The following article was written for the Humanist News Network. Meant for publishing this week, it is being postponed until next week because of a fundraising campaign. I wanted to make sure AgnosticMom readers get to read it before the Easter holiday.
The last thing I expected when I got married was to face the possibility of giving up Santa and the Easter Bunny. Deny my future children the magic of believing in those imaginary characters? Staying up late into the night, hoping to catch a glimpse of what no child has seen before. Knowing that the most popular person in the world thinks of you every year. The truth is, I knew they weren’t real for one or two years before I finally admitted it to myself. I made the joy last as long as I could.
My husband’s siblings, though, did not grow up “being lied to,” as they put it. My mother-in-law insists that learning about Santa devastated her as a child. She felt her mother betrayed her trust and lied to her. While some of the family members are still staunch against the tradition, a few of the others agreed to go along with their spouses, including my own husband.
With Easter only days away, I thought this a good time to discuss the topic. One question that enters the minds of some young atheist and agnostic parents is whether or not to have Santa and the Easter Bunny, if you decide to celebrate those holidays at all. How do we justify giving our children the fantasy of an Easter Bunny while denying them the security of a Jesus?
I love Santa and the Easter Bunny. I cannot imagine my childhood without those wonderful nights of exhilarating anticipation. They brought a joy that only Disneyland could match. Discovering they were not real did no damage to my psyche. It was more like discovering the secret to a great magic trick.
Having considered my mother-in-law’s experience, I set up a number of guidelines regarding the fantasy characters that grace our holidays. Hopefully, the use of these guidelines will not only prevent the rare devastation that a handful of children feel. They will demonstrate the difference between imagination and reality; between our perceptions and the facts, between the stories humans tell and the actual truths they represent.
First, parents need to take into consideration the child’s character. For example, my mother-in-law has an inner drive to get her facts accurate. In her mind, you don’t move forward on something without first verifying each detail. Most children are not this way, which is why most children walk away from their Santa beliefs with a smile and a tradition to pass on to their children. If you, yourself, are more like my mother-in-law, then you can guess that some of your children are likely to be the same way, as well. If this is the case with you, then you may consider banning Santa and the Easter Bunny altogether. But I think revealing the truth at a younger-than-average-age is also an option.
Age, in general, is another factor to consider. For most children, somewhere between six and eight is a good time. Part of the devastation, when it happens, is because the child has been defending Santa’s existence to friends. It is socially humiliating for an older child to learn they have been asserting something that everyone else knew was wrong. A good way to know it is time to reveal the secret is when the child asks you directly, “Is Santa real?”
So how do we make the Santa/Bunny scenario work to our advantage as atheists and agnostics? I figured it out as I was trying to avoid my mother-in-law’s mishap of my children perceiving us as lying. I made a decision at the beginning that I would not tell elaborate stories of how Santa gets his belly down the chimney or how the bunny gets those baskets into the house.
When my oldest son, Blake, starting asking these questions, I replied with my most common of all replies, “What do you think?” I encouraged Blake to think the problems through. The Santa/Bunny scenario provides an opportunity for both critical thinking and imaginary play. At the younger ages, imagination really goes to work. As they get older, they adopt critical thinking. As skepticism creeps into the questions, you know revelation time is near.
I prefer to wait until the child asks straight out, “Is Santa really real?” With many children, like myself and my first child, the desire to believe hangs on longer than the actual belief. We should allow them to believe for as long as they want. But when they want the truth, parents must give it.
And how do we handle the truth? We could say, “No, Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.” But I don’t think that answer demonstrates the reality, nor the reason for the stories. As Joseph Campbell taught, humans have always couched real principles into stories we tell over and over and pass on through generations. Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories of life, love, and the joy of giving. Parents are Santa to kids in ways they won’t understand until they become parents themselves. Like the Easter Bunny, parents bring life and hope to their children.
So when it comes time to answer the golden question, a more meaningful reply is, “Do you know who Santa is? Mom and Dad are Santa and the Easter Bunny.”
Parents can use this revealing of truth to explain how humans are a story-telling people. We have always told stories to express ideas. Some stories generate more belief and conviction than others. The Bible is a compilation of stories which many people have come to believe as literally true. Santa is a good analogy of how people want to believe in the stories of gods. Most stories have an amount of truth within them, as well as an amount of embellishment.
I finally told my oldest child the truth before Christmas last year as he was turning eight years old. When the day ended, I asked Blake if Christmas felt different now that he knows Mom and Dad are Santa. He told me that maybe it did a little. But that somehow, seeing the unwrapped Santa gifts, and going along with the game for the younger siblings, the magic still felt real.