Next weekend, for the second year running, I will take the kids to see Santa. I have mixed feelings about this annual visit, and not just because the Santa they will meet is an environmental harbinger of doom – specially imported from Finland, along with a team of live reindeer, for a posh Christmas fair in London – but because in doing so, I am perpetuating everything I have privately come to abhor about Christmas.
I know, I know, I'm a mother now. I need to "get with the spirit," right? Well here's the thing, despite all the tree-trimming, carol-piping and fancy cookie-baking, I find Christmas more troubling as a parent than I did when I was an unencumbered single gal wondering if I could get away with giving my brother-in-law an African charity goat for the family gift exchange (answer: I wouldn't recommend it).
While many new parents get all gushy about Yuletide – a chance to rediscover the childhood magic! – I find it leaves me increasingly grumpy, exhausted and ethically confused.
Why is it that 99 per cent of the year we live in a world in which we encourage our children to give instead of take, to freely share instead of greedily hoard, and then in "the spirit of giving" we are allowed (nay, expected) to deluge them with expensive, branded, landfill-bound junk they rip open, fiddle with for five minutes, then promptly forget about forever? More to the point, why do we feel it's okay to convince them of an outlandish story about a corpulent pensioner overseeing a bunch of elves in a Nordic sweatshop when at any other time of year such an elaborate fabrication would be exposed for what it clearly is: A messed up story intended for purposes of mind control.
Don't look so innocent you parents out there. I know you know what I mean. I'm talking about Santa as invisible disciplinarian. The creepy uber-villain behind the spying Elf on the Shelf who sees all. The NSA-like surveillance techniques through which Santa knows when you've been sleeping and knows when you're awake, knows your entire Google history and all the phone calls you've made and received in the past five years. Not because his organization is targeting you specifically, of course, just because that's the way blanket surveillance works.
It's obvious why we drill the Santa myth into our kids' heads – we want to scare them into behaving well for fear of retribution in the form of toy-denial. It's the oldest story in the parenting handbook, but is it really a good or fair one?
I remember lying awake as a child on Christmas Eve trembling with shame over what my family's reaction would be when they found my stocking empty except for a lump of coal (which I imagined as a charcoal barbecue briquette). I'd been bad, you see, though I can no longer remember the offence. All I recall was the shame and fear of being found out and exposed by Santa The Great Moral Deliberator.
(If only I'd known who was actually drinking the three fingers of J&B on the rocks my parents insisted we leave out for Kris Kringle instead of hot chocolate, I might not have felt so bad.)
Today, as a mother myself, I feel badly in a whole other way. The daily battles involved in convincing small humans that yes, it is in fact absolutely necessary to eat food, sleep through the night and wear shoes outdoors in sub-zero temperatures can be exhausting. As someone who has, at one time or another, employed every legal, non-violent form of bribery, extortion or verbal scare tactic to achieve these modest daily goals, I'm really in no position to judge the methods of others. But I don't bother with the Santa threat, and that's because it breaks the central rule of menace (whether used on children or rival gangs): You have to be prepared to follow through. In order for threats to work, the people you are threatening need to understand you mean business.
And no one, not even my five-year-old stepson, believes Santa's going to stiff him with a barbecue briquette. Kids just aren't that gullible these days. They have access to iPads equipped with Santa apps so they can digitally update their wish lists with the Boss Man directly. They might still believe the myth but that's only because it's to their advantage – a kiddie version of the optimism bias.
On an intuitive level they've got the system figured out. Christmas equals stuff, plain and simple. Not giving, but getting. Not pure-hearted honesty, but self-serving lies.
This is the part where I recommend that we dispense with the hypocritical Santa myth altogether – cast off the old ritual like holiday season Martin Luthers and start our own Santa-free Christmas cult, complete with healthy snacks and card-making workshops. And I totally would – if I didn't have a five-year-old and a toddler to entertain next weekend.
Because Santa, whether you believe in him or not, also happens to be the path of least resistance when it comes to getting Christmas over and done with. And this year, it's barely even started.
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