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Should I Tell My Kids About Santa?

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“Santa watches your behavior,” I hear Max tell his little sister, Violet, in the authoritative tone of a 5-year-old. “Right Mama?” he adds.

“Where did you hear that?” I ask. I’m standing in the kitchen slicing pears for the kids while they color at the table.

“My bus driver told me,” he says. “Santa does watch, right?”

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“Um, yes, some people believe that,” I stutter.

“It’s true!” he says.

I bite my lip.

Growing up, Santa Claus was part of our family Christmas. I got the requisite pictures taken with him at the mall, tears streaming down my red, frightened face. I wrote him letters pleading for the Barbie Dream House (which, ahem, I’m still waiting for), left sugar cookies out for him on Christmas Eve, and waited anxiously to see what was in the mysterious gifts labeled “from Santa” under our tree on Christmas morning. I don’t remember the exact moment I discovered that he didn’t exist, so I wasn’t scarred or traumatized by the “myth” of Santa Claus.

And yet, when Max was a toddler, I was surprised to find myself bristling when people started talking to him about Santa. Before my husband and I had even had a chance to decide if or how we would include Santa in our holidays, people were asking him, “What are you asking Santa for this year?” and “Have you been a good boy so Santa will bring you lots of presents?”

If someone is going to threaten my kids, it’s going to be me, damnit!

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to teach our son that a chubby, red-clad stranger would be sneaking down our chimney once a year to leave him presents. It felt a lot like … lying. And the idea of warning him that his behavior is being observed and judged by someone else—and that it will determine whether he gets nice gifts for Christmas—doesn’t sit well with me. If someone is going to threaten my kids, it’s going to be me, damnit!

Having children makes many of us question things we’ve gone along with in the past. Traditions become more important but more thoughtful as well. Our family doesn’t practice an organized religion. Nor do I want the season to be about frantic consumer culture. I was left wondering what I really did want the holidays to be about.

And whether Santa would be a part of them.

For a time, I thought we should just evade the Santa situation altogether and try to shelter our son from the myth. But my husband disagreed. “He’s a little kid. And it’s fun!” he argued. He had a point. I envisioned a future, solemn-faced elementary school-aged Max spilling the beans to his friends on the swings at recess: “Santa’s not real, you know,” he’d say with the dull-eyed face of a child who hasn’t been indulged in magic.

My own favorite holiday memories didn’t have much to do with Santa at all.

I thought back to my childhood.

My own favorite holiday memories, besides the light-headed anticipation of small mounds of presents, didn’t have much to do with Santa at all. They had to do with the light, both literally and figuratively: strands of jewel-toned Christmas lights glowing, the sparkle of shining ribbons, gleaming candles that brought much-needed illumination to the darkest days of winter. They had to do with my family gathered around, sharing warm food. The smell of my mom baking her maraschino cherry-topped sugar cookies. The annual drive my dad mapped out that took us by the most festively and sometimes oddly lit houses. The crowded Christmas Day party at my godparent’s house, which had a basement room for the kids to hang out, eat candy and cookies and play with my godfather’s working slot machines and jukebox.

Now my family has our own traditions. Every Christmas Eve, we take the ferry to the small island where my husband grew up. His entire family crowds around, passing brightly wrapped gifts as we read the yearly Christmas poem, penned by a different family members each year. We spend Christmas morning eating and opening presents with my parents, and we get takeout Chinese food for dinner. Already we have strong rituals that will etch themselves into our kids’ holiday memories.

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After much deliberation on my part, we decided that Santa would be a part of our holiday celebration—but not a huge part. Mostly we will focus on family, friends and food. Love and light. Santa will be an accouterment rather than the main act. A big, red ornament on a tree brimming with color.

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