One of the most pressing moral dilemmas faced by parents is the Santa Claus Problem. You know how this works: as parents, we tell our children they should never lie, because lies make Baby Jesus cry and the world a rotten place. Yet, come Christmas time — the time of the year when lying should be last thing on our minds — we tell our kids an enormous fib — namely that a jolly, bearded man in a red suit — using some sort of mystical power that allows him not only to travel around the world in one night, but also gives him an ability to know whether our child is good and therefore deserving of swag — will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leave them presents.
This is a recent dilemma to be sure, born of what I guess one could call liberal guilt. Frankly, I don’t think any handwringing went into my own parents’ decision to fill my head with the Santa story. And to be honest, I never once wrestled with the problem, either. To me, it’s all part of the fun. I suppose if one were really struggling with the issue, it could be argued that parents are merely indulging in a time-honored tradition of passing folklore from one generation to the next, conveying a mythology so persuasively that children are convinced it’s real.
When you think about it, though, parents don’t really have to work that hard at it anyway. I mean, I never needed any help believing a drooling maniac waited in my closet every night after the lights went out, even though my parents did everything they could to convince me that wasn’t the case. If I could believe in something my parents were working like heck to convince me wasn’t real, it didn’t take much of a suggestion that something, or someone, did exist to make me embrace it entirely. I wanted to believe, and therefore I did.
Actually, I believed in Santa for a long time — probably longer than I should have — because my parents were just so darn good at it. They never did anything terribly elaborate, like stomp around on the roof on Christmas Eve, but they always did just enough to convince me that there was something going on that was beyond their control. One year, my dad found a ratty old gunny sack and left it next to our fireplace, with a note from Santa that our house had been the last one he had hit on the block, so he had left the empty bag behind. Nice touch.
Another time, my parents hired a young man to dress as Santa and visit our house a few days early — just dropping by to check on us, you know — and deliver a few presents. Both my brother and I bought it without question, though my parents had to do a bit of scrambling when my kid brother — who even at age five seemed to be able to play all the angles — demanded to see the reindeer.
But it was a masterful bit of misdirection — perpetrated when I was around seven years old, I would guess, when I was already becoming something of a Santa scoffer — that made me an absolute believer.
We were set to spend that particular Christmas with my grandparents in Kansas — two whole states away from our New Mexico home — and were scheduled to drive there three days before Christmas. My parents awoke my brother and me at about 6 a.m. and asked us to get in the car, which my dad already had idling in the driveway. As we staggered blearily through the living room where our Christmas tree stood, I carefully checked to make sure there were NO SANTA GIFTS sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. There weren’t.
This was the test, then: if there really was a Santa, he would show up while we were out of town and leave behind the Mego Batcave I so desperately wanted. But if my parents were Santa, as I suspected, then our absence from town — or so my logic went — clearly meant they would have no opportunity to place our gifts in front of the tree. I was as certain as a 7-year-old boy can be certain of anything that when we returned to Albuquerque a few days after New Year’s, there would be no Santa gifts waiting for us. My parents’ jig was up. Smugly, I settled into the back seat of the car. Several moments later, my parents came out of the house carrying the last of the suitcases. My dad locked the house, loaded the car, and we drove away.
Of course, what I didn’t know was that in the 90 seconds it took my brother and I to pass through the living room and get into the car, my parents had immediately pulled everything out of a front closet and quickly set it up in front of the Christmas tree. When we returned to New Mexico a week later (fighting our way through an ice storm that sealed my dad’s decision to never drive anywhere for the holidays ever again), my brother and I walked slowly from the car into the house, and peeked skeptically into the living room . . . and oh my gosh Santa had come while we were gone!
For the next few years, then — again, for probably longer than I should have — I was one of the Jolly Old Elf’s most ardent defenders, once nearly getting into fisticuffs with Dan Duddingston for daring to challenge the veracity of St. Nick. I think I finally accepted Santa’s status as pure folklore — and then only grudgingly — by the fifth grade.
As I said earlier, I’ve never had a problem perpetuating the Santa story — but my own daughter is far more clever and observant than I ever was, and, despite my best efforts, was a Santa Skeptic by age six. Oddly, though, she had a harder time letting go of the Easter Bunny. A magical rabbit who somehow delivers candy and chocolate eggs? No problem. A white-haired old man in a flying sleigh delivering toys? No way.
Fortunately for me, now that she’s a worldly 12-year-old, she’s willing to indulge in Santa just for the pure fun of it. And for some reason, that’s made him even more real to her — and to me — than he ever was before. Santa Dilemma solved.