I don't remember a time when I actually believed in Santa Claus. I remember peering out of my dark room on Christmas Eve and wishing I could extend my ear throughout the house. I could just make out the sounds of wrapping paper being cut and folded. Thinking back on it now, I believe I was impressed by all the effort that went into fooling me. And I know that I repaid that effort by pretending to believe that the presents labeled "From: Santa" really were from him, at least for a few more years.
One year Santa delivered to me a book about the natural sciences, disclosing the fact that the North Pole is uninhabited and uninhabitable. No voice in my heart told me to doubt it.
You're not a bad parent if you tell your 3-year-old there is no Santa Claus. I don't care if you make Santa a more explicit game of pretend. Your children may find ways of believing in Santa despite your best efforts at being the Christopher Hitchens of the holiday season. But I am unpersuaded by the more principled anti-Claus chorus. There is something too flatly literalistic, even Puritanical, about their arguments.
Radical Protestants of an older stripe thought holy days like Christmas were offensive because God is with us every day, and because they hated the "mass" in Christ's Mass. How this translated in practice was that around the time other people began making merry, the dour low churchman marked the time with especially strenuous sermons against holy days.
Similarly, just as parents are conjuring a model of abundant generosity and joy, today's killjoys make it a season of rote sermonizing against materialism. This misses the point entirely. A materialist looks under the tree and sees the year's economic surplus, badly invested. It takes a spiritual person to see it as the work of St. Nick, as a recurrence of the Magi, or an imitation of the great generosity of the God-child born to us. Only the devil wants your Christmas to be just like all the other days. Save the mortifications for Lent.
What about the lying? Of course it is wrong to lie. And some parents botch the whole Santa thing by going to extremes, forcing the magic down their child's throat or turning Santa into a punitive NSA agent who collects naughty/nice data. But Santa doesn't have to be about deception; he can be a revelation instead. The great English writer G.K. Chesterton said that Santa was still real to him as an adult:
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good — far from it.
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me... What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea...
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
Some religious parents may worry that when the truth about Santa inevitably gets out, it will endanger their children's religious faith. I doubt it. As an adolescent, I tied my atheism to my disbelief in tooth fairies and Santa Claus. I flattered myself that I did not need comforting myths. But the truth was more complicated. My rejection of church was partly a way of affiliating with my non-churchgoing relatives, and with being modern and young as I then conceived those ideas. Atheism was a far more comforting idea to me in those years than belief in a Biblical God. But that's the problem with 12-year-olds: all of them have a bit of Richard Dawkins' glib skepticism in them somewhere.
Unless your commitment to Santa and to God look roughly equivalent, there's probably not much danger that St. Nick will ruin your kids for religion. But humorlessness and literalism might do the trick.
There's also something to be said for a light touch with magic and myth. For "letting the faeries out" of your soda bread, and for what Chesterton called "creative credulity" in another defense of Santa. This doesn't mean accepting fantastic stories cravenly and literally, but inhabiting them with zest.
A few years after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, my mother took me to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Someone there told me to look for faeries around the rock walls. The very strangeness of the terrain, and of the thatched roofs, and of the thick voices speaking the Irish language, let me detach myself from my already arid skepticism. "What if it's real, here?"
Without the suggestion, it may have just been a walk through a strange place. With it, I had an adventure across each rock wall and in each gale from the sea. It is the only day of that entire trip that I remember with any clarity at all. On a return trip last year I still found those islands enchanting. I still say the faeries are there.
Except for Elf on the Shelf, which is obviously wicked, do what you want on the holidays. But don't be bullied into pulling Santa out of Christmas.