DISCLAIMER: this is going to make me unpopular. I don't care. You're going to think I'm a horrible, heartless shrew for writing it and you're not going to like me. Tough potatoes.
Picture this: Sicily, 1920.
Sorry. I’m channeling Sophia Petrillo. Where was I?
Right. Picture this: there is an old man – no one knows how old for sure, but we know he’s old. He hasn’t shaved in years. He’s overweight. He’s a pipe smoker, so his beard is likely a nasty shade of tobacco yellow. He’s dirty – he seems to have been rolling around in an ashtray. Everyone knows who he is but no one knows much about him. They do know one thing: he’s interested in the kids.
No matter where they go, he’s there, watching them. Watching them play and learn and wander through Wal-Mart with Mom. But it’s not just in public. He’s known to watch them in their homes as well. Are they eating their vegetables? Are they fighting with a brother or sister? He sees it. He’s always watching. He might write some of it down so he’ll remember. They go to bed at night. He’s there. He watches them sleep. And watches them, and watches them.
Maybe parents aren’t completely cognizant of this at all times. Maybe that’s why when Mom and Dad see the old, fat man at, say, a shopping mall, they take their kids over to say hello. Some kids fight. Some scream. Some cry. Mom and Dad get out the camera.
“Sit on his lap,” they say. “Say hello,” they say. “Be nice,” they say, “he’s not going to hurt you.” But kids know that’s not completely true. Everyone knows the fat man punishes kids he thinks are bad.
And it doesn’t matter how scared a little kid is. Mom and Dad are going to snap their picture, capture that look of abject terror.
They’re not leaving the mall without that all-important picture with Santa.
Pretty creepy, isn’t it? I’ve always thought so.
What kind of story is this to tell your children? An old man is watching you all the time, day and night, so you’d better be good. Or else. Smacks of enabling a pedophile, if you ask me.
I realize that I’m being a bit extreme here. Not every kid is afraid of Satan. I mean, Santa. Some kids get excited. They’ll write him letters. They’ve been good all year long, and they’re going to get their reward.
The idea that good children are rewarded and bad children are punished is nothing new. You can look back through history at fables and folktales and fairy tales, and the theme prevails. Good = rewards. Bad = punishment. But the problem is that Santa is not real. Kids don’t get presents because they’re good. They get presents because Mom and Dad went shopping. But for some reason parents feel the need to lie to their children.
Here many people interrupt me. “It’s not a lie!” is their battle cry. Is Santa real? Well, no. But you’re telling your children he is. That’s a lie. And what’s a child to think when they learn the truth? If Mom and Dad lied about something like Santa – an omnipresent, omniscient being with magical powers – maybe they were lying about other important things – maybe about this Jesus person, too. He’s got some of the same characteristics.
Jesus, by the way, is the reason we celebrate Christmas. Santa takes away from that in a very real, very disturbing way. People will claim that Santa teaches us to be generous and kind … but I’ve never once encountered a child who asked Santa to bring toys to the orphans or the poor kids next door. I’ve never once seen a Santa-obsessed family teach or encourage their children to be generous with the less fortunate. They only say, “Be good or Santa will give your toys away to someone else.” Giving is a punishment, not something important or good or to be enjoyed. Santa for them is not about giving. He's about blackmail. Something to hold over the kids' heads to make them behave.
The poor kids won’t be getting any toys this year. They must have been bad. Good kids get what they ask for. Poor kids don’t get what they asked for … poverty must make you a bad person, right? And Jewish and Muslim children must be bad, too, because Santa doesn’t visit them. Santa only visits good children.
No chimney? No problem. Santa has a magical key that lets him into every house in the world. Am I the only one a little uncomfortable with this idea? We’re in a recession. Santa comes into the house and eats my cookies! Sure, he allegedly leaves presents, but who’s to say he’s not sneaking into the china cabinet while he’s in the house? Pilfering some of the nicer silver, picking the lock on the gun cabinet - or worse, the liquor cabinet.
My mother is fifty-one (hi, Mom) and she still remembers the devastation she felt when she learned that she’d been lied to about Santa. She felt stupid and gullible and hurt. So when my oldest brother was old enough to ask about it, my parents told him the truth – Santa was just a story. And so he, and my sister, and my other brother, and I, never believed in Santa. We were never disappointed at Christmas because we knew that if we only got a few things each, it was all our parents could afford – and that even though money was tight, they still wanted us to have something to open on Christmas morning.
We had other Christmas traditions. For instance, we did what we called drive-by fooding. We’d collect canned and other nonperishable foods, put them in big paper bags, and drive by the homes of struggling families at night. A kid or two would sneak from the car or truck, set the food on the family’s doorstep, ring the doorbell, and run like hell for the car. I loved it. It was a thrill doing it anonymously, and knowing that I’d helped someone have a better Christmas than they might have anticipated. My mom made pancakes or waffles every Christmas morning. It made me sad to think that a kid I went to school with wouldn’t have breakfast on Christmas, and if I could do something about that, even at the age of five, I was going to do it. I didn’t have Santa at Christmas, but I had something better. I had love and compassion.
I never believed in Santa, no. But I never once felt that I missed out. I never once felt like something was missing from the magic of the season. I knew what it was not just to receive, but to give, and to make a difference. I got to play at Santa. And I’m convinced that letting a child play at Santa is worlds better than encouraging him or her to believe in Santa.
And yes, I was one of those rude kids in elementary school who told other children that Santa wasn’t real. But I’m not going to apologize for that. Parents might have lied to their kids (and still do and will), but I wasn’t about to. I believed in honesty, and I still do. Honesty is a good Christian value. I believe in Jesus, not Santa. I celebrate Christmas, not Santamas. And I always will.