Dear Souls and Hearts members,
You might be thinking, “Oh, no. Dr. Peter, you’re not going to take parents who share with their children the story of Santa and the reindeer to task for lying, are you? Really?”
Yes. Really. I invite you to hear me out with an open mind on this Santa Claus thing and children, and see if you agree or disagree.
Let’s start out by examining whether the seemingly fun and amusing story of Santa and his red suit and the North Pole and Rudolph really constitutes a “lie.” That’s such a heavy word, such a downer.
As many of you know, I’m big into definitions, so let’s go back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and review just what lying is. Here’s the relevant paragraph, number 2482:
A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
So does the traditional Santa story speak falsehoods? As we say in Wisconsin (where I grew up), “you betcha.” The story is full of falsehoods. There is no jolly man in a red suit living at the North Pole with elves in a workshop making toys all year to deliver them to every good child on Christmas Eve night in a sled pulled by reindeer, one with a glowing red nose. None of that is even remotely grounded in reality, Virginia — all those rhapsodizing abstractions from the famous 1897 editorial of the newspaper The Sun in response to your letter are designed for adults to enjoy (and are not attuned to either the actual question you asked or your eight-year-old mind). That editorial response seems to me to the be the direct precursor of Hallmark Christmas movies. Meh.
Is the Santa story told with the intent to deceive? I would argue that in most cases, especially with young children, yes. Parents get invested in their little kids buying into the whole story, elves and reindeer and all.
Honesty, Lying, and Mercy in the Malinoski home…
Let’s go back to 1975 in Neenah, Wisconsin, in my childhood home, with my family. One of Mom’s favorite sayings was “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.” I heard this a lot, when I was growing up, and honesty was drilled into us Malinoski kids as a basic human virtue.
And I’m thankful for that, it was a gift to me from my mother. Mom would sometimes forebear from punishing me for experimenting with lies if I ‘fessed up and told the truth. She didn’t want to punish me for truth-telling in the end. So, I experienced a really valuable example of mercy from Mom. (And I was pretty bad at lying, too, and was usually caught when I tried it.)
My experience of Santa growing up…
My Mom did the whole Santa story, in 3D, in my home growing up. As a small boy, I remember thinking that we were blessed that we had a fireplace with chimney so that Santa could descend properly. We wrote letters to Santa (my sister cross-referenced her requested gifts with page numbers and descriptions in the Sears Catalog to avoid any potential confusion from Santa).
And among all the Christmas decorations, we had these little red cloth “Santa Mice” placed up high in most of the rooms of the house. Mom discussed how these mice watched us in December, and reported back to Santa on the nature of our behavior. From the re-tellings of my maternal grandmother, I knew well the story of how in the 1920s, one of my great uncles received a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa because he was a “bad boy” that year.
I worked hard on being good. I was also edgy, though, about this mouse surveillance. Could they see me when I was changing my clothes? Was there a peeping Christmas Mouse in my bedroom that I didn’t know about? The thought was unnerving and creepy and weird.
On Christmas morning, the milk was half-drunk, some of the cookies were gone, and there was sometimes a cookie with just one bite out of it. And there were presents galore. What more indisputable evidence of the reality of Santa could a young child need?
But when I was 6 ½ years old, I started to doubt. Things weren’t adding up. The chimney looked really narrow to me, how could such a heavy man get through it? How could he make everything in the JCPenney Catalog in his workshop by hand, even with elves? And how could he possibly get to all the houses in one night even with eight or nine reindeer and a sleigh? And how would that sleigh work in hot climates, where there was no snow, like in a desert?
Doubt flowered into disbelief in by the time I was 7 ½. But I chose not to confront my parents on the subject. First, they seemed really invested in the story, especially Mom. And I had a six-year-old sister who was a “true believer” in Santa. But, if I’m to be honest, most of all, I didn’t want the Christmas gravy train to stop. This so-called “Santa” brought a lot of presents. So I played along, feeling vaguely guilty. I just didn’t talk about Santa.
By the time I was eight, some kid at St. Gabriel’s school demolished any remaining possibilities of belief. I was relieved of some tension then. Santa wasn’t real. I knew it. And I questioned, why did Mom spin this tale to me and act like it was real? What was the point? And at some level, I knew. Mom loved the story of Santa. She was reliving some really pleasant experiences through us believing in the story (you can see the budding psychologist in me in the story, even at such a tender age…) The whole Christmas story and production wasn’t just all for us kids.
Research on parental lying
Let’s take a look at what research says about parental lying. One research study has reported that 84% of US parents have lied to their children, and the number one reason? To get behavioral compliance. To make the kids do what the parents want them to do. The most commonly reported parental lie goes along these lines: “If you don’t come with me, I am going to leave you behind.” Fear of abandonment will drive behavior compliance in the short term for young children, but it’s a non-starter for secure attachment.
In another study, 5-8 year old children were either told the truth or lied to by an experimenter. Then they were tempted to peek at the answer to a trivia question in the experiment. They peeked or didn’t peek, and then they lied about it or didn’t lie. Children were significantly less likely to lie if they had seen the experimenter modeling truth-telling rather than lying. And isn’t that consistent with common sense?
Other research shows negative long-term outcomes for children raised by parents who lie. This retrospective study found that “…the adults who remembered being exposed to higher levels of parenting by lying in childhood showed higher levels of deception toward their parents and higher levels of psychosocial maladjustment.”
Other Problems with the Santa Story
It’s not just Catholics like me that are raising an eyebrow about the Santa stories. Here’s an article in Time magazine (hardly a bastion of Catholic values) that relates an encounter between the author and her daughter over Santa Claus lies. And here’s an article by a modern philosopher detailing sound arguments against the raising children in the Santa Claus myth.
But those articles don’t touch my main concern. Imagine a Christian child who is disappointed and disillusioned by his parents perpetuating a lie about Santa Claus. Might that child not begin to wonder about other Christmas stories that seems improbable from merely natural perspective? What about an archangel (named Gabriel) coming down to announce to a Virgin that she has been chosen to bear the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, who was later born in a manger (with cows and a donkey around) with an amazingly bright star in the sky overhead that attracted the attention of some shepherds and three wise men from the East, but also an evil king who tried and failed to kill the baby (who was both true God and true man), and then the baby and his Mom and St. Joseph all fled to Egypt? What if the Gospel stories of the Nativity start to sound like myths too?
I think this whole Santa thing (with the materialism that so often accompanies it) both distracts and detracts from the religious and spiritual focus of Christmas. Pam and I don’t give gifts to our children on Christmas. We give them on St. Nicholas’ day (with the real story of the saint) and on the Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the three wise men from the East. We have never done the Santa thing. We have other traditions, including a half-life-size Nativity set (which is a lot to haul up and down the stairs).
Finally, I’ve never run across parents (though there may well be some out there) who made a serious, deliberate attempt at discerning what was best for their children and concluded that giving them the standard Santa story was the very best, most loving thing for them. Most of the time you get the justification and minimization and careless attention that we discussed in last week’s email reflection as reasons for lying. Or some vague reference to St. Nicholas. That doesn’t cut it for me.
I can’t say it better that psychologist and parenting expert Justin Coulson in this article: Tell your kid the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” when it comes to Santa Claus. Little children are very sensitive to being lied to. It causes all kinds of issues with trust.
You’re free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any reactions you may have to this article. Be patient — I will try to respond, but I am a little behind in correspondence right now.
New podcast episode on your inner life
In episode 93 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast titled “Three Inner Experiential Exercises, I discuss the crucial role of the right kinds of corrective and healing experiences in our lives. I then offer you three inner experiential exercises to help you understand three questions: 1) In what ways do you not love yourself (with a special focus on your inner critic); 2) your inner tension between connection and protection; and 3) your internal battles with rigidity and chaos. Check that episode out when you have dedicated time for the exercises. The first 20 minutes is introduction, and each of the exercises is 15-20 minutes long.
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Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. – Please forward this on to anyone you think might benefit – it may be a way of opening a conversation about lying or Santa Claus or some other topic with a family member, friend or acquaintance. If you are not receiving these emails because you’re not registered with Souls and Hearts, you can join my weekly email reflection list here. I would very much like you to join us.