Remember that 90s remake of Miracle on 34th Street? For those of you who don’t, here’s a recap. Single mom tells her daughter there is no Santa. Mom’s romantic pursuer, Faithful Lawyer Man, tries to convince her Santa is real. The real Santa comes to New York and works as a department store Santa. Santa gets framed for a crime and deemed insane for believing he’s the real Santa. Faithful Lawyer Man defends him in court. Lawyer draws dynamite conclusion that because our founding fathers acknowledged God as real despite lack of proof, the state of New York, by equal reasoning, can acknowledge that Santa is real. Santa wins. Mom marries Lawyer, moves into house, gets pregnant and daughter’s dreams come true. Everybody is a believer. Yay!
Growing up, my immediate and extended family was part of the “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” camp. They weren’t anti-Santa, either. They were of the mind that having a child believe in Santa is a good introduction for teaching them how to believe in God. I mention Miracle on 34th Street because it was, and still is, their doctrine for navigating the function of Santa as he relates to Christianity. I have nothing to dispute here; if I was still a Christian, this is exactly the movie I would show my daughter to help her reconcile these two things.
But as an ex-Christian, I’m starting to get very uncomfortable with this Jesus/Santa dichotomy. There seem to be three main schools of thought on this. The first, harbored by religious extremists, dismisses Santa belief as idol worship and bans him from the season altogether. The second, which my parents used, is to celebrate both Santa and Jesus at Christmas (although, at the end of the day, one must “laugh off” the Santa mythology but still take Jesus very, very seriously). The third, which is popular among religious-ish people and secular people, is to brush off Jesus and celebrate only Santa in the way they would the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy.
So what does this leave for me? Obviously, I won’t be celebrating Jesus, although I will acknowledge him and tell his story to my daughter as she grows. Not only is the Jesus story a huge part of American culture, but it’s a huge part of my personal heritage — and my husband is still a Christ follower.
Santa’s a whole different beast, though. I loved the Santa story growing up, the “Santa Sightings” on the nighttime news, the leftover crumbs by the fireplace Christmas morning and the swirly, foreign handwriting on Santa’s gifts to me and my sister. Even after I knew it was my parents eating the cookies and putting that gifts out every year, a piece of me still felt like maybe if I just believed hard enough he could be real.
I’m giddy to see my 1-year-old daughter experience all the vibrant wonders of childhood. That’s why it’s terribly depressing to imagine her not believing in Santa. But as an out-of-the-closet atheist, I have a dilemma. Here’s where it’s appropriate to quote the aforementioned film: “What’s better: The lie that draws a smile, or the truth that draws a tear?” Damn you, Miracle on 34th Street. You may purport sexist ideas of womanly happiness and archaic standards for familial joy, but you make a damn good case for believing in the irrational.
If the worst thing that could happen from playing along with the Santa thing is that one day my daughter is upset for 10 minutes after finding out the truth, is that really so bad? I don’t even remember when I found out about Santa, honestly. And I’m sure I wasn’t mad at my parents. The years of happy memories totally outweigh any moments of negativity (obviously, since I can’t even remember the moment when I stopped believing. Hell, maybe I still believe in Santa a little bit).
But then we have to move into the queasy territory of God. If I’m willing to play along about Santa for a few years, why wouldn’t I “play along” about God, too? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to tell my daughter that heaven and angels and eternal rewards are real? When she’s older, maybe eight or nine, maybe then I can explain that some people believe in God, and Santa, and some don’t. Will this be any harder for her to take than learning the truth about Santa? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.
Huh. The atheist may be opening her family up to God after all. Bust out the eggnog and sound the Hallelujah Chorus, folks, it’s a Christmas Miracle!