When my son was six weeks old, my mother-in-law visited and my husband thought it would be fun for her if we took our newborn to see Santa Claus. Indeed, seeing a grandchild visit Santa and having an opportunity to take as many pictures as possible is the kind of thing that is right up my mother-in-law’s alley. She loved it.
I, however, did not. Santa Claus, when he doesn’t live at the North Pole, happens to live at the mall. He also brings lots of elves with him that shake jingle bells in your face. The mall provides him with loud piped in Christmas music and quartets of percussion playing carolers throughout his line. The line to see Santa Claus is full of overdressed children and parents all making their lists of what they really want (American Girl dolls, quiet non-whiny children, just one good picture before they can get out of there.). It was too much. Between all the people, various forms of music, overdressed children and elves shaking jingle bells in my face, I got overwhelmed. I haven’t taken my son to see Santa since.
But this year, my son is three. He loves looking at Christmas trees. He loved decorating our tree. He’s already seen the Christmas exhibit of trains in Grand Central station three times. We started talking about Christmas and what we would eat and do what we wanted. I asked him what he wanted.
“A basketball, Mommy,” he said. “Not two, just one. And a taxi car.”
My husband and I started talking about what we would tell him about Santa. We were clear that Santa is a fun idea that lots of people participate in. While neither of us fully believed in Santa as children, we both loved the magic of Santa. We loved those childhood Christmas mornings when we woke up early and walked into the living room with the tree lit, Christmas music softly playing, and our overfull stockings laid out next to our Santa gift. We loved waking up those Christmas mornings and finding a Christmas tree lit transformation in the living room. I still love Christmas because of the Santa Claus inspired magic.
But I don’t have a problem with Santa. What I hate about the whole Santa myth is the socially accepted form of manipulation that gets used on children. I cringe when I hear people ask children if they’ve been “good” this year. I cringe even more when I hear parents or adults tell children that if they’re good (and don’t argue with their brother, or do as mommy asks, or make their bed in the morning or whatever it is that the parent wants) Santa will come and bring them what they want. Occasionally, I hear older generations throw in that if they’re not, they’ll get a lump of coal. I’ve never actually heard of a child getting a lump of coal on Christmas, which to me, makes it the worse kind of manipulation, as it’s the kind where parents don’t actually follow through. The parent’s word is meaningless; whether the child is good or not, Santa comes and leaves behind a full stocking and gifts.
No wonder children don’t trust adults. The adults lie to get what they want in the short term just as much as children do. And some parents swear by it for younger children, which, for me, is exactly the problem with the whole mess to begin with: it’s not sustainable parenting. It’s trick parenting that makes the parent-child relationship a power struggle and whoever has the better trick wins. Rather than offering children meaningful and authentic guidance for living life and getting along with others, parents instead are always looking for the next manipulation scheme to give them the upper hand in the relationship.
Except the use of Santa is not just between parent and child, it’s society wide. The carolers stand outside of Macy’s and sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “to be good for goodness sake.” I get emails from various Moms groups or event notifications telling me about the Santa hours around town and all of them ask if my child has been “good” and knows what he wants Santa to bring him.
Needless to say, while I love the magic of Santa, it’s another year where I can’t bring myself to dress my son up and take him to see Santa. I tell him that Santa is coming to him, that he doesn't have to be good. He can just be himself.