What do we tell our children about Santa? In thinking about this question I am reminded of the following quote. It is from Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner. (Monterey, CA, National Geographic, 2010)
You need to believe in something to be happy…You need to believe in something bigger than yourself, something that transcends you. That gives you hope and that is part of happiness. Your body needs company but your soul needs company too…We cannot live without faith, hope and love.
The thing is, children are already believers. They believe in fairies and elves and magic dragons and imaginary friends that seem quite real. Their thinking goes through stages and they are not yet fully capable of judgment, reason and scientific inquiry. (Curiously enough, some of us never get there.) So no matter how reasonable and fact-based we are with children, it will fall on deaf ears. They simply don’t think that way as yet. A brilliant child psychoanalyst named Selma Fraiberg identified children’s thought processes as “magical thinking.” It refers to their firm conviction that if they think something, it will actually happen. If they are angry and imagine something bad happening to their parents, for instance, they worry that it actually will occur. Santa may be quite real to them and if someone tells them otherwise, they may secretly think that he or she is just plain wrong! If we tell them that Santa isn’t real before they are five years old, they may not believe us anyway. Chances are they will figure it out for themselves when they are ready.
Actually we are all believers. There are very few of us who can get through a day counting only on the “facts” of a situation. Sometimes beliefs are what get us through the day. If we didn’t hope that the sun would rise or that spring would come after a frozen and brutal winter we might not get out of bed. We believe in our favorite football team. Go Blue! Some of us imagine that a president can single-handedly alter the course of the economy and bring back jobs that will make us rich. We once believed that the earth was flat and that it revolved around the sun. Galileo was burned as a heretic for saying otherwise.
The world, the “real” adult world, is a mysterious place with many unanswered questions. What is the real scoop on dark matter? What do we really know about the origins of the universe? Is there intelligent life out there? What if life on earth is merely a hologram projected on a screen from thousands of years ago? There is so much that we do not know about our planet: ending disease; eradicating poverty; living together peacefully. The world is full of uncertainty and of baffling questions that we cannot begin to answer. It is impossible to disavow any of us of all of our superstitions, our wacky dreams or our plans to win the lottery. Gambling addictions are based on the false premises that the odds will be in our favor, just this once. So if some of us imagine a jolly man who rides in a sleigh and brings wonderful presents, it’s going to be okay.
A child who believes in Santa Claus is part of the magic of the season. He or she will figure out soon enough that there is not really a man in a red suit who flies through the sky in a sleigh. But as parents we can aspire to teach them about magic, about mystery, about the continuing truth that there is so much yet to learn about our world. In the words of the ancient visionaries:
Hope is necessary for us now. Faith requires this hope. That is because our lives are lived within the realms of the visible and the invisible. (Shawn Madigan. Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998)
Now is the season of hope. Let us rejoice.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.