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Had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about his daughter’s experience at preschool. The preschool teacher took it upon herself to tell all the three and four year olds that Santa is not real. His daughter came home very upset – wanting to know if Sinter Klaas (the Dutch version of St. Nick) was fake too. My kids are a bit older so my friend wanted to know how my wife and I have dealt with Santa Claus. Our conversation took some interesting twists and turns – from mythology, Baudrillard and “hyper-reality”, to whether we are setting our kids up for disappointment. It got pretty deep… “What do you say to a kid if they ask straight out: Is Santa real?” “Yes” I replied. “With no qualification?” he responded. “None.”
My kids all differ on how they think about things like Santa. My ten year old daughter has always believed in fairies and mermaids, the birthday fairy who ties balloons on her door for her birthday, and Santa Claus who leaves stuff in her stocking. Even at ten we can tell she doesn’t want to let go. The fairies no longer live in our backyard – she’s moved them to some other planet. And Santa? We think she knows… but she doesn’t want to let on that she knows. She loves it too much. Much son? He’s a skeptic. Already at 4 he was telling our oldest that mermaids are not real. Just a week ago I asked him about his favorite bible story, and in that conversation he asks, “How do we know these stories really happened?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know – the three guys in the furnace. It says they didn’t even have the smell of smoke on them. That can’t be true.” After some discussion I finally affirmed his questions – letting him know it’s ok to ask. My five year old? She’s just happy to be here. She goes along with everything the kids do – so I can’t quite get a read on her myth-o-meter.
Are such things harmful for our kids? Do we set them up for disappointment? No way. What sets them up for greater disappointment is to paint a picture of reality that’s coldly mechanical. Our imagination is the source of meaning, and I believe it is also the place where we encounter the divine. Santa, fairies, and mermaids paint the world as magical, which prepares the way for thinking of the world as miraculous. Miracles or magic – there isn’t much of a difference as far as I’m concerned. Believing a fat man in a red suit leaves stuff in your stockings prepares the way for the magical belief that a tiny human baby born 2,000 years ago was God. As for me and my house? We’ll believe in Santa as long as possible. If you need to get in touch with me later today I’ll be at The Rise of the Guardians with my kids.