I don’t toss around the term “regret” often, but if I could press “Reset” on our parenting, I’d reconsider Santa Claus. At the very least we’d start smaller, maybe just the three gifts. We’d dial back how much we committed to the myth. At best, we wouldn’t have done Santa at all.
It wasn’t until after we’d begun the Santa myth with our oldest child that I even considered the option. I had grown up in a very Santa-friendly home; everyone I knew had grown up believing in Santa (until they didn’t). I guess I never thought that avoiding it was an option. As I saw others raising children, I realized how many were opting out. The more I considered it, the more I liked the idea of omitting the Santa narrative.
That doesn’t mean doing away with the character entirely. He’d be part of the season just like other seasonal, fictional characters like the Grinch, the abominable snowman, and Ebenezer Scrooge. But the difference is that I wouldn’t be complicit in perpetuating a myth that he’s real.
My husband and I never directly stated the reality of Santa, but we never denied it, either. And for me, that omission of the truth felt too much like a lie. I remember that when I learned the truth about Santa, one of the prevailing emotions was betrayal. I want my children to know that they can trust me to be honest and direct with them, even when it’s uncomfortable. It felt like an inconsistency in our parenting style: if we can have forthcoming conversations about where babies come from, we should have avoided Santa from the start. We didn’t, so we knew we needed to come clean, at least with our oldest for now.
My husband and I had both learned the truth from our friends at school in the fifth grade. Our oldest was about to turn ten at the end of October and had the added complication of having skipped the fourth grade (hubby joked that I robbed our son of a year of believing). November of his fifth-grade year was fast approaching. I wasn’t ready to let go of his childhood yet. I wanted to keep him little. But I also felt that if we were the ones complicit in the myth, we needed to be the ones to come clean. We didn’t want him to feel obligated to defend himself like a chump at school, and we didn’t want his peers to do the dirty work of telling him the truth. But that didn’t mean it was easy for us to.
It was a Friday night, and the stars aligned: the baby went to bed, and the middle two siblings were watching a movie in the living room. Our oldest asked if he could watch a different movie in our bedroom. Before he got settled, we asked to have a mature conversation with him. He could tell it was serious.
Try as we might, though, we couldn’t directly cough out, “Santa Claus isn’t real.” We both beat around the bush a bit, even asking what he’s heard at school before finding our own way to say that the people who make the magic of Santa happen are really “Mommies and Daddies.” After the initial, genuine reaction of surprise, we were able to say more directly, “That means that Santa isn’t real.”
His reaction was a true testament to his sweet character. He first gestured with his hand, opening his fist to holding out his fingers, miming an explosion. When I asked him what he was thinking, he said, “Mind blown.” He then asked if that meant “the others” (Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny) were the same. We admitted they were. His next question broke my heart: “What about poor people?” We’re far from wealthy, but to him, Santa is the great equalizer: what parents couldn’t have provided on their own could be provided by Santa. This was when we underscored that it’s perhaps even more magical that it isn’t some mythical creature at the North Pole who makes the spirit of giving happen: it’s people like us and now him. He easily comprehended that there are lots of donation opportunities that we’ve contributed to that he can now be part of to help make the magic of Christmas happen for those less privileged than he is. I reminded him that the magic of the season is up to all of us to make happen.
After assuring him that he will still very much be surprised with gifts on Christmas morning, just like his believing counterparts, we exchanged hugs and some final words. We reassured him that we had many complex emotions when we found out; we clarified that if any of them asked if Santa were real, we’d tell them directly “no” and we reminded him that he and his siblings could always rely on us, to be honest.
As we ended the conversation, he sighed, “That was a big conversation.” It certainly was.