Before my daughter turned three, I was pretty adamantly anti-Santa. Every parent approaches this issue in their own way, whatever their personal beliefs. I’ve heard good arguments from other atheist or skeptical parents who use Santa as a critical-thinking exercise for their kids—meaning that they don’t tell them that Santa isn’t real but they let them use logic to figure it out for themselves. Personally, even though I enjoyed Santa as a young child, I didn’t enjoy learning that it was all a ruse, and the issue weighed on me when I thought about how to approach it with my child. (My husband is the opposite—he is really into the Magic of Santa, so I jokingly refer to us as a mixed-belief family despite the fact that we are both atheist.)
Because I grew up in a state where the majority religion is Southern Baptism, the holiday mantra I always heard was “Keep the Christ in Christmas.” To me, Christmas is only a religious holiday, and for a long time I didn’t want to celebrate it because, as an atheist, I just couldn’t get into the spirit of it. But now that I live in New England, most of the people I know celebrate Secular Christmas. The Nativity is kind of mentioned but really it’s more about staying cheery in the dreary long nights of winter. My aversion to the religion of my youth is probably why I felt so ambivalent about this holiday—including the secular parts.
Here are the paths that I explored in order to find a solution that worked for everyone in my family:
- No Santa At All
As I mentioned, this option was the most appealing one until this year, when my daughter really became interested in Santa. I thought this would be the easiest option—don’t really talk about Santa, don’t visit Santa, tell her that Santa isn’t real from the beginning.
The problem with this option is obvious—we don’t live in a vacuum. My daughter goes to preschool so she is exposed to Santa constantly, so by not talking about Santa, I’m really letting other people control the conversation. And just because I don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean I need to be a bad sport about it.
- Just Tell the Story of Santa—and Other Holiday Stories
Because my husband and I are atheist, we want to raise our daughter to know what we believe—and not only that, we want her to know what others believe, because ultimately she will decide for herself what is true. And I wanted to approach Santa in the same way—to make it clear from the beginning that he was a myth, and to let her know how children around the world celebrated Christmas.
Boy, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Christmas than with a dry lecture about the myth of Santa! My daughter has her whole life to learn about other cultures, so I’ll bookmark parts of this idea for later, probably after she has already learned the truth about Santa anyway.
- Give Up: You Can’t Avoid Santa
This is my current strategy, and it’s working out great so far. I’m still not going to wrap presents from Santa, and I’m definitely not going to allow Santa to be used as a punishment (i.e. saying that children who act badly get a lump of coal or get on some kind of bad list). Right now, I’m not going to set out cookies and milk for Santa, and I’m not going to pretend that Santa really visited our house.
However, I’m also not going to be a total buzzkill about Santa.
Here’s the thought experiment that ended up changing my mind: If we went to Disneyworld, would I make sure to let my daughter know that Mickey Mouse wasn’t real?
And the answer is: no. I don’t have to tell her that Mickey isn’t real. Right now, she knows Mickey is a cartoon, but she also has real love for Mickey and all the other Disney characters. If we were to go to Disney and see someone dressed up in a Mickey suit, I would say, “Look, there’s Mickey Mouse!” I wouldn’t say, “Look, there’s someone dressed up as Mickey but remember that Mickey isn’t real!”
Someday, she will come to realize that Mickey isn’t real, but it won’t be a big revelation. Parents don’t worry about other kids telling their children that Mickey is just a cartoon, right?
So now, I treat Santa like I would treat any other cartoon character. Maybe my daughter thinks that Mickey Mouse is real, but who cares? At the same time, she doesn’t receive gifts from Mickey, nor does she think that Mickey is watching her and deciding if she’s been “good” or “bad.” Similarly, when Santa is divorced from the religion of the holiday, he is no different than any other fictional character, and I’m ok with that.
And besides, my daughter is into Santa and it’s nice to let her enjoy the holiday without bringing all of my baggage into it.