The boy who ruined Santa

Today at the playground, I overheard my son bickering with his friends. All I caught was the tail end, which threw me into damage control mode.

“He is, too. MOM! Is it true that Santa is still alive and lives in the North Pole?”

Oh, dear Venus, no. Please don’t be having this conversation. And not just because it’s four days after Halloween and at least one of you should be ashamed for joining the likes of the big box stores that are cramming holiday pressure as early as October.

actual holiday catalogs that arrived today and cats fighting over them.

actual holiday catalogs that arrived today and cats fighting over them.

A defiant Butterbean stood, hands on his hips, in the middle of the sand, holding court with his adorable, blindsided, angry friends. I rushed over, trying to make it seem like no big deal, and the other four-year-olds tried to listen as I talked. To my son I whispered, “Everyone gets to believe what they want, and we don’t tell them they’re wrong. The story of Santa is about giving and kindness and magic, and some people remember how kind Santa was and they want to give to those who need. But some families feel that magic more and say that Santa is still alive and lives in the North Pole. That’s okay for them to say. And our story is okay for us to say. Everyone gets to believe what they want. We are right for us and they are right for them.”

“No,” he said.

Succinct. Bold. I’ll give him that. Intrinsic sense of justice, firm grasp of the concept of black and white. He has a strong future ahead.

But, and I’m not just saying this because the preschool parents are going to absolutely murderize me for parenting the kid who doesn’t believe Santa is actively watching and list-making, Butter needs to learn the nuance of belief, and of respect of belief. He needs to be okay with people thinking something different from what he thinks.

Peanut, his older brother, took very well to the idea of shrugging, and telling friends, “okay.” He is, by nature, a watcher. He observes and takes it all in, but doesn’t always engage. When people tell him about Santa or God or the tooth fairy, he just says, “okay.” He certainly doesn’t correct people when they’re wrong. (He tells me long stories about how other people, who do correct others, are boorish. But I don’t think he uses the word boor. Yet. Give me time.) Peanut never told any of the kids at school that he thinks Santa is just a story. I’ll ask him this year what the third-grade conversations are like. I don’t feel too protective of nine-year-olds. They can read and a shocking number of them have their own iPads. They’ll know about Santa soon enough.

I don’t want my children to squash other kids’ hopes and dreams. Some families tell the Santa story to cultivate the magic of the season, and I want them to feel good about that. I also want to feel good about what I teach my kids, because I have every right to believe something, even if it doesn’t conform to dominant culture.

I do think it’s upsetting that generations of parents have tried to coerce certain behaviors from their children by threatening them with Santa. Blackmail isn’t a kind way to parent. And I do recall quite clearly, after learning Santa isn’t real, thinking that nothing in the world is stable if I couldn’t trust the stories my parents told. I know they wanted to share the magic of the myth, and they meant well. My mom still gives me a gift from Santa. It frustrates me for a moment, until I remember it’s her right to find magic wherever she wants to.

And that’s the point of what we teach our kids. Because Santa is tradition. And family traditions are important whether December is about Jesus or Santa or Macabes or Solstice. We have to respect each others’ right to believe. Believe in magic or God or triumph over the night. Or belief that your parents will tell the truth.

Belief is good.

And the magic of the Santa story is powerful, so I don’t want to take it away from anyone. The idea of someone who gives selflessly to everyone is lovely. The idea of someone who reifies quantum physics theory and is everywhere at once is even more lovely.


In our family, we teach our kids that the idea of Santa is an old legend about a man who gave to those in need. Not everyone. He gave coats to those who were cold, coats. He gave food to the hungry. And in celebration of Santa’s giving, we bring food and toys to the animal shelter, and socks and toiletries to the homeless shelter. We give backpacks of goodies to the homeless around town.

I don’t, however, tell the kids to expect that a flying sled will bring us presents from an uninhabitable part of the globe. Because I believe in magic and theater and natural wonder, but I don’t believe in lying. If Santa wants to buy or make and wrap and deliver, he’s welcome to bring gifts on over. And he’ll get all the applause. Otherwise, I work for the money, I choose the gifts, I force the boys’ dad to wrap them, and I’m taking the credit.

I felt awful at the playground today. And I apologized to the other mothers. (Note: I’m not being assumptively gendered. The only parents there today were moms. No grandparents, no dads, no aunts or uncles or nannies. Praised be rejection of normativities. But they were actually moms.) I told them we’re working on respecting others’ beliefs and traditions.

And they told me some kid last already told the four-year-olds that Santa isn’t real. So my son isn’t so much ruining the story as planting additional seeds of doubt that will blossom in a few years when they really lose faith in what their parents tell them.

Knowing that someone beat my kid to the decimation of Santa feels a bit better. Not just because we didn’t kill Santa for friends’ kids. But because they respect our beliefs, too. And they teach their kids the same thing we do: “every family believes what they need to, and what we believe is just right for us.”

11 thoughts on “The boy who ruined Santa

  1. Oh my gosh. I need to write an entire post on this. I am you. That is what we’ve told our kids from the get-go, or at least what I’VE told the kids. My husband, who in other realms, considers himself the logical member of our family, has told me from day one that I am robbing them of joy by not letting them believe in Santa Claus in the traditional sense — guy from North Pole who shimmies down our chimney and leaves presents for us and everyone else in the world. My kids believe because they want to believe, and partly because I swear Gil fills their heads with the magic part when I’m not around.

    We have to have a clear talk this year — my kids are 7 and 5. The 7yo knows, but he still wants to believe. I detest all that holding Santa over kids’ head. That was my life experience — I misbehaved, was told that Santa wasn’t coming, yet the presents always showed up on Christmas morning after I had agonized over it all night on Christmas Eve. If nothing else, isn’t that the most inconsistent parenting ever?!

    How awkward for you, though. I don’t want to admit this, but that’s half the reason I haven’t been super firm about dismissing the traditional Santa stuff — don’t want them crushing dreams at the playground. My two are strong-willed, and hold their ground; it would happen. I think you handled it smashingly — great job! I’m stealing some of your verbiage. The other parents were probably relieved!

    • The more I think about it, the more I think we should all be teaching “Oh, you believe that? Here’s what I believe…” In the same way that we negotiate adult conflicts with irrefutable statements like, “when you do ______, I feel ________.” Because nobody can argue about your feelings. And if the kids state their beliefs and don’t assail others’ beliefs, why then what we have is civilization, right?

  2. I like your explanation of the Santa legend. We in Austria have our Christkindl, and in the minds of most people a little angel is buzzing through the christmasnight. And then the children ask: “Is this Christkindl now that angel that brought the shepherds to the manger, or the baby in the manger? And if it is Baby Jesus, why it brings us gifts, although it is his birthday? ” …. hm …. Sometimes its hard to find its own way through MAGIC and REALITY.

  3. Totally agree that I am going to steal some of your verbiage. My 6-year-old is already dubious about Santa and she is the type of who loves to correct and inform others if they don’t see eye-to-eye with her. I already had another mother say to me recently that my kid will be the one who ruins Santa for others (she is a friend and was joking, but there was truth in there). We’ve talked a lot about the importance of respecting others’ beliefs, but I need to connect it back to the Santa thing ASAP before she starts raining on parades as the Christmas chatter starts.

    • The more I think about this, the more I like that we’re saying “respect others’ beliefs,” AND that the Santa families need to teach that, too. Dominant culture doesn’t mean only culture.

  4. Oh! My kids are total playground Santa-destroyers! Thank you for this warning, because I might still be early enough this year to remind them to let all the Santa stuff slide. They do a great job with it every year AFTER we’ve had the talk (lecture) about letting each family have its beliefs and celebrate its traditions, but I always only get jolted into action after it’s already too late for some unsuspecting kids and their families. I’m going to put “Santa talk” as a recurring event in my calendar right now! (I also did this recently for “figure out Halloween costumes”, so I’m looking forward to quite a stellar parenting year next year).

    The 8-year-old Monster’s response to anyone who mentions a belief in God or Santa is that he believes in bacteria. Who would want to argue with that?

    • That’s the best response ever!

      I’m going to tell the kids that instead of fighting someone else’s belief, just say what you believe.

      May get them in trouble with the other families, but just because we believe in bacteria doesn’t mean we’re persecuting anyone, right?

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