Was this play just as fun and magical for us as it was for those children who actually believed? I'm pretty sure that it was. Think about it: children play at things that aren't real all the time. One way is to pretend to do something that is based on reality, such as playing house or school. You couldn't possibly spoil a child's fun if you broke in to say "You know you're not a real mother" or "You know you're not a real teacher." The child would just think you were stupid, someone who's grossly missed the point. Another way to play is to pretend concerning something that is completely fantastic, such as imagining you're Superman or that you're chasing unicorns. Children know that Superman and unicorns don't exist, but it's still fun to pretend, and -- for a child -- imagination feels very real, even while being fully aware of actual reality. If you told a kid these imaginary things weren't real, you'd be the stupid fool, not them.
In elementary school, when most of my friends either believed in Santa Claus or were questioning their belief (as all children eventually do), they would ask me if I believed. Sometimes I simply said no, but my favorite answer was, "I like to pretend that he's real." As nearly any kid naturally would, I enjoyed the image and idea of Santa Claus. There's no reason to deny a child (or an adult) the mythology of Santa Claus, since it is possible to celebrate him without taking the next (stupid, foolish?) step of forcing belief.
My parents no doubt had a few good reasons for not wanting to lie to us about Santa. The first is probably the obvious one: it's a lie, and not a small one. Most have observed that this lie can be a lazy way to control kids. If your child is being bad, simply tell them that Santa won't bring them any presents. I'm ashamed to admit that I once tried this myself. One night I was responsible for a small child who wasn't behaving, so I picked up the telephone and pretended to dial the North Pole to tell ol' Saint Nick that a certain youngster was being naughty and not nice. The fit of tears and screaming I heard (until I corrected the problem) made me realize how evil I was being and -- more than that -- what a sinister hold this lie can have on such a young little mind.
This screaming child example points to other good reasons my parents must have had for telling us the truth. Lying about Santa Claus about the "naughty or nice" idea implies that goodness leads to gifts and badness leads to no gifts, which is another lie. Not only is this concept not true universally (which is really the larger issue), but it's not even carried out locally. Parents never use Santa for actual discipline, only the threat of it. I might be more slightly more sympathetic to this manipulation if children who misbehaved didn't get any presents; it would still be questionable on the parents' part, but at least it would be consistent and truthful. Instead, children are really taught that goodness leads to toys and badness also leads to toys plus getting to do whatever the hell you want anyway. Santa Claus becomes a sucker.
And because Santa is a sucker and apparently the richest man in the world, kids can milk him for all he's worth. But if children know that their parents are doing the work of Mr. Claus, sticking those gifts under the tree, then there's a greater chance for true appreciation on Christmas morning. Speaking for myself, I was happy that I could give proper thanks to Mom and Dad who went through all this trouble for their family. Otherwise, I would have simply expected rewards from an invisible deity for whom anything was possible.
I do know that my parents were uncomfortable with how Santa Claus became deified. In spite of Charlie Brown and Linus's best efforts, Christmas had long ago changed from the silent, holy night that greeted the birth of a new message of love and peace into a loud and obnoxious night in which an obese elf stuffed living rooms full of useless shit for spoiled children. Mom, more than once, lamented that "These are grown adults, treating Santa Claus like a religion," parents actually becoming angry at children who didn't believe.
At this point, at my mention of "the true meaning of Christmas," some non-Christian readers may be thinking, "Ah, but even though your parents were telling you the truth about Santa Claus, they were still lying to you about Jesus." But there's a big difference there. No one believes in Santa Claus--except small children who will eventually grow out of it one way or the other. Many people -- most importantly, in this case, my parents -- believe in Jesus. Whether he actually exists or not (as a historical teacher, a supernatural redeemer of mankind, or otherwise) isn't the point. The point is that they believed in Jesus, as someone their children should know about. Whether they were telling me "lies" (things that weren't true) or not about Jesus is debatable, but they certainly weren't "lying" (intentionally telling me things that weren't true). In fact, they were telling me the complete truth to the best of their knowledge.
But lies lead to lies, and eventually the following are the kinds of questions you have to figure out answers to if you perpetuate the Santa Claus thing: Which Santa is the real one, the one at the mall or the one ringing the bell outside the Wal-Mart? How can Santa possibly circle the world and enter everyone's chimney in just one night? What if we don't have a chimney? If Santa's elves make all the toys themselves, then why do my gifts say Mattel and Fisher Price on them? Why did Joey not get as many presents as me when I know he's a lot nicer than I am?
On top of inventing uninspired (a word I choose carefully) mythology on the spot (never a good idea), the parents have to ask themselves the following sorts of questions as well: When is a good age to tell my kids the truth? Is it moral to use Santa Claus to get them to behave? Is my child going to be picked on at school for being the oldest kid who still believes in Santa? Will this belief influence other beliefs or disbeliefs in the future?
Or one could avoid this confusion and chaos altogether.
I do want to back up a bit and say this, that I don't believe anyone has actually become psychologically scarred as a result of believing in Santa Claus. (If they have, I haven't heard about it.) One day a little girl believes in him with all of her heart; the next day some kid at school says "Santa is just your mom and dad" and that makes sense to her and that's the end of that. All of the transitions I've heard about are relatively swift and fairly painless. The seemingly-best argument in favor of letting kids believe in Santa Claus is that they're only young once and can only truly believe in magic for a little while, so why ruin it for them?
Okay, sure, but get this! I'm a thirty-five-year-old man who still finds magic in Santa Claus, and I never once believed in him as a literal truth. I can also be brought to tears by contemplating the Christmas story, whether from the Biblical account or in its other incarnations (songs, movies, etc.). The story is very precious to me, even though I don't (sorry) believe in the virgin birth and even though I question such a thing as an historical Jesus. Because here's how it works. When a little boy or girl finally doesn't believe in Santa Claus anymore, it seems that the attitude just becomes "Oh, he ain't real," and suddenly Santa doesn't belong to them anymore--he belongs to dumber, younger children. "Kids' stuff." Just as certain non-Christians or former Christians might say "Oh, that ain't real" and dismiss the Christmas story altogether, something below them.
But I don't dismiss either of them, because -- when it comes to myth -- belief isn't the key ingredient. This is the great misunderstanding found in nearly every Christmas movie about Santa Claus. The basic plot of these movies is that kids stop believing in Santa and his powers wane and Christmas may not happen this year, but then some dumb miracle gets some skeptical kid to believe and Christmas comes after all. Or whatever. Belief becomes the main thing that matters in these movies, regardless of reality, when in fact it's the image that matters, not the belief.
I don't know if the Christmas story (any of it) is true or not, but its factuality is irrelevant to me. What matters is the image: a night of calm beauty, a single bright star revealing the focal point of the world, a fresh newborn lying among filthy beasts of burden, his mother who was impregnated by the universe itself, awe-struck shepherds who are let in on this great secret, men of learning who are spiritual enough to know the importance of this seemingly humble event, an angel declaring that peace and goodwill are finally possible. To unpack these images and explain them would take another writing, but the good news is that -- like a great painting or a dream -- no one has to explain them for the images to work. Those who look at a Christmas nativity scene and question the historicity of it ("Well, the wise men actually arrived years after Jesus' birth," etc.) -- like the person who butts in to tell the children that their playtime isn't "real" -- are missing the point. The point is to have all of the images there at once. (A crèche works even better than reading Matthew or Luke.) Reality and fact are not the key players in providing the emotional and psychological resonance.
Somehow everyone understands this concepts with the "lesser" myths (fairy tales, legends, etc.) but not with the greater ones... and not with Santa Claus, which is why he seems to be playing ball with the Major Leagues (the deities) and not with the Minor Leagues (such as with hobgoblins or Robin Hood) where he belongs.
We know what Santa Claus at his worst embodies (over-commercialization, greed, false dichotomies), but at his best Santa Claus embodies a fun and colorful spirit for a secular world in which the giving of gifts can express love and bring happiness (for starters). Children are only literalists when you let them be, but they're also not too shabby at understanding symbolism if you let them do that. Rather than giving them one or two years in a belief-based understanding of the man in the red suit, why not (possibly) give them the greater gift of a lifetime of the joy and mystery that Santa Claus represents?