The Santa Lie

Lying to children to fool them into believing that a fat man in a red suit bounds down chimneys to deliver presents definitely and absolutely has nothing to do with Christianity. Lying is generally considered a sin, and neither the Old or New Testament prohibitions on lying have exception clauses for children. Of course, lying can sometimes have justifications—but “it’s fun” usually isn’t one of them. Now some parents think the fun of the Christmas lie justifies the risks it poses; if so, that’s their parental prerogative. But I believe that most Christians would object to using their religion to justify a cultural practice of lying to children. I don’t think it matters who the parent is, there’s an outspoken faction of adults who think it’s criminal to not play the Santa game with your kids. It’s right up there with refusing vaccinations. Don’t you care about the magic of Christmas and how your decision impacts the children who do believe?

I’ve come to think of it as a game that needs to stop. When I get in the car and strap my son into his car seat, he knows that we’re going somewhere. But he has no idea yet how long it will take or where we are going. When he looks at me and asks for food, he (most of the time) is actually hungry. But he doesn’t ask (yet) where we get it from or how much it costs. He trusts us to do the right thing for him. And we’ll mess up, for sure. I just don’t want Santa to be one of those “mess-ups” that we have to explain later. I’d rather have him accept my word as my word and help him determine the difference between fun, imaginary play, and real, actual life.

And when I talk to him about Christmas, I want to talk to him about Jesus and giving and forgiveness and not have him confuse Jesus with Santa Claus.

I suggest the Santa Lie should be avoided for three reasons. (1) It’s an unjustified lie, (2) it risks damaging your parental trustworthiness and (3) it encourages credulity and ill-motivated behaviour. One of the arguments people make in response is essentially the argument that Melinda Moyer presents. The Santa lie promotes imagination, and imagination is good for kids. As Moyer puts it, “What Kris Kringle does…is feed the imagination” and a “type of imaginative play that sparks creativity, social understanding and even, strange as it may sound scientific reasoning.” Of course, Moyer is right about the benefits of imagination. What she failed to recognise, however, is that the thing she is defending, "The Santa Lie". does not actually promote imagination or imaginative play. Imagination involves pretending, and to pretend that something exists, one has to believe that thing doesn’t exist. Does the Christian “imagine” that Jesus rose from the dead? Does the Muslim “imagine” that Muhammad’s rode his horse Barack (Al Boraq) at lightning speed from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended into heaven? Of course not; they believe these things are true. Tricking a child into literally believing that Santa exists doesn’t encourage imagination, it actually stifles it. If you really want to encourage imagination in your children, tell them that Santa doesn’t exist, but that you are going to pretend like he does anyway on Christmas morning. Lots of children “play/act” like they are Santa, and that does require imagination. But you don’t have to trick them into believing that Santa is real in order for them to play that way—just as you don’t have to trick them into thinking that Star Trek is real in order for them to pretend to explore alien planets in the back yard. Stories that show discovering the truth about Santa is often not with consequences: everything from the erosion of parental authority and trust to turning a child into an atheist. For example, Jay defended Santa’s existence in front of his whole class on the mere basis that his “mother wouldn’t lie” to him, only to read the encyclopedia entry on Santa in front of the whole class and simultaneously discover that she indeed would. When little Tennille realised that the reason she didn’t always get what she asked Santa for was that he didn’t exist, she figured that God’s non-existence was the best explanation for why her prayers also went unanswered. I’m not saying that this happens to all kids; I am saying it’s a possibility. If you are religious, I doubt it's a possibility you would willingly invite. Of course, if you are an atheist, you might like that the Santa lie does this. But there are even more reasons for not liking the Santa lie--reasons that should resonate quite loudly with everyone. Think about what many parents do to keep kids believing. Stifling doubt, believing based on desire (instead of evidence), being convinced by bad evidence, being fooled by ad-hoc explanations, and appealing to magic—these are all “bad habits of lazy thinking” that we should drive out of our critical thinking.

Does it really seem like a constructive use of time to keep holding together this tissue of imbecility? Some parents even tell their children that the Santa at the shops is the real one.

I hope mine at least respect my intelligence enough to not take it that far: telling your kid that an omniscient physics-bending man-god not only exists, but likes hanging out next to K-mart, is just depressing.

If you are still deciding what to tell your children, however, decide now to tell them the truth. After all, as Moyer says, “Though lying can be an awfully convenient parenting crutch…it’s generally best to keep it to a minimum, both to develop trust between yourself and your child and to lead by example.” She’s right! She’s just wrong that December is a time for an exception to this rule. And if you are worried about what your kids might tell other children, just teach them seven simple words: “At our house, Santa is just pretend.” Yes, we have an old-fashioned ornament of Santa Claus on our tree. Yes, he’s in the books we read to our kids. Yes, we say “ho, ho, ho” and sing the songs. We don’t skip the story. We just call it that—a story.

Check out what 5 experts think here