“Is Santa Claus real?” While most kids bring up this question at least once in their lives, parents grapple with a more daunting task: should they perpetuate the story of Santa, the patron of Christmas, for their children? Well, Santa and the tooth fairy… The debate is profound: should you instill in your children some magical stories about quirky, enchanting creatures or should you adopt a more pragmatic approach and talk about reality?

Many parents, especially those who believe in a more secular upbringing, denounce the Santa story on the basis that it involves lying to your children. You build an illusion, and you feed it and feed it only till the external forces of realism shatter it. Eventually, when they learn the truth, they realize that they have been lied to. This essentially undermines the element of trust in their relationship with their parents – it reinforces the idea that if “my parents lied to me about this, they probably lied about other things too.”

Other arguments against Santa also include the fact that it weakens critical thinking skills only to reinforce a façade. Children ask bright questions such as “How does Santa get to so many houses in one night?” and “How are there so many Santas at the mall?” Whereas, adults deflect these questions with fabrications, further distorting their sense of reality.

[Image Description: Santa Claus and his reindeers.] via 123 Dentist
The entire premise against Santa is based on his fictitious nature. But what if I told you this: the first time you learned the truth about Santa was that he is not real… now, you’ll learn that he is very much rooted in history.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a 4th-century bishop, St Nicholas. Nope, he did not live up in the North Pole. He was a dweller of a small Roman town, Myra (modern-day Turkey). The charitable bishop acquired a reputation of philanthropy and was memorialized in tradition as such. He reached the shores of the New World with the Dutch community arriving in New Amsterdam (now New York). Yet, till the 18th century, he was very much still known as St. Nicholas.

[Image Description: Full-length icon of Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák, showing him with a halo, dressed in clerical garb, and holding a book of the scriptures in his left hand while making the hand gesture for the sign of the cross with his right.] via Wikipedia
So how did St Nicholas become Santa Claus?

The etymology evolved from St Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, and adapted to an American (read New York) accent as Santa Claus. Of course, St Nicholas may not have been anything like the caricaturish plump and jolly, red-cheeked and white-bearded man who flies from the North Pole on a sled led by flying reindeers.

In fact, he received his ultimate makeover by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1823. Nast, inspired by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, etched the picture of a grandfatherly man, wearing spectacles and a red coat with white fur collars and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots and carrying a bag full of gifts for children. This reinvented image was transported back to Europe in reverse migration.

[Image Description: Thomas Nast’s depiction of Santa Claus.] via Britannica.
However, one iota of ingenuity to this image was that he was actually the harbinger of gifts! The commercialized image of Santa today as the man running the most efficient supply chain from his factory in the North Pole to the chimneys of all the homes of kids in the world is a far cry from the truth. It is important to realize that the image we concocted today of Santa flies in the face of St Nicholas’ own attitude.

If I may say so, Santa was actually quite the socialist. Yes, he helped children – but more so he was the protector of orphans, prisoners, and sailors – in other words, somewhat marginalized people.

Folklore narrated that St Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and wandered through the countryside helping the poor and the sick. A notable story from his life reveals that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution, by delivering three bags of gold to their father that could be used as their dowries. In fact, such was his popularity that despite the period of Protestant Reformation, his reputation remained intact.

Hence, to use him as an excuse to splurge may be doing a bit of a disservice to his legacy. A recent post on a mommy page, Scary Mommy, stated this: “Just a friendly reminder that “Santa Claus” doesn’t have the same budget in every household. It’s thoughtful, kind, and caring to others if you are mindful about what “Santa” brings your kids. That way the kids who didn’t receive holiday presents don’t feel heartbroken when your kid brags about their iPad, Air Pods, and new gaming console.”

Of course, modern psychology has taught us the dangers of using the reward-punishment paradigm to discipline children. But especially in the context of this year, where thanks to the pandemic, the rampant unemployment, and the faltering economy have already caused financial damage in many households, the idea of Santa as the bearer of expensive presents may need to be revamped a tad bit.

Perhaps the original story of St Nicholas is the more appropriate story to narrate to our children this year. Perhaps the lesson we need to teach and preach is that of charity, not materialism. Maybe, for the second time in our lives, we should forget everything we already know about him. And relearn a new truth.

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Safa Shoaib

By Safa Shoaib

Editorial Fellow