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Keeping Up With the Clauses Is Exhausting

My son, who is four, is a Santa fanatic. My daughter, who is 11, no longer loves the jolly man. This gives the holidays a particular edge.

On the question of Santa, I live in a house divided. We have two kids. Our son, who is four, is a fervent evangelist. Our daughter, who is 10, has lost her faith. Their current opinions on the jolly old guy are relatively new, but the fact is they’ve never been in agreement. There’s photographic evidence of this.

The picture lives with our Christmas decorations. Every year it emerges along with the stockings and the sparkly garland and the manger full of cats. In the photo, my kids are sitting on Santa’s lap. White-gloved hands clutch their bellies. Santa grins halfheartedly, just enough to show the gap between his two front teeth. My daughter is dressed up for the occasion. She’s excited to see Santa, but her smile is forced because she’s listening to her brother scream his head off. He’s looking at me instead of the camera, and he’s desperate  — wailing, pleading to be released from the bearded monster grabbing him.

That year, 2014, was the last time my son was terrified of Santa, and it was the last time my daughter believed in him. I think that’s why my wife hangs on to the photo: It documents a reality that no longer exists.

The new reality is a conspiracy. The boy doesn’t realize he lives in a house divided. Like spies, me, my wife, and my daughter maintain the charade. We don’t want to dampen his yuletide cheer. It feels a little odd to me, sharing a secret truth with one child but not the other. Almost like our daughter learned how to curse and now sits around with us after her brother’s bedtime dropping F-bombs. I know it makes her feel grown up, to be included in the scheming.

That grown-up feeling is partly why she tolerates her brother’s limitless, high-maintenance enthusiasm for a nonexistent figure. He loves Santa, and like any lovestruck boy, he’s compelled to share his feelings via the written word. For the past couple of weeks, he’s written to Santa, his very best pen pal, every day. The thing is, he can’t spell. When the mood strikes, he demands that one of his three literate relatives feed him words, letter by letter. It’s a painfully slow call and response that would make most people deaf and half-crazy.

It feels a little odd to me, sharing a secret truth with one child but not the other. Almost like our daughter learned how to curse and now sits around with us after her brother’s bedtime dropping F-bombs.

One of them reads, “Santa may I please also have a sock and calendar.” What he wants is an Advent calendar stuffed with socks instead of chocolate. I hope the elves are paying attention, because the kids who make the crap they sell in Target haven’t thought of this idea yet.

The boy sings with Bruce about not pouting or shouting. He sings with Bing about Rudolph, and he sings with MJ about Mommy’s Christmas Eve frolic under the mistletoe. He’s got Santa fever, and he’s got it bad.

This nonstop Santa worship tries his sister’s patience. She tolerates all of the songs but one. The idea that Santa and his reindeer could be responsible for the vehicular manslaughter of a grandmother brings tears to her eyes. “How is that funny?!” she asked one afternoon. “Someone’s grandma is dead!” I was on the spot, since her brother was home with us, so I wasn’t able to soothe her by reminding her that the song is not a true-crime story.

I see her point, though. When it comes to depictions of him in the media, Santa’s done a shit job of managing the brand. There’s not much to him, when you get down to it. The myth-makers in Hollywood have been forced to expand the canon. Tim Allen killed Santa on screen. I don’t even know where to begin with Billy Bob Thornton. And then there’s Elf, which the kids and I watched last week.

At the beginning of the movie, we meet the real Santa at the North Pole. At the end, we see him again, stranded in Central Park before Buddy the elf saves him. In between, we meet two department-store imposters. One is played by Artie Lange. The other is Faizon Love. My boy saw the bearded fat man dressed in red, jumped up from his seat and shouted, “He’s not Santa! He’s black!” Somewhere, Megyn Kelly’s heart grew three sizes.

The fact is, it’s more than my house that’s divided. It’s me. On one hand, Santa helps to make the season bright. On the other hand, I can’t wait for the day when he skips my house entirely, finding no believers tucked in their beds.

Not to be all Dasher Downer here, but the modern Santa story is quite limiting. The canon might be bigger, but it doesn’t leave its lane. My son isn’t even in kindergarten yet, but already he knows that Santa can only be white. Also, since his parents aren’t poor, he knows that Santa will bring him lots of presents if he’s good. Some of my childhood Christmases were spent in motel rooms or borrowed houses, opening hand-me-down toys. Not every year was that dire, but it happened enough to teach me that rich kids were always on the “Nice” list, even if they were jerks.

The fact is, it’s more than my house that’s divided. It’s me. On one hand, Santa helps to make the season bright. On the other, I can’t wait for the day when he skips my house entirely, finding no believers tucked in their beds. I dread the daily letter my son orders me to dictate, wondering what item I’ll have to buy or construct next. (A calendar filled with socks!) Our house is already full to bursting with games, puzzles, stuffed animals, toys, and sports equipment. What else could he want? But mostly I worry about the mythology rooting too deeply in his mind, so that he becomes passionately convinced that a fictional character must look a certain way. (Some adults get pretty peeved when Santa’s skin contains too much melanin, or when Ghostbusters lack penises for that matter.)

My daughter navigates the divided house more easily. The sense memory of belief is still fresh in her mind. For her, Christmas is about kindness. She doesn’t tell her brother the truth about Santa because it would make him sad. He might cry. Telling would be mean. She sees the delight in his face when she talks to him about Santa, loading toys into a giant velvet sack, climbing into a big red sleigh and lifting into the frigid night, pulled by a team of flying reindeer. It’s a gift she gives to him every day, retelling the story.

Away from her brother, her kindness expands beyond the Santa blueprint. She’s eager to volunteer at soup kitchens and collect food for hungry families. The first shopping she and I did this year was at a mall, looking for books and coats for kids her age who would find themselves on the “Naughty” list otherwise. Ditching Santa has allowed her to take up the mantle of the real person who inspired the character.

There’s freedom in realizing what my daughter has learned: if Santa isn’t one person in particular, the decider of presents, then he can be each and every one of us. Santa can be a professional athlete spending tens of thousands of dollars at a toy store. Santa can be a kid, thinking about other kids in Puerto Rico. Anyone can be Santa. You just have to believe.