Ages 2-5AtheismTraditions & Celebrations

Reasons I am a Horrible Mother, Christmas Edition

A few weeks ago my 5 year old came up to me and said these 5 fateful words, “Mommy, Santa isn’t real, right?”

As first I was a little stunned, because she had previously been pretty all in on this Santa thing. We have kind of half-assed it, to be honest – my husband and I have not been terribly careful about not referring to things we bought each other or our 12 year old, who has known the truth about Santa Claus for half his life now.

My son was a relative Santa skeptic early on. He started asking if Santa was real at about age 4 and was always satisfied with my flip of the question – “What do you think?” “I think he’s real.” “Well there you go.” Until the fall day of his 6th year when he wasn’t satisfied – “What do you think?” was answered with “I’m asking you – is Santa real?” So I told him – Santa was based on a real person in history, but now he is a character and a fun game that parents and kids play. And we talked about how it was really important to let his friends and classmates keep believing until they were ready to learn the truth from their parents because some kids want to believe longer than others.

My daughter never really asked about whether Santa was real. I figured that she was like me as a kid – I’d pretty much figured out that Santa (and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy) were my parents – the totally different Santa traditions and the fact that he managed to visit both my mom and my dad’s separate homes at totally different times were a pretty good tip off. That and the Osco Drug price tags on the annual toothbrush from my mom. But I wanted to believe. I wanted there to be magic in the world. I don’t remember how old I was when I finally pushed to know for certain, but I was probably at least 8, maybe even older. I figured we had at least another year or two with Mo.

I think that some of her decision and her certainty has to do with God – specifically, our conversations about whether or not God is real that we had after her last day of preschool last August. See, for a variety of reasons, from age 4 months until she started kindergarten last fall, my daughter attended a Baptist preschool. As a second generation atheist, this was difficult for me on some levels, especially when she started coming home talking about God and wanting to sing grace before the occasional meal. But for the most part, the benefits of the school overall and the degree to which she thrived there totally outweighed the weekly Christian education classes and prayers before back to school night. I also confess that part of the reason why I encouraged the idea of Santa at all was to highlight the corollary between Santa and religion as fables of great cultural importance, but not actually real.

It wasn’t until a walk that we took a night or two after her last day that I realized just how much it had bothered me to not tell her the full truth about our beliefs or lack thereof. Her dad and I had decided to let the God thing ride for a while, because we didn’t want to create friction with her teachers and friends. Whenever it came up, we would say, “Yes, some people believe in God” or whatever else was appropriate without saying that this isn’t something we share. But when she asked me that August afternoon whether God was real, it was such a relief to finally say, “Well, some people think so, but your dad and I don’t, and I don’t think R does either. You can decide for yourself what you believe.”

Last year's visit to Santa.
Last year’s visit to Santa.

So, in light of that, I shouldn’t have been that surprised by her seemingly sudden revelation about Santa Claus. And in retrospect, I realize that actually she has never been as much of a true believer as I might have secretly hoped – she saw through the mall Santa concept as easily as her more obviously skeptical brother – both of them coming up with the “He’s just one of Santa’s helpers, right?” explanation for how Santa could be at multiple malls and still keep up with the business of making toys with little or no prompting. But she still got a kick out of getting a photo and a candy cane with the guy in the red suit, whomever he was. Likewise, the Easter bunny at the neighborhood egg hunt and the Princesses and various costumed characters at Disney World when she was 4 – she actually seemed comforted by the idea that it was just people dressing up, rather than actual 5 foot tall mice and ducks wandering around.

With Santa, she blows hot and cold. Some days she clearly wants to pretend he’s real – especially when she is lobbying me for an Elf on the Shelf like some of her new kindergarten friends have. But she knows it’s pretend – just like she might pretend that Rainbow Dash is real or make a game of being Owl Lantern, the superhero alter ego of her own alternate identity as Hedwig the Flower, rainbow owl extraordinaire. And some days, she is clearly happy to be part of the exclusive club of kids who know what is really up.

As for me, I am a little sad, if only because it is another milestone passed and another sign that my baby isn’t really a baby any more. And I am a little relieved that we don’t have to keep up appearances and can relax a little more at the holidays. And I am worried – I don’t want my kid to be the one who spoils the “magic” for other kids and I am less confident in Mo’s ability and willingness to not be the spoiler than I was her brother.

On that score, I’m less worried about the kids – they have a way of deciding for themselves whether they believe their friends about these things – than I am other parents. Some parents get really…intense…about this Santa thing. I haven’t gotten anything quite as intense as this New York Times writer who “wanted to tie [her son’s] truth-telling classmate to a medieval torture device”, but I have had it suggested that I’m a bad parent for not telling my kids that they must believe in order to receive and that I should refuse to tell my kids the truth in order to preserve the magic for other kids. These are parents who buy special Santa paper and disguise their handwriting and who probably download apps like Hide My Ass, which will block keywords and phrases online which are likely to spill the beans. Frankly, these parents seem more into this whole Santa thing than even my kids ever were.

As for us, I’m not entirely sure how our Christmas Eve will play out. We will have dinner with the local grandparents, and open presents from far away aunts and uncles and other family. I suspect that I will still check the NORAD Santa Tracker, because I like that aspect of the make believe. I will read books about Christmas and Santa with my daughter and once she is asleep, her brother will help me fill her stocking, just like he has every year since she was born. Then, while he gets ready for bed, I’ll fill his. Then once the kids are asleep, I’ll sneak in and put some candy in the tiny stockings hanging from their beds and put a new book at the foot and then I will have some bourbon with a little eggnog and take pictures of the tree and the stockings and enjoy the quiet before the next morning’s storm of paper and ribbons and squeals of delight, because this is our real Christmas magic, no matter who brings the presents.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user mlhradio.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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  1. I am not sure how to feel about explanations of Santa.  I’m going to explain Santa as a metaphor to my son, but do I have an obligation to teach him to lie to other kids so that they can live in an imaginary world?  It seems similar to religious questions.  On the one hand, people’s private religious beliefs ought not be my business, but on the other hand, they so often MAKE them my business, and I want to counter that.  What are other people’s thoughts?

    1. I think it’s probably easier for me to tell my kids to let their friends believe, in part, because they both did themselves, at least for a little while. So I can do the “remember how fun it was to think he was real” thing with them, which is as much for them (and me, I guess), as it is their friends and their parents.

      But I totally agree that this is something parents just have to be ready for. We shouldn’t be expected to preserve the “magic” for everyone, especially when the Santa experience isn’t nearly as universal as some folks want to think and we certainly should be expected to train our kids to lie about it just to keep the peace.


      1. My parents asked us to try to remember not to mention it or just nod and smile when we were little (my brother was almost 4 and I was 5 when we were told Sinterklaas was not real). I think we did pretty well, but we occasionally slipped up. This did not actually matter much to the kids that still believed. Maybe some of them had some doubts, and then maybe some of their parents told them the truth too. But my mom told us that for the kids who really wanted to believe, if their parents gave them a plausible excuse, and even sometimes when they were told the truth, their suspension of disbelief worked just fine to shield them from reality. (She apparently talked about this stuff with the other parents).

        I had one friend, and she still believed when she was nearly 10. I’ve seen some comments over on FB that this is not unusual in the USA? But here, that really just gets you laughed at in school; 6 or 7 is more usual to be “told”. Anyway, she’d just not believe or pretend to not believe most of the year, and then get completely swept up in it again when mid-November came along. For several years. By then none of the kids around her were pretending it was real for her sake; neither were any of the adults even. I’ve seen many people tell stories like that: kids who go from believing to not believing depending on the time and atmosphere. So I’m not really worried about ruining it for kids so much. Some parents can react pretty heatedly though.

  2. This is great, Em.  I totally handle Santa the same way. There are so many parallels between belief in God and belief in other mythology, that this becomes a good discussion guide.

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