Holidays are probably the topic about which I get asked most when people realize that we raise our children secularly. “But Christmas! How do you celebrate Christmas if you don’t believe in CHRIST?!” How do you celebrate Christ on the Pagan holiday of Winter Solstice? Historical fact, it’s what’s for dinner. Most holidays are celebrated culturally, not religiously. We put up an evergreen tree, decorate our house like a magical winter wonderland, and celebrate the spirit of giving, which the religious don’t own (just ask a conservative republican about welfare). Our Easter tradition is to spend the day at the Flower Fields (shhhh, it’s a secret that I don’t want everyone to find) celebrating spring with our Jewish friends followed up with Mexican food for dinner.
Mythical figures are usually a child’s first experience rationalizing their way through an inherited belief. Think about it, we tell our children that a magical, old white guy watches and judges from above and expect that they’ll eventually wise up enough to figure out on their own that that’s a stupid belief and their parents lied to them. “But the magic of Christmas! That’s not lying!” Did you state something as fact that you actually knew was not true? To your child who implicitly trusted you? While manipulating things in their environment to support their continued belief in the lie? Ya, that’s definitely lying.
That said we actually do the Santa myth. Come on guys, the magic of Christmas! But we don’t lie to our children either – ever, about anything, no matter what. Say whaaaat? Santa’s real?! Not exactly. I have actually found that the language of our Freethinking parenting philosophy lends itself perfectly to Santa’s inclusion in our holiday fun. Our children are inundated with Santa Myth through television, books, friends, family, stores, etc. He’s inescapable, in a jolly kind of way. As they ask questions, we encourage them to look into the answers. Any answers they get from us are prefaced with things like, “The legend says that …” or “Many people believe …” or “I like to imagine …,” followed by, “What do you think?” or “What do you believe?” or “How do you think that happens?” We do not ever use Santa as a threat to manipulate their behavior and our house is a creepy spy Elf free zone.
Speaking of reporting to Santa … Guys, we have to have a serious talk about Santa pictures. As with all tradition, it is so important to not make choices that are not in your child’s best interest simply because everyone else has done it for a long time. If some random big male stranger in the middle of a chaotic mall asked to hold your terrified baby, would you cleave her off of you and place her in his custody while she screamed in terror? Of course not. What does that teach her about her ownership over her body? Does that enhance the trust between you or violate it? To top it all off, you take a photo and share it publicly and everyone has a good laugh at her trauma. Maybe take pause and allow your child to guide the Santa interaction experience.
We were at the mall shopping the other day when West (2 years old) caught a glimpse of all the Christmas cheery cheeries. He asked to go check it all out. As we approached, he saw Santa and asked if he could talk to him (he saw another child sitting in his lap).
“Do you want to sit on his lap while you talk to him?”
“No. I want to walk and you can hold my hand.”
“Okay. Santa, West would like to talk with you.”
“Come and sit on my lap little boy!”
“He would like to talk to you right here.”
“Okay, what would you like for Christmas?”
“Good choice West. Here is a candy cane for you.”
We walked away hand-in-hand and he felt respected, proud of himself, and touched by the magic of Christmas.
So when “should” the magic of Christmas wane? At what age is it no longer “right” to believe in Santa? The truth is that as with almost all aspects of parenting, there is no “should” or “right,” there is only your specific child on his unique developmental journey. The most important piece of a child’s evolution through the Santa myth is that it unfolds naturally. Your child will see evidence in the world around him and over time that evidence will paint a picture. If you have never lied to your child, there will be a clear path down which he can walk and with trust intact, he will hold your hand as he walks it.
When confronted with the difficult questions of a child transitioning through the Santa myth, many a parent has thrown down, “Santa brings a gift to those who believe in him.” It sounds lovely enough. My concern with this approach is that it puts up a wall between you that discourages honest and open communication about something that could be deep for your child while also encouraging intentional ignorance. If my little one is experiencing big uncomfortable wonderings (cognitive dissonance: confronted with new information that challenges previously held beliefs), I want them to bravely and openly embrace that process of accommodation. You see, I don’t ever want my child to be afraid to learn.
My two eldest both got to a point where they point blank asked me, “Is Santa real?” I responded, “If you ask me a question, I will always tell you the truth. I also know that Santa is fun to believe in. It feels magical and spurs your imagination. Do you want me to answer that question?” When my eldest, who is relentlessly inquisitive and always wants to know everything about everything asked, he immediately replied with a staunch, “Yes!” When my second asked, he thoughtfully paused and walked away changing the subject. The following year he asked again and was ready to hear the answer.
“Do you believe in Santa?”
“The magic of Christmas is so fun to believe in that I love to think about the legend of Santa and imagine it in my mind. Do I believe that he puts presents under the tree? No, because as a parent, now I get to create the magic of Christmas for my children.”
“I like that.”
With both children, after they hit a point of logic that could not be overcome with their imagination alone, we looked into the origins of the Santa myth (this article is an interesting read: The Real Story Behind Santa Claus) and the Christmas holiday and walked away on a very positive note thinking about continuing the legacy of the spirit of giving and the celebration of the winter season (the poem below is a great place to start). This also marked a transition from receiving the Christmas magic to giving the Christmas magic. They were now invited to join the club of stuffing stockings and such and that excited them to no end. Most importantly, we walked away with trust intact as they knew we had never lied to them.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.