So the countdown to Christmas begins! And unfortunately so does the talk of Santa – now don’t get me wrong, I am all for the giving part, the generosity and self-sacrifice, the spreading of joy, kindness and goodwill. These are wonderful sentiments and I embrace them all. But the guy in the red suit – just complicates things if you ask me!
Although I’ve never been an active promoter of Santa to my children, over the last few years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea. The obvious concern is the dishonesty – I value my children’s trust and feel it is vitally important to our relationship that they can depend on me to be honest with them. It just feels wrong and disrespectful to go on colluding.
Like Robin Hood, the character of Santa Claus is based in legend and that part is fascinating. Awareness of such legendary figures, and the actions they may or may not have taken, creates a sense of shared history and culture. Sharing stories with our children opens up discussions and allows us to reflect on our own times and our own behaviour. Learning about the past through the stories that get handed down the generations help us to consider our future and the part we want to play in shaping that.
Recognising that elements of these stories have been fictionalised and expanded over the years doesn’t have to take away from the joy and magic that surrounds them. We don’t have to believe that stories are true in order to enjoy them so why so much fuss about any suggestion that Santa may not be real?
Most people are well aware that the modern representation of Santa has commercial origins. Perpetuating this myth serves the capitalist machine, encouraging consumerism and focussing on materialist gift giving to the detriment of other forms of generosity and service to others. It is a blatant and highly successful attempt to protect the interests of commercialism by ensuring that we all keep buying big. Encouraging the tradition of presents from Santa sets up unrealistic expectations and can stir up feelings of disappointment, resentment and competition – surely Santa would not be constrained by such mundane matters as budgets!
Then there is the idea of an unknown man coming down the chimney in the middle of the night, a frightening concept in itself. Combine this with the fact that their parents may seem totally unfazed by this possibility can be extremely confusing for children, particularly when they have probably warned them many times about the dangers of strangers.
But hang on, there is more. This is the time of the year when so many adults seem to consider it acceptable to go around asking children if they have been good, after all if they haven’t been then there will be no presents they tell us. Apart from just being generally patronising, uncharitable and pessimistic, why after all would we assume otherwise? More questions need to be asked, what does being good even mean and on whose moral authority are we defining this goodness?
It is not enough to assume that we all know what being good means, the values and personal traits that are held in high esteem vary across time and space, they are not fixed concepts but historically and culturally specific. When it comes to children being good, all too often this appears to be more about their ability to follow orders and the level of inconvenience they cause, rather than whether they are developing a genuine respect for themselves and others. There is a real danger that when superficial elements, saying please, thank you and sorry on demand, eating their dinner and being obedient, quiet and complying with the wishes of others, become highly prized then the appearance of being good actually becomes more important than the cultivation of character.
The Santa model of present distribution supports this by reinforcing a dynamic of control over our children. There is an imbalance of power where rewards and punishment, the instruments of this control, are distributed according to the judgement of the dominating power. The fear of punishment and the desire for material reward encourages a culture of dishonesty as children are fearful of admitting their mistakes in case these count against them. Surely this is not a desirable dynamic for promoting healthy human relationships or a good way to encourage the development of independent, assertive, responsible and kind adults.
The inherent assumption within this model, the idea that rewards and punishment are necessary in order to get children to be good, is that they cannot be trusted. This unfortunate lack of trust and faith in children, the belief that they would be unable to develop in a socially responsible way without some kind of threat hanging over them, says much about our view of human nature. It is a patronising and disrespectful way to view another human being and ultimately dangerous for our civilisation and survival. As we become increasingly focussed on policing behaviour rather than building trusting relationships, we are at risk of permanently damaging the strong bonds between parents and children which are fundamental to a peaceful and progressive society.
I’m not so sure this is all harmless fun anymore, are you?