Santa Claus: To lie or not to lie?

CHRISTMAS MYTH: Darryl Ward debates whether to tell his daughter the truth about Santa.
CHRISTMAS MYTH: Darryl Ward debates whether to tell his daughter the truth about Santa.

My 8-year-old daughter Maria recently asked me if Santa Claus was real, as some children in her class had been telling her he wasn't, and that it was really their parents who put presents under their Christmas trees.

I found myself in a dilemma most New Zealand parents face at some stage. Should I tell Maria the uncompromising truth, and permanently destroy a fundamental facet of her childhood? Or should I let her spend this Christmas clutching on to a fading fantasy?

I try to teach Maria to be honest, so I should be setting a good example for her. Plus, I am a lay minister in the Anglican Church, and I am expected to be a person of "appropriate character".

Not telling Maria the whole truth would not exactly be consistent with maintaining either of these standards.

The jolly man in a red suit we know as Santa Claus is actually an invention of Coca-Cola marketers, who bears little resemblance to folk characters such as St Nicholas and Sinterklaas. Yet throughout the Western world, this secular figure has become a quintessential feature of that idyllic state that precedes the irreversible onset of adult responsibility. I treasure the preciousness and innocence of childhood, especially given how fleeting it is. Children are not children for long, and I find one of the biggest joys of being a parent is being reconnected with a world I thought I had left behind decades ago.

I recently attended some of Maria's school talent contest performances, and I was a little dismayed to see girls of Maria's age singing pop songs with overtly sexual lyrics. I sincerely hoped the girls did not fully understand what they were singing about.

I remembered it was not that long ago that a certain retail chain came under fire for marketing lingerie for children, but we still see clothing lines for children that emulate some of the raunchier adult styles. We also now face the threat of being subjected to American-style beauty pageants for children. If what has happened overseas is anything to go by, some of our children could soon be subjected to Botox and cosmetic surgery to satisfy the competitive urges of their parents.

Now I am not suggesting we should keep our children permanently cocooned in an unreal world of blissful ignorance.

However, I am saying childhood is a priceless gift that we should not be taking away from them without seriously considering the implications of what we are doing.

Maria's question came unexpectedly, and I was not prepared for it. I initially tried to answer her in the same way I expected Professor Lloyd Geering would have explained his faith, when he was responding to doctrinal error and impropriety charges in the 1960s. My initial explanation was not only clumsy, it also went right over Maria's head. She wanted a straight answer. So I simply told her that if you really believe in something, then it has to be true.

Later I recalled the story of Virginia O'Hanlon. Virginia was also eight years old . She lived in New York in 1897. Like Maria, she had been told by some of her friends Santa was not real and, like Maria, she asked her father.
Virginia's father came up with a much more creative but somewhat more evasive response than what I would give my daughter over a century later. He suggested she write to the Q&A column of the now defunct New York newspaper The Sun.

Virginia's letter was answered by seasoned editorial writer Francis Church, in what has became one of the most famous newspaper editorials in history. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy." The Sun republished this editorial every year, until it ceased being published in 1949.

As a minister, I teach the real meaning of Christmas is the hope for humankind that comes from God becoming fully human and dwelling among us. I am aware not everyone believes this, and I can accept that, but I have had to ask myself what credibility I now have as a teacher in the church, given I have essentially told a family member to believe in something I do not believe in myself.

Would suggesting Santa Claus really exists have compromised my mission? I don't think so. I cannot think of any reason why the Christ child and Santa can't both be part of Christmas. Jesus may be the reason for the season, but I see no harm in adding a magical extra dimension for children of all ages.

While Santa Claus may sit more easily with the commercialised Christmas I try to avoid than with the Christian festival I celebrate, he preserves some semblance of childhood for our children in a world that expects them to grow up far too fast.

I believe the longer we hold on to the dreams and visions of our childhood, the more likely it is we will retain some remnants of them when we are adults.

In the words of Joni Mitchell, "You don't know what we've got till it's gone."

I have a daughter who still believes in Santa Claus and still has meaningful conversations with her toys, while she grows up in an increasingly frantic world.

Her life will be richer because of this, and while the world may need its rational thinkers, it also needs its artists, poets, mystics and visionaries.

Yes Maria, there is a Santa Claus, and it would be a very depressing world indeed if there wasn't.

Darryl Ward is a lay minister with the Anglican Parish of Kapiti and a councillor of the Wellington Institute of Theology. This is his personal view.

The Dominion Post