I’m not entirely sure why I would have feared such a reaction. After all, my parents told me about Santa, and I believed in him as a child. At least, I did until I didn’t, and the realization that my parents were doing Santa’s job didn’t prompt me to question every other belief I’d ever had.
Or did it?
No, it didn’t.
But it kind of did.
I’m not sure I had any particular epiphany upon which it became immediately clear as it never had before that Santa wasn’t real. For me, it was more like a creeping suspicion, never voiced, that infused itself in my consciousness over the course of several years, probably between first and fourth grades. I didn’t confront my parents or start asking suspicious questions, I just always played along, even if in the back of my mind I had trouble believing that Santa always found us at Grandmom’s house which didn’t have a chimney. And as I got older, my parents got a little sloppier too, wrapping Santa’s gifts in wrapping paper that looked awfully familiar from the stack of gifts Grandmom had wrapped. What kept me from voicing my doubts? Well, the easiest and most obvious answer is that I didn’t want to know that Santa wasn’t real, that I wanted to believe despite the logical inconsistencies. But I think there’s a more accurate answer: I had a younger brother.
I colluded with my parents – without any open discussion or agreement – in order for my brother to continue believing in Santa. I didn’t want to rock the boat for fear that his belief would be shaken before he was ready to come to the logical conclusions at which I was already arriving. And it was sweet, really, to see him enjoying Santa so much, which gave me a little more reason to continue believing, even after it had begun to feel so far-fetched and, well, a little childish.
But then one day my brother came to me and said, “Do you think Santa Claus is real? Because I kind of think Santa is really Mom and Dad.” And at his prompting, we went to my parents and shared our suspicions, which they confirmed for us. They also gave us that talk I think many parents give their kids upon finding out Santa isn’t “real” – you know the one, where you tell children that Santa as an idea is still very real and isn’t it still fun and magical to believe in the concept of Santa even if he’s not exactly an actual person. You know, “the spirit of Christmas” as the theme to every cheesy Christmas movie wherein adults learn to love the idea of giving and generosity personified as a jolly saint in a red suit without completely believing in fairy tales.
Neither myself nor my brother (I don’t think, although I can’t confirm with certainty) experienced this as an existential crisis of faith. Having our parents confirm that Santa wasn’t real didn’t ruin our Christmas, and our Christmas rituals didn’t change, either: “Santa” continued to leave presents under the tree on Christmas morning, which usually consisted of the biggest, most expensive items that we were most eager to receive. “Santa” gave me my boombox in seventh grade, and “Santa” brought me my first electric guitar in ninth grade. We continued to behave as if Santa were real up until my brother died.
In terms of faith examination, I think Santa Claus is a good, safe test case for children. Learning that Santa was a myth didn’t make me doubt the existence of God, but I got there eventually (see the final sentence of previous paragraph). I was older when this crisis of faith hit, but the process was much the same: the logical inconsistencies between the stories I’d been told and my experiences within the real world became too great to overlook. And there didn’t seem to be any reason to collude with anyone about this belief anymore; after all, I no longer had a younger brother.
Belief is such a funny thing. Because even after I hit such a terrible existential crisis of faith, I came out of it still believing in God. But I didn’t believe the same way. And that was fifteen years ago; suffice it to say that in the years since my brother died and I began to wonder if God was even real that my beliefs and experiences have changed again and again. And then I became a parent, and my beliefs changed all over again.
The task of becoming an adult, I believe, is to broaden one’s ability to believe. As children, we are concrete and literal about everything. As a child, Santa was an actual person, a white man with a fluffy beard who lived far away and watched everything I did and rewarded me accordingly. As a child, God was… well, a white man with a fluffy beard who lived far away and watched everything I did and rewarded me accordingly. I don’t believe that about either Santa or God anymore, and I think my life is the better for it. But as a child, those things were not only developmentally appropriate, but also good moral foundations upon which I could grow and develop further as my capacity to comprehend the complexities of the world expanded.
How do you teach a child about justice, or compassion, or love? These are intangible concepts, ideals that require careful consideration of various philosophical and theological facets and experiences. Children can’t understand that. What they can understand is a person, a jolly man who wants to make children happy by giving them gifts they want based not on how pretty or rich they are but on whether they are good people. How do you teach a child about expectation and hope for peace in all the world? Children can’t understand that. But a baby being born in a stable, chosen by God to be the ultimate example of what it means to be a good person? Children can understand that. I mean, everyone can understand that.
If this blog were a Christmas movie, this paragraph would be the dénouement, the moment in which my heart grows several sizes larger and I understand the true meaning of Christmas, thus throwing open the windows in giddy excitement to badger a young ragamuffin about the joys of second chances. Faith is not meant to be literal or concrete. Adults love Christmas movies about the literal truth of Santa not because we believe Santa to be literal, but because we want to believe Santa is literal. That’s faith to me: believing something that isn’t literally real should be. It’s a deep level of consciousness and awareness. I believe in God with my whole heart, with joy and passion and excitement. I believe in God so strongly that my faith cannot be contained by literal-minded concreteness; my faith is way too big for that. Arguing over the historical accuracies of the virgin birth is a little like arguing over what kind of wood Santa’s sleigh is made from; does your joy in Christmas depend on knowing that Santa used a lightweight lumber because heavier woods would require more than twelve reindeer to fly? Love and compassion and hope and joy are real – I know this to be true with every fiber of my being. I know these things are real even when they aren’t real, I know that they exist even when they don’t, I know that they can become reality even when they aren’t literal reality. That’s what faith is.
So of course I will be telling my sweet little girl all about Santa Claus, and I will do so with relish and glee. I will tell her about Jesus with even more relish and glee. And I know that she will come to realize that the stories I’ve told her aren’t concretely true, and that may be hard for her to metabolize at first. But that is necessary for faith to grow. Faith is a journey, and the start of it is lovely and innocent. It will get dark along the way at times, but that is not only to be expected, it is to be anticipated. Because that is when faith grows into something mature and deep and truly beautiful and eternal. I believe it with my whole heart.