Santa, Yoda, and the Persistence of Childhood Magic

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santa-yoda

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Occasionally my beareded husband Daniel drops in with a post. But they don’t typically highlight how intensely awesome nerdy he is, so you’re in luck with this one! Enjoy. – Haley

This isn’t a post about whether you should do Santa or not (disclaimer: we don’t). I want to get that out of the way since this has curiously become a very heated discussion. Instead, I want to critique an element of the modern Santa tradition that I find problematic.

Parents who tell their children about Santa usually find it necessary to ensure the child literally believes the myth. These parents will often go to great lengths to ensure the child’s continued belief (again, I’m not criticizing this practice). They do this, they say, because the “magic” of Santa depends on the child believing in him. I’ve often heard parents lament the loss of the magic once the child learns the Santa story is, in fact, a fantasy.

The lost magic of Santa has become a well-accepted part of the fantasy and is now even a groan-worthy cliche in holiday films. The plot of such a movie usually hinges on an incredulous child or jaded adult finally returning to their belief in the good Mr. Claus, somehow saving Christmas in the process. This all relies on the understanding that Santa is for children. They are supposed to truly believe in Santa and all his accoutrements because only in doing so can they enjoy this fantasy. Once they learn the jolly man is actually a myth, the fantasy is no longer enjoyable. Many parents will describe the revelation as “ruining” Santa or even Christmas for their children.

In this necessity of belief, Santa stands alone among fantasies. The enjoyment of other magical creatures – unicorns, dragons, elves – is not dependent on our belief in them. Our four-year-old loves the world of Tolkien and is extremely interested in trolls and dragons even though he knows that it isn’t “real” in a scientific sense. He will pore over bestiaries of mythical creatures, draw armies of orcs, and pretend to fight the Goblin King even though we have gone to no effort to convince him the fantasy is actually real. For him, the magic of this fantasy is very much alive.

At this point, I want to confess that the magic of Tolkien is still very much alive for me even though I didn’t grow up with the books. In fact, for me, the magic of other fantasy worlds is still alive as well. Star Wars has probably been with me the longest. I have a vivid memory of the video rental store where my dad first picked up a VHS tape of A New Hope. I can still remember the first time I saw the dunes of Tatooine on our small screen. I grew up with the movies, joined the fan club, and read deeply into the expanded universe. I never believed Darth Vader’s galaxy was literally real. I never made plans to ask Yoda for force tips. But that didn’t lessen the enjoyment for me. This distant galaxy was still very real and magical to me. And it still is. Sharing the original films has been a highlight of fatherhood for me.

The enjoyment of fantasy has never been more pronounced for me than when new Harry Potter books and movies were still coming out. The excitement, happiness, and joy Haley and I experienced waiting for the midnight movie premiers and book releases was, I wager, stronger than anything experienced by a child on Christmas Eve.

The fantasy series I’ve referenced so far are relatively modern. But the pattern I’ve described is truly timeless; the pattern of a story enjoyed from childhood through adolescence, young adulthood, and parenthood without a disruption of disappointment due to collapse of belief. This has been a feature of vast numbers of ballads, sagas, and folklore both written and oral, formal and informal.

None of this is meant as an argument against telling your children about Santa. Instead, it is a call to appreciate a deeper, more compelling magic which endures past childhood; the magic of stories that takes root in childhood and continues to grow with us. A magic that isn’t lost at adolescence but only deepens. A magic which doesn’t die when its secret is revealed but still produces wonder and awe in the oldest of us.

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Comments

  1. says

    Oooooh. Love it.

    We’re not planning to *do* Santa with our daughter (she’s two right now), and I’ve mulled a lot about how we can still make this season “magical” for her. I don’t want her to miss out on that — the wondrous feeling, the magical atmosphere. And I don’t intend to completely banish Santa from her world. He just won’t be bringing her presents. I haven’t quite figured out how to approach it.

    What you’re saying here, though, makes me think the great thing about not doing Santa is that if we do manage to foster that sense of Christmas magic, it won’t be something that will “die” when she finds out he isn’t “real.”

    Hmm. Thanks for this.

  2. Megan says

    My kids are 6, 2.5 and 1, and we “do” Santa, but I’m starting to want to stop doing him and focus more on St Nicholas day and Jesus. How do I do so?! I feel like even my 2.5 yr old is grasping the Santa idea already, so Im sure both of them will be devastated if we tell them its a myth. Maybe Ill wait til after Christmas?

    • says

      I actually really like the Veggie Tales “The Story of St. Nicholas” – it teaches the story (roughly) of St. Nick, while not dismissing the fantasy of Santa Claus completely and emphasizes the reason for the giving of gifts (we give as a way to show love, because God loves us roughly summarized). You can get it on Netflix.

  3. Lorrie says

    I grew up in a christian family. Christmas is celebrating the birth of Jesus, we would have dinner and a birthday cake for Jesus. On Christmas day, we also had a gift from Santa. We all knew it was Dad and Mom, just like the tooth fairy, but the pretend part was the fun part. Mickey mouse, Donald Duck, Popeye etc are all make believe.

    It can be possible to celebrate the birth of the King, and still get a gift from Santa!

  4. says

    I think I grew up in a unique situation the more I hear from other sides. We always did Santa, up through teenage years. I remember discovering my parents stash of presents and then being slightly disappointed when a few of those items were in my stocking, but I always kind of new that Santa was just a fun bit of make believe at the holidays.

    Christmas was for Jesus, most presents came from my hard working parents and Santa? Santa was just a bit of fun. If I ever believed in him, really believed, it was before I could remember. When I believed in him later on it was the same way I believed that maybe, just maybe the Shire was real and there might be fairies in the woods. I knew that it most likely wasn’t true, but I still had fun getting lost in the fantasy of it.

    • says

      p.s. On further consideration I think it was because the “magic” of Christmas didn’t solely revolve around Santa. Santa had nothing to do with the movies we watched, our yearly Nutcracker show, the important presents, the time time with family, my yearly hope for snow or that truly magical candle light service.

      Santa was such a small part of the big picture I just don’t think the revelation of his fantasy made that big of a wave.

      In fact, in my child brain I probably went through the list – “Santa isn’t real…. but I still get my presents, we still sung the songs and we still did all the fun things.” Even after Santa wasn’t real my stocking still filled with candy and a few other little things so there was little of the magic to loose. Everything still happened as before, it was just as special, I just knew to make sure to really thank my parents (and God) at the end of the day.

  5. says

    I very much agree with your sentiments here. We haven’t definitively decided what we will do about Santa, but I am leaning towards the same approach my parents seemed to take–let them discover Santa on their own and go along with whatever they say, but make no effort on our part to deepen their belief. I think the lists of things to do to force your kid into belief are so over the top. I will not be getting up on my roof or making glitter footprints or any such nonsense.

    I DO think that sometimes we de-emphasize or forget that there is such a thing as a American culture though. Santa IS American culture. He’s a myth very similar to other cultures that we deeply respect and value (for instance, pretty much all of Europe), but sometimes in our effort to not secularize Christmas or rid ourselves of commercialism we forget that there is a very simple innocence to his existence from a folkloric perspective the same way that any of these other figures continue to be a part of other cultures. Our concept of Santa is somewhat young because our American culture is young. But let us not forget that EVERY culture was once young.

  6. says

    Oh, Daniel, THANK YOU. I am in tears because you just gave me something I’ve really needed this Christmas season. I’ve been so torn about what to do with my son being 2 and not being sure how to approach Christmas with him now that he is understanding things- Santa being a big one. I did grow up with Santa, I did believe until I was 7 or 8, and I didn’t grow up with Jesus as the reason for the season, so looking back at my childhood experience and what Christmas now means to me as a Catholic, they don’t match and I’ve been really really struggling. I loved the magic of believing and I want to give that feeling of magic to my son and daughter while teaching them what the season truly is about. I’ve been having a really hard time this year and tonight I am so grateful for you.

  7. Courtney says

    I grew up with Santa Claus, and believed in him for a very long time. I never tried to prove he didn’t exist, never went looking for the stash of gifts…besides, my parents were much too careful about hiding them. After I got a certain age though, they weren’t so worried, and my much older sister had children of her own and I was present for many shopping trips where Santa’s deliveries were bought :)
    Once I realized that it was indeed my parents who left the Christmas presents, there was an aspect of Christmas that changed, something had faded about it. I claimed to believe in Santa long after I figured out the truth, and I still do, just to hold on to the little bit of Christmas “magic”, and my parents just quit putting name tags on the Santa gifts. But of course I realize Santa Claus is not real, but by believing in “him”, I believe in the spirit of the actions that surrounds the myth of him….of giving freely and generously to those you care about, those you don’t know, those who don’t have anyone to care for them, to the poor and the unfortunate. The magic and spirit of generosity persist long after the man in the red suit fade away. I don’t think there is anything wrong with children believing in Santa Claus, or an attempt to maintain that belief….but once that belief has faded away, it should be replaced with a belief in what Santa Claus represents. Then the Christmas magic can never disappear.

  8. Katarina says

    Having grown in post-communistic country, in a family of an unpracticing Catholics I was forbidden to believe in Santa (Santa was invention of the communists trying to replace what Christmas is trully about). They told us the tale of litlle baby Jesus – the God, who was born on the day of Christmas and brings presents to good kids. I remember asking if he entered the way Santa does, but my mom answered that since baby Jesus was God, he can do all kind of miracle, even enter through the closed window. I guess none of my friends believed in Santa either. I can not say if it is like that al over Europe (specially since there is no such a thing as an Europpen consciousness due to the fact of Europe being so nationally and culturally diveded and different).

    Having my own child now and wanting to raise him in trully Catholic spirit, we are sam still considering wheather to keep the magic of baby Jesus alive or not to give presents for Christmas at all. I like Spanish tradition of children writing letters to the three wise men and recieving gifts on the eve before of in the morning of Epiphany. I have friends who practiced this in thier families and seeing thier younger sibiling believing that presents were delivered bythe three kings really touched me.

  9. Pat says

    What a lovely way of expressing this! We did share Santa lore with our children but in a very light-hearted way (none of that “Santa’s watching, so be good!” stuff). By the time they were 6 or so, they simply intuited that Santa, like other favourite ‘characters’ was make-believe but they still wanted in on the fantasy. Once, one of my teens reminded me as we wrapped gifts, “Mom, this one’s from Santa and you forgot to use your “Santa” handwriting–and handed it back! I had broken character–lol. We also spent time incorporating that spirit into the real meaning of the holiday. From the time they were small, every Christmas Eve we would first celebrate Jesus’ Birthday and then go “Secret Santa” a friend or family in need (some lean years, that meant giving some of their own treats or gifts to someone with even less). We’d hide under Santa hats, sometimes even fake beards, leave packages on the doorstep and run away. They still speak of those experiences as some of their fondest memories.

  10. Michelle says

    This makes me think of a conversation I just had with my six year old. Child says, “Mommy we really should take a vacation to Middle Earth sometime.” I replied, “Oh, I’m sorry sweetie, Middle Earth isn’t a place we can visit, it’s just in books.” Child responds with, “Oh well, at least I can still go to Hogwarts!” I just smiled.

    Problems of nerd families.

  11. says

    That picture of Yoda dressed as St. Nicholas made my daughter’s morning! Does it reveal our nerdiness to say she had to run to her room and grab her Yoda doll to show it to him? :-)

  12. says

    We “do” Santa, but not in the way many families go overboard. Tiny littles are hypnotized by the concept, and older children “play along,” loving the thrill in the eyes their younger counterparts. We TOTALLY downplay it (*I have no desire to put much extra energy into the idea of a real santa at the north pole).

    I liked Jen’s post this week about why she continues to observe Santa… just like the tooth fairy, it’s in the family, and for us it is here to stay.

    I don’t object with those who don’t “do” Santa though! I guess it’s a cultural norm to pretend the North Pole Santa is real… now let’s make the observance of St. Nicholas just as important (OK– more important!!!)

  13. says

    I really do like this and honestly, I think its totally compatible with Santa. Have you seen the Chesterton quote regarding his thoughts on Santa? It sort of jives with this sentiment (and we all know how much that man loved his magic, fantasy and fairies!) My plan has always been to have Santa be a part of Christmas, much in the way that Harry Potter and Tolkien are part of our literature and Star Wars (ok, and Tolkien again) is in our DVD library. The movies do get annoying in the constant repetition that Christmas cheer is what drives Santa’s sleigh (though I am a huge fan of Elf…) but I think an appropriate way to handle Santa Claus is by handling it the same way as you handle Frodo. I would never tell my kid that Frodo is real. But they might just as well assume that hobbits are real creatures and Middle Earth is a real place and until they ask me otherwise, I’m fine with letting them think that. Same goes for Santa.

  14. says

    Now I REALLY wish that we lived next door to your family–I bring up these same points when talking to people who insist that I am ruining Christmas by not doing Santa. The magic is there. Children live in a wonderful reality where Narnia both exists and is “just pretend” and I refuse to believe that my child’s Christmas is any less magical than any other child’s Christmas. Like you, I don’t want to convince any other family of anything. I just don’t want to do it in my house. We have all kinds of ideas about what will happen while my son is sleeping that will feel magical for all of us. I just prefer those, and I often cite kids’ love for Star Wars, many without seeing the movies, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie the Pooh, and the list goes on. Kids come up with things that are not “real” all on their own. There’s no way I could “ruin” magic for this small person–it exists without me!

  15. Ashley says

    I love this! A couple years ago , I wrote a piece on my blog about the evils of Santa. I was still escaping the grip of fundamentalism. Now that I’m out of its clutches, I am starting to appreciate life in a whole new way. I am finding beauty everywhere – especially in the drama of scripture and the church calendar. Additionally, I see the value of magical stories in teaching my children about God. I fall in love with my husband all over again when I hear him reading the Narnia series to our daughter.
    Back to Santa – I still refuse to point blank lie to my children about where their presents are from, but I discovered that they don’t care! My daughter, who just turned 5, gets that St. Nicholas didn’t really bring her presents, but she wants to pretend that he did anyways. She acts like it’s all real. She gets excited and plays make believe about Santa just the way she plays make believe about any number of things throughout the day. The girl has quite an imagination.
    Last year, when we were starting to allow Santa talk but still very much intimating that it was just pretend, she came up to me, and said, “Mommy, next year can we please pretend that Santa really did bring our presents?” Sure, kid. :)

  16. says

    Daniel, I mostly agree with you but for a slight difference in reasoning, which may be only misinterpretation of written tone and not disagreement at all!

    It is a shame that the the revelation of Santa’s workings as we grow up is seen as sad, where necessity in literal belief is not essential to any other magical or mythological thing. But I think (and I’m still working out my personal philosophy regarding this) my sadness comes more from the the thesis that none of these things are really real . . . as if literal, factual existence were the sole criteria for truth. “Seeing is believing,” says the Conductor in the movie version of The Polar Express, “but sometimes the most real things in the world are things we can’t see.”

    And Peter Kreeft has said, “That story [The Lord of the Rings] is true. You’re in it. You and I are in it. It’s really true”

    Like Chesterton, I still believe in Santa Claus. My belief has simply evolved, so that now the gifts he gives me on Christmas morning are gifts of wonder, gratefulness, and a way to see and understand truth that could not otherwise be expressed than through a jolly, benevolent, and bearded man, who bestows gifts in the dark heart of winter in honor of the Christ Child. <3

    (I recently worked through my own practical approach to Father Christmas, which has only solidified and reinforced my certainty: http://www.everything-to-someone.com/2013/12/liturgical-living-what-to-do-about.html)

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