How “Santa’s Not Real” Changed Me
“He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness’ sake.”
Like so many kids raised in a household that celebrates Christmas, I was a fervent believer in Santa. I wrote him letters, sometimes including Mrs. Claus (“Can Mrs. Claus knit me a matching scarf and hat?”). I saw him at the mall. Sometimes, on special years, he even came to visit our family on Christmas Eve in person at family gatherings. It was magical. And the world was magical. Fairies came for my teeth, bunnies left me chocolate, and once I even found the footprints of a gnome (or tomte, as my Swedish grandparents called them) in my grandparents’ backyard.
And then came the inevitable day, when some know-it-all punk in the 4th grade said to me, “Santa’s not real.”
I was appalled. Of course he was real. My parents had told me he was and I’d met him! It was like being told I wasn’t real or that God wasn’t real! I knew that my mother would reassure me.
Every child who believes in Santa learns eventually, if they didn’t know already, that their parents can and will lie to them. Knowing my classmates would increasingly tease me if I kept believing, my mother admitted to me that Santa was not real in the physical sense…just in the “spirit of Christmas” kind of way.
I had been raised that lying was wrong and did not yet understand the idea of shades of gray. The rules my teachers, my pastors, and, above all, my parents had set forth were ironclad in my brain and my family’s kind intentions in perpetuating the Santa myth were lost on me. All I knew was that my parents and much of society had deceived me and that the world had never really been magical.
As a child with what I can see now was an unusual and probably diagnosable level of anxiety, I took the concept of morality perhaps more seriously than others. I overthought every action and immediately, often tearfully, confessed any perceived misdemeanor to my parents in order to expel the unbearable shame I felt, even if it wasn’t a “real” offense. I apologized habitually to God for my mistakes and for my thoughts, even when they came seemingly unprompted. Like Santa, God knew if I’d been bad or good, and the thought of someone aside from me knowing every bad thought, every mistake I’d made fed the fire already lit by my anxious brain. I could never be good enough.
I have no memory of ever literally making that connection between the two leading figures of the Christmas season as a kid. Christmas after Santa simply became a time to gather up my wide-ranging family, put up fun decorations, and give and get gifts. It was still the most wonderful time of the year, but the magic had faded and, for a few years, it remained slightly tainted in my mind. And it was some time during those few years that I realized I was starting to doubt God.
Middle school had brought a host of new concerns with it and while I still overanalyzed and apologized in my head constantly, I no longer thought about God’s watchful eye quite as much. And with a more skeptical mind and a gradual increase in knowledge of other religions, I became increasingly uncertain of my own beliefs. Could my family have led me astray on this as well?
Even after talks with my mother and my pastor, as well as the temporary revival of my faith through reading The Robe, my trust in the beliefs I’d been raised with continued to falter until eventually in high school or perhaps college I finally accepted and verbalized what I had become: an agnostic. It was an imperfect but healing process. This recognition allowed me to acknowledge and discover a new reason for the season for myself.
Today the reason for the season for me remains closely tied to the values I was raised with. Christmas is a yearly reminder of the importance of showing kindness to others and renewing hope in the good of humanity. Whether you believe in Santa Claus, believe in Jesus, hold a different faith in your heart, or, like me, rely on material connections to anchor your values and morality, there is always value in remembering hope and good will. In putting up holiday decorations, I remember the joy of giving to others, whether they’re immediate family or people in need around the world. In sharing gifts and receiving them, I remember the warmth of friendship and community. In gathering with my family, I remember the goodness within all of humanity and the hope that comes with knowing it. Perhaps, in its own way, the world is still magical, after all.
A few words about me
Katie is a gentle soul with a snarky side who loves curries, traveling, and cats, is deeply afraid of losing all her friends and/or being lost at sea, and thinks cake is dreadfully overrated as a food item. She aspires to be as good a human being as she can be and to leave the world a little better than how she found it.