My first memory of Santa Claus is finding out that he wasn't real. I was four. My sister, two years older and wiser, pulled me aside to gravely give me the news. My mother had managed to instill a deep love of honesty in me, and I was pretty bothered by the idea that my parents had lied to my face for so long. The more I tried to wrap my head around this epiphany, the less sense it made. While many parents would have doubled down and tried to find a way to rekindle the fantasy, in my family, the jig was up. The following Christmas, Santa's signature was scrubbed from the wrappings and tags, and our gifts were instead labeled "from Mom and Dad."
At this point in the story, you might expect some kind of existential kid crisis to emerge. After all, without the guise of a jolly man in a red suit hand-delivering toys with the help of his miraculous reindeer, how could a young child find magic in the Christmas season? But for me, Christmas was still magical and wonderful, despite my knowing that Santa wasn't real. I still loved it and looked forward to it every year. As soon as I recovered from the shock of being lied to, Christmas regained its sparkle. In fact, it was better.
The primary argument for the Santa Claus myth is that it is part of the "magic of Christmas" and that believing in this impossible story is necessary to ensuring a fantastical childhood. Children are innocent and have this remarkable ability to believe, and surely they should get to believe a fanciful story about a "jolly old elf" before they're forced to wake up to the realities of the world! I think parents who "do Santa" with their kids are generally well-meaning, and most of them remember Santa fondly from their own childhoods. It seems only natural that they would want to pass on that joy.
But as someone who grew up without Santa, I can assure you I never feel like I was deprived of an ounce of holiday joy.
My childhood memories of Christmas don't revolve around Santa, but they're just as sweet. I loved picking out a tree. I loved all the decorations. And of course, I loved having an excuse to drink a truly absurd amount of hot cocoa. Sure, I also loved getting new toys. But I remember really appreciating my parents for my gifts, and understanding that they wanted us to have the things we wanted because they loved us. And to be honest, I also felt respected. No one was trying to convince me a man broke into our house to leave gifts every year. Instead they were letting me enjoy the holiday on my own terms. It was great.
Every year, on Christmas Eve, we would go to my grandparents' house for the day. We'd drive home late and tired, and then my mom would huddle my sister and me up to read us our bedtime story. Every year, it was the same one: The Night Before Christmas. I loved the old-fashioned sounding poem, and I especially got a kick out of the "bowl full of jelly" line. I didn't need to believe that it was true to feel that it was special and magical. Kids have a wonderful ability to believe in the impossible, but they also have a great appreciation for make-believe.
When mom kissed us goodnight, she would always say, "You have to go to sleep or Santa won't come!" And we would all laugh together, because we were all in on the joke. She wanted us to stay in our room, because my parents were always doing everything at the last minute. They needed to stay up late wrapping all of our gifts and then dragging them in from the garage to put under the tree.
On Christmas morning, the living room was gorgeous. The light would reflect off the wrapping paper, creating a warm glow, and the stockings would be so full they were almost bursting. I knew my exhausted parents had made it all happen, but it still felt like something impossible had happened over night!
In fact, there was only one part of the holiday season that bummed me out, as a non-Santa kid, and that was other adults. For some reason, even though my parents were relaxed about the whole thing, me not believing in Santa was a problem for many grown-ups. Every year, someone would ask me if I believed in Santa, and when I said no, they'd start an argument. I'd try to explain that I was perfectly happy knowing the truth, but they either didn't believe me or didn't care. Sometimes they would stick to trying to "debunk" the evidence against Santa (fairy dust makes reindeer fly!) but oftentimes they resorted to a weird kind of shaming. I can vividly remember adults staring into my face, lecturing me on the importance of having faith, and insisting that it was of utmost importance that I found a way to believe in Santa. The message was clear: By knowing the truth, I had somehow failed. It was totally unfair.
But I think I'm proof positive that you can let your kids in on the truth about Santa, and it won't ruin Christmas. In fact, it might make their Christmases even more magical.