Believing In Santa Is Presenting Some Inconsistencies In My Atheist Parenting

shutterstock_61891489I never expected to be in this predicament.

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!

(photo: Alexander Hoffmann / Shutterstock)

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  • Rebecca

    Your in the same situation I am! Religious family, atheist parents. My kids are 3 and 4 though and the questions have already begun. I started out by only making on of their gifts from Santa. The rest are from mom and dad. That way they don’t think this magical man is showering them with presents. When she asks me if Santa “is real in our world” as she puts it, I just say, he could be! You never know, but it’s fun to pretend about isn’t it? My mom likes to tell my kids about Jesus and I really don’t make a big deal about it. When she asks me questions about god and Jesus and angels I just say, well those are stories that some people believe in, and when you’re a grown up you can decide what you believe in. I won’t have my kids indoctrinated, but I don’t see the harm in them learning about different religions.

  • momof3

    in my (also an atheist mother) opinion, the reason not to “play along”
    w/ god is because there isn’t a time when others will expect her to stop
    believing, as there is w/ santa. if she has the basis for that now, it’ll be easier for her to explain herself when others inevitably question her beliefs. we teach them about christianity just like we would other religions.

  • kt

    I am a full blown Christian in regards to Christmas, but i am NOT a crazed Christian, there are different levels of everything :) I usually have to answer the questions from my kids about those who dont believe in God or Santa and i answer just as you do as well as the other two moms who commented. we are all in this world together and we all hold different beliefs, and our unifying ground/common ground is that we must raise all of our children in this SAME world and we must respect each others’ beliefs to do so that our children will be respectful of the same.

  • John Mitchell

    Interesting read. I would ask you to take another look at your views on the Bible being a “sexist idea of womanly happiness.” You see, as my wife stated to me before we were married, its not a matter of control, its a matter of her trusting me as the head of house to lead our family in the right direction. To chase after what is best for our family. She not only counts on me, but requires me to lead our family. She trusts that I will take her feelings, our childs feelings and our families best interests as a whole into consideration when making decisions that impact our family. You say that the Bible presents “archaic ideas of familial joy”, but if you think about it, how many of societies problems could be solved if we followed the Laws of the Bible. The 10 basic Commandments. You see, you find a peace and joy that comes in the form of a man with flying reindeer, but fail to see that true joy and happiness come from the Father. As humans we tend to believe that we are bigger and greater than anything else. It is hard for us to admit that we are weak and need to find joy, peace and security in something else. Therefore it is much easier to put that trust of peace and joy in a fictional character so that we can continue to believe that we are in control.
    Anyways, may peace and joy find you in some form this Christmas! May your child experience all the blessings this world has to offer! And may you have a wonderful new year!

    • waffre

      Actually, she said those things about Miracle on 34th Street, not the bible.

    • Lo

      So if your wife were the better leader, would you trust her to be the head of the house and chase after what’s best for your family? If you decide these things on a ‘because I’m male and you’re female’ basis, that is control.

    • Staciehew

      I know exactly which part of the Bible you’re referring to and I remember learning about husbands’ and wives’ roles per the Bible in my Catholic theology class in high school. I accepted it without question then because I didn’t have my own brain yet, but what a dangerous idea to be giving children. Having anything gender-related laid out so black and white IS archaic. Even if you’re ok with switching up and letting the woman in the relationship take the traditional male role, why do we even need to press this idea that there has to be a leader or one figurehead who makes the final big important decisions? So far the egalitarian thing is working perfectly for me and many other modern couples. It’s 2012…

  • Dale McGowan

    A really nice post. I’m a secular dad who’s very much pro-Santa. Not just fun and harmless, but also a nice dry run for thinking through other myths. Here’s my take:

  • Colleen

    My husband and I are non religious – he’s an out-of-the-closet atheist, I’m more of a militant agnostic (I don’t know and neither do you, shut up and eat this cake I made) kind of person. We don’t have children (yet) but we have discussed how we will handle the Santa issue if and when we have offspring that will undoubtedly have peers buying into it.
    The route we’ve pretty much settled on taking is teaching our kids about all the holiday traditions from an academic standpoint. We’re going to light a menorah at Hannukah and learn about the Jewish holiday together. We’ll read books and eat latkes and spin the Dreidel so they understand how that faith celebrates. We’ll burn a Yule log that they get to decorate and learn about the Pagan Wheel of the Year. We’ll put up a Christmas Tree and talk about the Bible stories and Santa and they’ll know that there isn’t really a magical man who brings presents on Christmas morning, but we will still participate in the tradition. This way, we feel, they’ll have a better understanding of how people of different faiths celebrate the holiday season, they still get to participate in the mythology of Santa, and hopefully we’ll end up raising some free-thinking young people who can make their own decisions about what they believe in.

  • Momof6

    As an atheist mom I explain christmas as a celebration of winter and Santa plays apart. As a former catholic I tell them what Christian people celebrate and to not be biased about haunnakuh(?) as well. However I also explain how Jesus was born in the spring and to make pagans believe they moved it to conincide. But Santa is fun and I’m not a grinch so he’ll stay until the youngest stops believing.

  • Lo

    I remember my parents telling me the legend of St. Nicholas as an explanation for Santa. I didn’t get the impression that he was real, but I understood why people would remember a story of a generous dude at Christmas. Perhaps Santa works best as a reminder to do nice things for other people.

  • gnatselbow

    I’m an atheist mom who has decided to go with the Santa myth. Mostly because I remember somewhat enjoying the testing process when I was a kid. Getting older, asking questions, coming up with experiments (will a stocking put in my bedroom be filled with goodies?), and eventually learning the truth. At which point I decided to keep the knowledge to myself for a couple years. Totally wasn’t upset with my parents. Just decided that I was one of the “keepers of the secret” for my younger brother.

    I’m not going over the top with anything, but I tell them the stories and then they ask me questions about why Santa gives gifts, do reindeer really fly, and what happens when Frosty takes his hat off. I like that they question and assume that one day they too will do their own testing.

  • SammyMama

    I am also an atheist mama who has been having this internal debate lately re: my 3 yr old DD. I remember being pretty darn upset when a kid on the playground busted Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all at once to me. I also do not like to lie to my kid on a regular basis; perhaps the odd “sorry, we’re all out of cheddar bunnies” fib does escape my lips at moments, but lately DD has been asking all of these very specific questions about how the elves do things in the workshop, who exactly is with Santa on the sleigh, etc, and I a feel a little guilty lying to her. I am going with it this year and then may have to reevaluate next year. But I have no qualms about leaving the big JC out of the discussion, as the Jesus concept is (to me) way more devastating than the Santa myth – it has many more far-reaching negative attributes to it. There is way too much freaky guilt attached to religion, and I think it’s really unhealthy to force those views on a kid with so much weight from society being placed on it. I think it’s way easier for a kid to be raised as a free-thinker and to decide as an adult if/what religion makes sense to them, rather than to have to shed things that were told to them as facts at a very young age.

    • Ellen

      when she starts to as really specific questions like that, I’d tell her that since you’re not Santa, you don’t work for Santa, etc, you don’t know exactly how Santa does things. and don’t feel too guilty about lying to her- I never felt like my parents betrayed me with the Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy thing, and I’ve never met anyone who felt betrayed. For me, finding out the truth felt like kind of a rite of passage- like “oh, okay. this is one of those things that little kids really believe. but I’m a big kid now, and big kids get to know the truth, and keep the secret for little kids.”

  • drmantistoboggan

    Whoa whoa whoa, don’t blame Miracle on 34th Street for your problems! If your parents had shown you the original production (like any decent parent should!), which lacked the bizarre, America-fetishizing, Judeo-Christion God-worshiping and founding-father allusions, then you wouldn’t be in this predicament! The question was still left open at the end, there was no pregnancy since it was made in the 40s and that would be unimaginable to put on film, and Faithful Lawyer Man used the ever-secular institution of our fine US postal system to prove Santa’s existence.

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