charlie park

Santa Is A Game People Play

Christmas in America is troubling, for a variety of reasons. Sarah and I are trying to be extremely intentional as we raise our children, and have wanted to bring that intentionality to Christmas.

Also, we weren’t comfortable with the Santa narrative. Not the in-the-moment narrative — North Pole, sleigh, chimney, tree, presents, cookies — that’s … fine, I guess. What we had an issue with was the longitudinal narrative: “We’re going to create this story that isn’t true, that we’ll tell you is The Truth. In fact, if you question us on it, we’ll double-down, and show you proofs of why Santa is Real (after all, could Dad have really eaten those cookies? pffft; why else would everyone talk about him if he isn’t real?). Then, when you’re a little older, you’ll find out the actual truth from your classmates at school or will otherwise figure it out, won’t want to bring it up, and so we’ll pass into a state of unacknowledged silence on the matter, where you’ll kind of pretend to be into it, but mainly because you get More Stuff, but we kind of know that you’ve figured it out, but won’t bring it up. And then maybe Santa fades into the background over time.”

That narrative was the one we weren’t comfortable with.

So how do you balance the desire for a more intentional family with the standard Christmas narrative in the US? How do you deal with the mythos of Santa Claus and the presents he brings, which has become the key component of most people’s Christmas story? How do you remove Santa from the equation, but keep the kids from being total weirdos on the playground?

Here’s what we’ve done.

A new narrative: Santa as Game

From the time the girls were young, we’ve told them that “Santa Claus” is a game that everyone around the world plays together. You play the game by pretending that he’s real. You lose the game if you break character and talk about him not being real. And you definitely don’t talk about Santa not being real at school (mainly said so they aren’t the ones who break the news to younger kids on the playground).

And Santa, being just a character from the game, isn’t actually involved in Christmas at our house. So the kids get the idea of what Santa represents, and they can talk about him with other kids, or teachers at school, but don’t have any expectations that he’s real, or that he’s involved in the time we spend with our family.

We didn’t come up with this approach on our own. I’m sure it’s been around for a while. We probably read about it on MetaFilter or somewhere back when Lucy was a toddler.

It’s worked well.

For one thing, it’s the truth, so we don’t feel like we have to come up with elaborate ruses to tell the girls.

For another, it gives us something where our whole family is in it together — we’ve let the girls in on the secret rules of how the game is played. (Kids love being let in on Secret Knowledge.)

And for a third thing — and I’m finding more and more as a parent that this is crucial — it appeals to the homo ludens part of our nature. In fact, the five characteristics of play (taken from the just-linked Wikipedia page) are important here:

  1. Play is free.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates (and even demands) order.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest.

That all sounds like Santa-as-Game at Christmas. But — wait a minute — what about that last one? No material interest? What about gifts?

There’s a whole post I could write on this, but the gist of it is that we keep presents simple and intentional. And they’re all from members of the family (not Santa).

I know there are factors that go into our being able to approach Christmas (and Santa) this way, and not every family can kill Santa. And I’m sure we’re warping our kids in our own unique ways.

But if your kids are young enough that you haven’t set expectations around Christmas, or if you’re looking for an alternate gift-giving narrative for Santa and the Christmas season, or if you’re looking for a way to softly transition away from the “Santa is real” narrative, “Santa is a game people play” has worked really well for us.

I’d love to hear how you handle Christmas and Santa. Shoot me a note on Twitter (@charliepark) if you want to chat about it.