents, but maybe no toys or anything fun at all. If I thought I was big enough to decide what I believed, then I was too big for toys.

Good old mom and her stupid fucking retarded overblown sense of equivalency and need to overreact ludicrously. Fuck me.
posted by autodidact at 8:59 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would be remiss in not posting a link to Santa God and Other Blasphemies in this thread.

Disclosure: Dan is a friend of mine, though I heard his stuff on Dr. Demento before we met IRL so I might have linked this even if we hadn't ever met!
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:59 PM on December 25, 2009

My mother-in-law almost gave up the Santa thing to the younger nieces and nephews today. She was talking to a friend on the phone in the hearing of the entire brood of grandkids and said something about how so-and-so had caught on about Santa. My sister-in-law suggested that she move that conversation somewhere else and the subject was rapidly changed.

Meanwhile, and this was the really cute part, the kids could tell from the tones of voice that they'd missed something and the little ones were going "what? what?" And the older grandchildren, who are well past Santa-enjoying age, being in high school, closed ranks with their aunt to say "Nothing." in that tone of voice that brooks no denial.

It was really quite sweet.
posted by immlass at 10:10 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid I knew Santa Santa Claus wasn't real, but I fervently believed in him anyway, because he was a useful kind of cognitive dissonance that let me avoid far more negative emotions.

On one hand, I knew that Santa was imaginary. There was the whole magical sleigh and reindeer thing, which didn't seem to fit with the way the world worked. But more importantly, presents from "Santa" would often come wrapped in the paper we kept downstairs, in the same bag as the Christmas lights and tinsel. So yeah, it was actually Mom and Dad leaving stuff under the tree. That was apparent if I thought about it too much.

But on the other hand, Santa was such a wonderful lie! Because if I could believe that a fat man in red suit came into the house and left me presents, that meant I didn't have to feel guilty about receiving them. Guilt was the predominant emotion of my childhood. I felt guilty about everything. Because I was a kid I wanted stuff, especially those toys that looked so amazing on TV and in the stores - but if I bugged my parents and they broke down and bought me expensive crap, I felt so incredibly bad about it afterwards. You have no idea how it burned, the mental agony that went on and on. Sometimes I couldn't even play with the toys if I did get them, because just looking at the cars or legos or Death Star playset reminded me of how much trouble I put my parents through, and how greedy I was to want stupid stuff in the first place. But then I felt twice as bad, because I couldn't even appreciate the things they worked so hard to get me. I was ungrateful and greedy.

Enter the fat man. Asking Mom and Dad for stuff was wrong, because they had to work hard just to keep the family going, but this Santa guy delivered toys to kids all around the world. He gave out millions, maybe even billions of cars and legos and dolls and who knew what else every Christmas, so it was no sweat for him to give me something too. Presents that came from Santa were guilt free. Guilt free!

So I held onto Santa like a damn life preserver, and every December I'd start to psyche myself up for Christmas at least two or three weeks in advance. I'd sing carols, watch the special shows on TV, take part in the school festivals, draw Christmas cards, decorate the tree (it was scary because I needed a chair to reach the higher branches, but so worth it) and do anything else I could think of to "get in the mood." It was self brainwashing, and if it worked the payoff was that wonderful Christmas morning when toys would magically appear under the tree and I could rip off the paper and everything was fun! No guilt, just happiness. So before you break them the bad news, consider that sometimes kids need Santa. The world that looks so simple and rational to you might not look the same to them, and they might need all the help they can get to navigate through childhood. Even help that's not real.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:07 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

At 53, I think I'm over the whole Santa Claus thing (plus I'm kind of anti-Xtian, so Santa is... problematic). On the other hand, I really enjoy Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, both the book and the TV show.

What's great about it is the simple human goodness of the Hogfather, versus the over-the-top nefariousness of the evil villain(s) in the story, which I still find existentially horrifying. The poor Tooth Fairy.
posted by sneebler at 8:49 AM on December 26, 2009

I disagree with Mr. Johnson, who thinks that stories like Santa Claus lead children to faithfully accept any kind of crap they are told. Learning that Santa Claus is a myth is a big step in learning that you can't believe everything you're told, no matter how attractive it is.

If parents never lie to children, then the children will never learn to distinguish lies from truth.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:01 PM on December 26, 2009

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