How would you define who Santa Claus is to someone? In America we usually say he is a jolly, fat, red-suited fellow with a white beard who lives at the North Pole with an army of toy-producing elves. On Christmas Eve he rides in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, delivering the toys to children all over the world. Santa is magical, therefore he can accomplish this.
In Japan, Santa is thought to be from Finland (which explains the reindeer), but all the rest is basically the same. As an American parent raising my son in Japan, I stuck with the American version of the story. My son grew up with an absolute belief in Santa, as I never gave him any reason to doubt his existence. But up until I became a parent, I debated with myself over what my stance on Santa should be. There was a time, in college, when I hung with a crowd of Christians who regarded Santa as borderline evil--detracting and distracting from the true meaning of Christmas (celebrating Jesus’ birth). Part of their rationale was, “After all, Santa is just the name, Satan, rearranged.”
As a young adult, I did think the distractions of pop culture and the secular spin on the holiday was an affront to those who wanted to focus on the spiritual meaning of the season. (And I still do, for the most part.) But my perspective shifted somewhat after becoming a mother. Living in a country that didn’t have any Christian foundation, social talk of Santa was sporadic and inconsistent. It wasn’t an automatic given that Santa would come and leave a toy for the kid in the house; lots of Japanese parents refused to celebrate Christmas in any form, stating that they were Buddhist, or Shinto, or atheists. The day care where my son went had a Christmas party and a (skinny!) Japanese Santa came (minus the beard). But the kids at day care had various opinions about whether Santa existed or not, and many stated flatly that it was all hype and parents left the presents. I realized I needed a firm stance, either for or against Santa PR, and I didn’t want to waiver from that stance, once committed. I finally decided to promote belief in Santa, and joined my son in accepting his absolute existence, just as I did with God. We can’t see God, but we know He is there. We ask for things from God, and He makes the final call in whether or not we get those things. We tell everything to God, but He already knows our hearts, so we feel safe and cared for. And, of course, we try to be “good” for Him (so be good, for goodness sake!).
Santa began to feel like an angel servant of God, supernatural in the same kind of way. In my own mind, I saw myself as Santa’s representative at Christmas; the reason why he can be everywhere in the world on the same night (because parents are spread out everywhere, representing him in their homes); he doesn’t even need magic for that! I became comfortable with Santa, and all worries that Satan was duping me into getting off track finally ceased.
We explained what Christmas was about—how anything we do is based on the first Christmas story, from putting a star on the tree, to using an Advent calendar, to giving gifts to each other in the family. Santa became one component of the Christmas experience, but not the end-all. My son was comfortable in his belief and continued to ask Santa for a special gift till he was in junior high. One year he said, “I don’t want to trouble Santa with any request this year. He has enough to worry about, so I’m bowing out.” My son never said, “I don’t believe in Santa anymore.” Instead, he recognized he was old enough to stop asking for a gift.
As I had grown to believe and love Santa, through the eyes of my son, it was a little sad to give up being Santa’s representative in our home. But I’m grateful for the experience. Santa may or may not live in the North Pole, but his existence IS without question. The spirit of giving, selflessly and without fail, is embodied in Santa’s persona. Teaching children to love and respect this aspect of Christmas celebration is not only a good idea, it is vital if you want to teach your child about faith. I’m not sure if my son still believes (at the age of twenty-three) in Santa, or if he understands that I was facilitating an illusion for both our sakes. He knows how honest I am, and he has a strict sense of right and wrong that would blast me between the eyes (with both barrels) if I were to bring up the subject and confess the whole story. I’m waiting till he is a parent himself, and faces the decision to either represent Santa in his home, or not. Then, I hope he’ll be ready to help his own child foster faith in a being much greater than ourselves: God and his angel servant, Santa Claus.