Santa Claus is really up against it this Christmas.
In conversation with parents at work and parties this holiday season, I was startled to learn that some of them are rethinking the holiday legend for their kids. And not for the usual religious and cultural reasons.
A few want to spare their kids the Santa traumas they suffered: being bullied for believing, the betrayal when they found out the truth. With so many multicultural families, they don’t see the point of clinging to an Anglo-centric Georgian legend. But mostly, they don’t want to lie to their children.
“They think it’s a double standard teaching children not to lie and then lying themselves,” said Wesley Stahler, an early childhood therapist who teaches parenting classes at Wallaby center in Silver Lake. “Why perpetuate that?”
With all due respect, we lie to our children every day when we tell them they will always be loved and their goodness will be rewarded. Lie is the wrong word: to me it’s about presenting an ideal.
Besides, the holidays in Los Angeles are nothing but make-believe. A Massachusetts woman who moved to Echo Park this year told me she was appalled by the tumbleweed snowmen in Elysian Park, and the lawn sign on Echo Park Avenue, “Let it Snow.”
“It’s pathetic,” she said. “It’s not going to snow.”
But exuberant artificiality is the touchstone of our holiday season. Cotton batting rolled out over lawns. Foil-wrapped power poles. Christmas trees with neon purple, fuchsia and teal flocking.
I have admired the quiet good taste of the single candle in the window in New England homes. But I prefer the Nativity scene at Olvera Street, with its pigs, cactus, spangled sombreros and a pumpkin-laden burro gathered around the manger. Not exactly Matthew 1:18, but fervent in its own way.
I sorely miss the hokey Department of Water and Power cavalcade of lights in Griffith Park that shut down a while back hopefully temporarily. Two-hour traffic jams and surly drivers cutting you off: the holiday spirit, L.A. style!.
When my kids were growing up, I’d have to say I was a Santa extremist. I had them mail Santa letters, care of the North Pole. On Christmas Eve, we left out cookies and threw flour on the hearth, then rushed down the next morning to look for reindeer hoof prints and see if Santa had taken a bite.
The tooth fairy also came to our house, and the Easter bunny hid eggs in the front yard and back. Summers in Maine, we found fairy houses in the woods. We belonged to a baby-sitting co-op with families of mixed backgrounds. On co-op night, the kids celebrated Hanukkah and Passover, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. Nobody ever tried to legislate what the kids said or thought about Santa. As far as I know, the children figured families are different, and acted accordingly.
Santa critics are particularly contemptuous of older kids believing. “Look, if you think your 10-year-old still believes in Santa Claus, you are stupid. Or maybe your kid is,” Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote on the Jezebel blog this month.
So sue me: My son was 11 when his friend Gabe informed him I was behind the Christmas loot.
“No, it’s Santa,” he replied. “There’s no way my mom would have gotten me a Nintendo 64 .”
OK I was happy to hear this. I wanted my son’s and daughter’s childhoods to last as long as possible, and what’s wrong with that? Adulthood stretches on far, far too long. Was I a hypocrite? Of course. I would resist toys I didn’t like, then let Santa bring them, leaving the appearance of my disapproval intact.
It never occurred to me that the kids might be pretending for my sake, as Morrissey contends, until I spoke to Shani Levi, 29, an Echo Park mother.
“I pretended to believe in Santa even though I knew he didn’t exist,” she said. “I totally put cookies out. I felt like I was portraying some sort of innocence for my parents, even though they never pushed Santa on me.”
Wow. Surely there’s something to be said for parents idealizing their children, and the kids living up to that idealization?
Kevin Corbin, 29, is the father of three. He recently graduated from college and came home to Watts to look for a job. His family was selling Christmas trees in front of their house when I came by last week.
Corbin told me he thinks his children should know their gifts come by the sweat of his brow.
“I work hard enough all year, I want them know where things came from, hopefully while not taking away their joy,” Corbin said. “How things are going right now, I wouldn’t want them to think their parents never did anything for them. Especially in single-parent homes, you want to get some type of gratitude.”
By “how things are going”, Corbin was referring to the economy and the killings at Sandy Hook. It will be a long time before we can talk about childhood without coming under the shadow of the attack.
But he was also referencing everyday violence in Watts. “Death is placed upon us every day in our area, although a lot of it is not being displayed for the public to see,” said Corbin, who was wearing a T-shirt from the Million Man March with the insignia, “I am my child’s superhero.”
Kids should even know who’s behind toy drives, he said.
“So many kids around here are so deprived and don’t have anything, it’s hard for them to see that the community is helping them,” he said. “That people that don’t have as much are still giving back.”
Corbin’s comments gave me pause. I had the good fortune of making a pretty good showing for my kids, with presents from me, Santa and even the dogs. I hate to think that Santa doesn’t come for every child.
But I can’t erase the part of me that thrills to the idea of kids believing a jolly old elf is going to fly to their home and make their dreams come true.
“To me it feels less like a lie and more like fantasy,” said LeTania Kirkland, 29, an Echo Park mother, writer and yoga teacher. “We all need that, especially in this time.”