The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 01 Jan 2008

Santa Claus
A few years ago I was talking to a woman I worked with, who told me that she told her kids that Santa Claus was real, "because how could you not?". She thought she would have been depriving her kids by not telling them the story. And maybe she would have been; I honestly don't know. I don't remember what it was like to believe literally in Santa Claus or how I felt when I learned the truth.

My vocabulary here is failing me. "Telling them the story" is not what I want, because the Santa Claus thing is deceptive, and telling stories is not normally deceptive: "fiction" and "lies" mean different things. When I tell Katara the story of the Little Red Hen, there is no presumption that there is an actual, literal Red Hen. Katara might think there is, or not, or might not think about it at all; I don't know which. Ditto Cinderella, or Olivia the Pig, or any other story I tell or read to her. But when people tell their kids about Santa Claus, they present it not as a story, but as a literal truth. They present it in a way that is calculated to make the kids believe there is actually a fat, benevolent, white-bearded immortal, manufacturing toys in a secret arctic workshop. This is no longer mere fiction; it is a lie. So what I want to say is that this lady thought she would be depriving her kids of the magic of Santa Claus by not telling them this lie.

But I really don't want to use the word "lie" here, because it's so pejorative. It makes it sound as though I think badly of this good woman for telling her kids that Santa Claus was real. But I don't, at all. She is generally wise and honest and I respect her. Parents tell their kids all sorts of awful, appalling lies, which upsets me a lot, but this lie is quite benign by comparison, and bothers me not at all.

Let me be perfectly clear: I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against the Santa Claus story. I have an article in progress about how much I hate the way parents routinely lie to their kids, to manipulate them, and this one isn't in the article, because it doesn't even register. It's just for fun, or nearly so.

Santa Claus seems pretty harmless to me. Unlike many of the pernicious lies children are told, Santa Claus is a great story. It would be really wonderful to believe that I would get presents every year because there was a fat guy manufacturing toys at the North Pole. Delightful! And the only thing wrong with it is that it isn't true. Oh well. There are a lot of pretty stories that aren't true.

Anyway, at the time I had this conversation about Santa Claus, Katara was too young to have heard about Santa Claus anyway, and my co-worker asked if I was planning to tell Katara the Santa Claus story.

Now that I've written this article, it occurs to me what she meant to ask, was not whether I was going to tell Katara the story, but whether I was going to tell her that it was true. Having realized that now, my reply seems a lot more obvious in retrospect than it did at the time.

I hadn't thought about it before, but I said I didn't think I would.

"But what are you going to tell her?"

"The truth, I guess."

The truth, though, is pretty wonderful, although less astonishing. You don't get presents because of the fat guy in the red suit, which is a shame, because wouldn't it be fun if it were true? But you do get them anyway, and it's because your family loves you. As consolation prizes go, that one's pretty good.

So we did tell her the truth. Santa Claus is just a story. Katara will have to grow up without that piece of childhood delight. Sorry, Katara. But she'll also grow up knowing that her parents respect her enough to tell her the truth instead of a pretty lie, and maybe that will be enough of a consolation prize to make up for it.

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