Monday, December 6, 2010

No lie

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

That said, it has to be said: I'm sick and tired of being told that having done the St. Nick pretend game with my children involved "lying" to them.

Even over here, some of the commenters are throwing around the "lying" word.

Why does this bother me?

Because, as I said in the comboxes over there, lying is intrinsically evil. A sin. And, possibly, under the usual conditions, a big one.

It's not something the Church ordinarily winks at or condones--yet the Church has had very little to say on the subject of St. Nicholas or the tendency of young children to think that he is the one responsible for the cool toys under the Christmas tree (with Mom and Dad providing the sweaters and books, of course).

So either the Church is being extremely, seriously, terribly deficient not to warn all Moms and Dads that they are risking their immortal souls by lying to their children for years, or--the Church views fantasy, fairy tales, and pretend games as an important part of childhood, and not as lying at all.

My three-year-old niece walked around at Thanksgiving with an empty plastic teapot and teacups, offering the assembled company drinks of anything from tea to orange juice to alligator tail with hot sauce (yes, she is adorable). She would eagerly ask each adult how they liked her offerings--and we all made delighted faces as we sipped from empty cups, told her everything was delicious, and asked for more, or made special requests (I think Thad was responsible for the hot sauce). Of course, we were lying to her. We should have told her sternly that the cups and pot were empty and that she was making the Baby Jesus cry for her duplicity and fibbing, right?

Chances are, you find that idea ridiculous. Of course, we were NOT lying to her. We were pretending, because we all know how important pretend play is to small children, and how much they learn about the world from such games.

What they learn from the St. Nicholas game is that the world is much more than it seems to be; that materialism and empiricism are not all that is, and that when the veil is lifted and we enter the Kingdom of Heaven some day, God willing, we will discover how much more vastly real and lasting generosity and openhearted love are than tax deductions and compound interest. Now, maybe some parents would rather teach these lessons in other ways, and that's their right, which I respect.

All I ask is a little respect in return--starting with not accusing me of having spent years lying to my children. Because that accusation involves an accusation of my having participated in something that is intrinsically evil--and unless you're willing to back that up by insisting that it always is and always has been intrinsically evil not only to play the St. Nicholas game with small children, but to play any other pretend game that involves putting a little spin on empirical reality (like agreeing that an empty plastic cup is full of alligator tail), then you don't really mean it.

For the record, my girls--who had the "big reveal" conversation with us over a year ago, in the middle of the summer of last year, when for various reasons they had pieced together this and that and started asking the kind of pointed questions that let parents know it's time (and my only answer to questions about St. Nick or any other fantasy character have always been "Well, what do you think?")--do not in any way regret that we played the St. Nicholas game with them, and have graduated into being guardians of the secret for their younger cousins with ease and grace. They still find Christmas to be a joyful and holy and magical occasion, the same way they found last year's Christmas snowfall to be a miracle and mystery; the difference is that last year they realized that the snow was also extremely inconvenient, as it kept us from attending the Christmas Mass for which we'd practiced music for a month--something they wouldn't have even thought about when they were little. Growing up happens all too quickly; the time for pretend games involving magic teapots or magic gift-givers vanishes like that Texas snowfall, and is gone before we have time to enjoy it.

So pretend that St. Nick brings gifts or fills stockings, or that La Befana or the Christ Child or even the Wise Men's Smallest Camel is involved--or don't. But unless you sincerely believe that the former involves the intriniscally evil sin of lying, quit telling parents that playing pretend at Christmas is a form of lying--or else lobby every bishop to mandate immediate instruction to the faithful that this lying has to stop at once for the good of everybody's souls. Because, quite frankly, it's not going to be enough on Judgment Day for you to insist that you didn't lie to your kids about Santa (or the Camel or Befana or...etc.), and then expect to be let off the hook for not denouncing this intrinsically evil act every chance you got.

And that's no lie.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Cheeky Pink Girl's excellent Santa post here!

13 comments:

freddy said...

Thank you! Well said!

You know, I didn't lose my faith because my parents "did the Santa thing."

I also didn't lose it over the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or the notion that a thunderstorm was the angels bowling: much more ridiculous concepts, if you think about it.


There's a vast difference, I think, between lying and pretending and giving child-centered explanations for things. Lying is a tool of hatred; pretending -- whether it's the Tooth Fairy or a cup of alligator tail, is the language of love.

TJ said...

Erin:

Thanks for this. Your past advice on the "Santa issue" has been helpful in crafting my own family's traditions. As a lawyer by profession, it's hard to put on the mind of child instead of logically analyzing this to no end. My nearly four year old helps me along the way, though. In our house, Saint Nick and Santa are one and the same, so of course we talk about Santa living in Heaven. My daughter decided that Santa ALSO lives at the local greenhouse where we saw Santa pull up in a Ford Taurus last Christmas. I tried to correct her: "Sweetie, I think maybe that was a man pretending to be Santa." Her assertive response: "No Dad, it was the real Santa." At which point I remembered to let her imagination go where it will.

Anonymous said...

Great post! What really puzzles me are the people who emphatically declare that they don't lie to their kids about Santa, but have no problem telling their kids that St. Nicholas left stuff in their shoes.

--Elizabeth B.

Magister Christianus said...

Thanks, Erin. This helps. When our son, who is now 10, was little, we did not make a big deal about it, and I was of the mind then that I wanted to focus more on Jesus, less on Santa, despite that my wife and I had both grown up with Santa. As he grew, I grew, too, and changed my mind. Our daughter is 5 and loves Santa, and our son still goes along with it, although I think he has started to question. I got worried a couple of mornings ago and told my wife of my concern that the children would one day say, "What else have you lied about? God?" Your post helps address my concern.

eutychus said...

I have now managed to keep both boys believing in Santa till they were in 5th grade. That was how long it took me to figure it out as well. I used some of the old tricks: bells outside the window etc. some new ones (leaf bag left on the roof after Christmas- had to call Santa and tell him of course) but was unable to do the ashes on the hearth with boot prints (and associated anger that my own dad did) because we went to gas.

My oldest is 4 years older than the younger. When I told him about Santa I explained it like this. Remember how when you were younger and asked what rain was and I told you it was God watering the flowers? And then later as you grew up you began to learn about evaporation, condensation, the whole water cycle thing? Well, both are correct, its just one has a bit more detail to it. I followed this up with this: I intend your younger brother to believe just like you did, for as long as you did and now, you can help, but the day your brother finds out from you about Santa is the day Santa quits visiting YOU.

If you ask my oldest to this day, whether he believes in Santa he'll say that he does. So do I.

Rebecca in CA said...

I don't think you can say either "it's lying" or "it's not lying" about this kind of thing. It kind of depends what you say and how you say it, as with anything else. It's not like the Santa myth or fairies are in some special category where ethics don't apply. My kids love to pretend about fairies, and I love to pretend with them, and perhaps there was some time when they were very young where the line between fantasy and reality was blurred, and that's okay. But if my child sits me down and asks me seriously to tell her the truth about the kind of existence fairies have, I'm not going to tell her that there really are fairies out in the garden, though I think fairy play is lovely and magical and enriching. Likewise with St. Nick and other legends we like to embellish. To me, it gets really over the top when I see books, shows, etc., which tell children that if you don't "really believe" in Santa, you don't have the Christmas spirit and you're a humbumg and so on. That kind of stuff is confusing. My kids can pretend or not pretend without people threatening them. That's a little off-topic, but just a view from the other side.

I think pretending is fine, but I do think it is possible really to go over the top with the Santa thing, and it can be very awkward if some people insist that their children believe in Santa in a certain way, because conversations naturally happen between children. Anyway, technically lying (that is, saying false statements with the intent to deceive) is always wrong, deception without lying can be wrong but is not always wrong. (there is the famous example of "we have no Jewish dogs here".)I think each parent needs to figure out how it works in his own family. For example, if your child wants you to state the naked truth and you're not ready for that, you may plead the fifth, or play like you don't know, or so on. I just don't think that it is okay to tell the children things that aren't true when they are asking for the truth, with the intent to deceive them, whether this is about Santa or anything else, and I do know people who were very upset when they did discover the truth as children, whose parents had seriously told them that St. Nick comes down their chimney, and did have a hard time sorting out what they really ought to believe. I think children should be treated with delicacy and respect in this matter as in any others. I know you agree with that but I guess I would have to disagree with a blanket statement that anything you say to your children about St. Nick can't possibly be lying because it makes Christmas magical.

Rebecca in CA said...

I don't think you can say either "it's lying" or "it's not lying" about this kind of thing. It kind of depends what you say and how you say it, as with anything else. It's not like the Santa myth or fairies are in some special category where ethics don't apply. My kids love to pretend about fairies, and I love to pretend with them, and perhaps there was some time when they were very young where the line between fantasy and reality was blurred, and that's okay. But if my child sits me down and asks me seriously to tell her the truth about the kind of existence fairies have, I'm not going to tell her that there really are fairies out in the garden, though I think fairy play is lovely and magical and enriching. Likewise with St. Nick and other legends we like to embellish. To me, it gets really over the top when I see books, shows, etc., which tell children that if you don't "really believe" in Santa, you don't have the Christmas spirit and you're a humbumg and so on. That kind of stuff is confusing. My kids can pretend or not pretend without people threatening them. That's a little off-topic, but just a view from the other side.

I think pretending is fine, but I do think it is possible really to go over the top with the Santa thing, and it can be very awkward if some people insist that their children believe in Santa in a certain way, because conversations naturally happen between children. Anyway, technically lying (that is, saying false statements with the intent to deceive) is always wrong, deception without lying can be wrong but is not always wrong. (there is the famous example of "we have no Jewish dogs here".)I think each parent needs to figure out how it works in his own family. For example, if your child wants you to state the naked truth and you're not ready for that, you may plead the fifth, or play like you don't know, or so on. I just don't think that it is okay to tell the children things that aren't true when they are asking for the truth, with the intent to deceive them, whether this is about Santa or anything else, and I do know people who were very upset when they did discover the truth as children, whose parents had seriously told them that St. Nick comes down their chimney, and did have a hard time sorting out what they really ought to believe. I think children should be treated with delicacy and respect in this matter as in any others. I know you agree with that but I guess I would have to disagree with a blanket statement that anything you say to your children about St. Nick can't possibly be lying because it makes Christmas magical.

Rebecca in CA said...

Oh my goodness, I'm sorry about the double post.

Charlotte said...

I do hope you got to see my post on Santa, Erin - it's from a few days ago. Not trying to brag, but I got alot of excellent feedback on it - a couple of folks said it was the best thing I've ever written!

Cheeky Pink Girl

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I did see it, and enjoyed it very much! Thanks for reminding me--I'm adding a link in my post. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

This dyed-in-the-wool Iconoclast is all for pretend games with children, including visits from St. Nicholas, not to be confused with Santa Claus. I saw through S.C. by the time I was five.

Anonymous said...

I love this post Erin. My 7 year old daughter told me she didn't believe in Santa, but my 10 year old son still believes. When I asked him why, he said, "Santa has to be real. There is no way you and Dad would buy us this stuff!
LOL!

priest's wife said...

My big girls are 11 and 10- and still (maybe) believe- we never made that big of a deal- but Saint Nicholas comes to fill shoes on his feast day and then comes back to fill stockings for Christmas...big ticket items come from mom and dad