Growing up with Santa Claus.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 December

My personal experiences of what happens when you take the Christmas myths way too seriously.

Dad’s an atheist. This means for him, Christmas is Santa Claus. Not Jesus. Not any of our Christian junk. He doesn’t wanna hear it. He wants nothing to do with our church functions; not our live nativities, nor our church’s Christmas services. He’ll go to the city Christmas festival, but only because the churches hand out free treats. (Cookies and cider or cocoa, mainly; I keep trying to talk my own church into serving coffee. ’Cause nobody else serves coffee. We’d corner the market.) He won’t pass up a freebie, but it’s a hard pass on the free gift of eternal salvation.

Santa getting liquored up. Hammerstone Whiskey Disks

He loves Santa. Mainly the wonder on children’s faces once you get ’em to believe Santa, and Christmas magic, are real. This is the only supernatural he believes in: The fake stuff. Tricks.

Hence when I was growing up Santa Claus was a big, big deal.

Till 1978. One day I was poking round the garage looking for something. Don’t remember what. Probably paper. I wrote and drew a lot, and in order to keep me in paper, Dad stole lots. Yes, stole. He’d find a stack of flyers someplace, and whether the function had taken place or not, Dad would swipe the stack ’cause the back of the flyer was blank, so I could draw on it. So much of my childhood art is on the back of party announcements, Chinese restaurant promotions, and newsletters. And printer paper; he’d grab a bunch after the Air National Guard was done with it. I hope all the stuff on the front wasn’t classified.

Anyway Dad stashed all the paper in a cabinet in the garage, and while I was in there getting paper, I peeked in a corner of the garage and saw what I shouldn’t: Our Christmas presents. The stuff which later turned up among the presents “Santa” had brought us. The jig was up.

I played along till about 1980 or so, once my parents figured a 9-year-old was a little old to still believe in Santa. So they sat me down and, just as they’d explained how babies were made (yes, I was told that first), explained this particular fact of life to me. And they expected me to play along with their game, and not blab to my siblings.

Yes, I blabbed.

They were extra pissed about it when I told my youngest sister. She was three. She asked me a casual question about Santa, and I came right out and said, “You realize Santa’s just a story.” She hadn’t, and immediately told on me. My parents were upset. My aunts and uncles, who were there at the time, were horrified—I’d “ruined Christmas.” They were all pagans, y’see.

If Christmas is Santa, and you take away Santa, Christmas is dead.

Dad used to love Christmas, but now that his kids don’t believe in Santa—and have raised their own children to think of Santa as a fun story, not reality—he could care less. He used to preach Santa to us kids like Elmer Gantry on meth. Now that he has no grandkids to fool, Christmas is no fun anymore.

Nowadays Mom insists she had no part in Dad’s Santa madness: It was all him. It’s not the way I remember it. She made just as big a deal about how we needed to get to bed Christmas Eve, so Santa could arrive sight unseen. She’d purchased most of the “Santa” gifts. Part of me wonders if she’s not just editing her personal history a bit… but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She did emphasize Jesus on the holidays. It’s just on Christmas night and morning, Santa got all the attention.

My post-belief years.

Back in 2007 I read a New York Times article about a professional Santa Claus. His name’s Santa A. Claus. He had his name legally changed, motivated by a fellow professional Santa named Santa C. Claus.

I actually met Santa C. Claus in 1981. My parents discovered him at the Old Mill Mall in San Jose. (The mall was heavily decorated with windmills; it was built in ’75, and knocked down in ’94.) Claus thought we were a nice-looking family, so we kids were asked to pose for some publicity photos with him. I never saw them, but they’ve gotta be floating around out there someplace.

Santa Christopher Claus was originally LeRoy Scholtz, and he was a postman. But he loved playing Santa so much, he changed his name and played him full-time. When he wasn’t making the rounds of shopping malls across the country, he was at Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, NY, making greeting cards and videos.

Santa C. Claus died 23 December 1985 in Chicago. Hopefully not on the job. And hopefully his grave is marked with something other than “Santa Claus,” ’cause children passing by might be freaked out a little.

By ’85 the rest of the family knew Santa wasn’t real, but Mom kept our old custom of having us open certain presents Christmas Eve, and then leaving out the “Santa” presents, unwrapped, Christmas morning. Which we all knew were from her, so we gave her credit. Dad contributed financially, but that’s all. For the most part his Christmas presents were to himself. I remember in particular the Atari 2600 which “Santa” gave Dad in ’77: I wanted one of those things. I hadn’t put it on my list, because I knew better than to ask for expensive stuff. I had asked for a typewriter, though—and Mom had given me her old portable manual typewriter. Well, come Christmas morning, I saw the Atari and rejoiced… until Dad pointed to my typewriter. On it, “Santa” had left a message telling Dad to enjoy his new toy.

Dad did give a gift once. Unintentionally. He was all set to give himself a Walkman in 1983. Even though my brother had been begging for one all year. Well, it was about to be set under the tree as a “Santa” gift to himself, and Mom pointed out how utterly wrong it’d be for “Santa” to give Dad a Walkman, but not my brother. So Dad caved. My brother was ecstatic. We didn’t get the whole story from Mom till years later.

But Dad’s gifts to himself eventually became gifts to us. Y’see, Dad would grow tired of his toys, so we’d get a crack at ’em. Dad tired of the Atari, so I got it. Then I tired of it and my brother got it. Same with his videocamera. Same with the Casio keyboard. Same with the Commodore 64.

Lest you think Dad irredeemably greedy, he did actually get us gifts sometimes. Just not at Christmas.

My angry, and not so angry, adult years.

As an adult I went through a few years of actually being anti-Santa. Too many pagans focused on Santa instead of Jesus, so I considered Santa an idol, and myself an iconoclast.

I even went so far as to write a bit in my weekly newspaper column in 1994: I complained about all the lying and deception which people went through to promote Santa Claus, and how it was entirely contrary to how Christians oughta behave around Christmas. It infuriated people: They felt they had to hide the newspaper, lest their kids turn to the opinion page for some reason and discover all. I argued right back: Had they been telling their kids the truth, they wouldn’t have to hide a thing.

Yeah, it was obnoxious of me. I was going through an angry white male phase at the time.

Fortunately for my students’ parents, I mellowed out a whole lot before becoming a schoolteacher. Of course, I didn’t have to deal with keeping Santa secrets when I taught junior high. But when I taught fourth grade, it was tricky: Half the kids were believers, and half weren’t. And one of them decided to ask me point-blank, in the middle of class, whether Santa was real or not.

My lame-ass answer: “He’s real. But not in the way you think.”

Yes of course I meant St. Nicholas of Myra. Not Santa from the Rankin-Bass TV specials. But the kids immediately identified this as a rubbish answer. Didn’t like it any more than the one I’d given them when they asked me how babies are made. (“Oh good Lord, talk to your parents.”)

My attitude about Santa Claus now? Good clean fun. Provided you don’t lie. Never lie to your kids. Never ever. Don’t tell ’em these stories are true. Don’t go to insane extremes to trick ’em into believing Santa visits your house. Don’t pretend the Elf on the Shelf really does narc to Santa every night.

Half the reason kids stop believing in Jesus when they grow up, is because their parents put more effort into demonstrating Santa was real, than in demonstrating Jesus is. Yeah, I said it.

Now let’s apply science!

Every year the internet regurgitates “No, Virginia, There Isn’t A Santa Claus,” an article by Richard Waller originally published in Spy Magazine in February 1991. I was a subscriber at the time. It was hilarious, ’cause it attempted to apply basic physics to Santa. I’ll summarize:

  • Assume flying reindeer exist, and can carry 10 times the normal payload of a reindeer—so about 3,000 pounds.
  • Estimate 378 million kids for Santa to deliver to, in 91.8 million homes. (That’s not every kid on the planet; we’ve removed folks who don’t observe Christmas. Plus these are 1990 figures.)
  • Figure 31 hours of nighttime (thanks to the earth’s rotation) for Santa to work with.
  • Assume the average of a two-pound toy.
  • So that’s a payload of 321,300 tons, not including Santa and his sleigh. Requiring 214,200 reindeer, for a total of 353,430 tons.
  • To deliver toys in one night, it means 822.6 visits per second, traveling at 650 miles per second. The air resistance alone should kill off the reindeer in 0.00426 seconds, and liquefy Santa with a force of 17,500.06 g’s.
  • Oh, and if every home provides milk and a cookie, that’s 2950.7 tons of food, or 20.7 billion calories.
  • So if Santa even exists, he’s already dead.

Santa doesn’t work too well in the world of physics. But interestingly, kids do believe in him for scientific reasons. Children tend to deduce whether what they’re told is real or fantasy based on context, same as adults. As UT Austin professor Jacqueline Wooley wrote in the Times, when you invent a creature called a “surnit,” and tell kids “Ghosts try to catch surnits when they fly around at night,” if the kids think ghosts are fantasy, surnits must be fantasy too. Likewise if you tell ’em, “Doctors use surnits to help them in the hospital,” if the kids believe in science, they believe in surnits.

So why do kids believe in Santa? ’Cause their parents taught ’em to believe fantasy is real. Problem is, when they pop the bubble on Santa, a lot of times it’ll wipe out all the other things kids lump under fantasy. Like ghosts and goblins. And sometimes angels and spirits and Jesus.

I suppose the question, therefore, is do your kids think of Jesus as real, or fantasy? Will they mix him up with mythological creatures? Are you damaging their faith when you dabble in Santa Claus? Or have you made it clear one is real and the other is make-believe?