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As a 4-year-old boy, Michael Leviton had no interest in Santa Claus.
That was partly because he was Jewish. But it was also due to his parents’ belief in total and uncompromising honesty, Leviton writes in his memoir, “To Be Honest” (Abrams Press), out Jan. 5.
Raising him in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, they made sure he knew all the brutal details of life, such as the fallibility of his teachers, the inevitability of death, and the fact that a magical fat man doesn’t deliver presents to boys and girls each year.
That didn’t stop some of his relatives from trying to make him believe, however. Leviton recalls his “Grammy” taking him to visit a mall Santa, insisting that: “Without Santa, there wouldn’t be any Christmas.”
As they waited in line, his grandmother instructed Leviton to tell the red-suited stranger exactly what gifts he wanted. But when he climbed onto Santa’s lap and was asked for his wish list of presents, Leviton looked into the bearded man’s face and responded simply: “I’m Jewish.”
Santa just laughed, and then whispered into Leviton’s ear a truth of his own: “Me too, kid. Me too!”
But when Leviton later told his mom that the mall Santa was Jewish, she told him not to reveal this fact to the other kids once he started school.
“Just this once,” she told a shocked Leviton, “it’ll be better if you don’t tell them the truth.”
Leviton’s mom wasn’t the only parent wary of tarnishing the Santa myth. Saint Nick has become such a fundamental part of our culture that breaking that spell, even if you want to encourage a kid’s critical thinking, feels like an attack on childhood innocence. A 2019 House Method survey, which included more than 4,500 US families, found that the average age when kids stop believing in Santa is 8.4 years old. Letting a child believe beyond that age, or ruining the illusion too young, is a tricky area to navigate.
And there are a lot of co-conspirators helping to keep the myth alive. The Post Office’s Operation Santa program, which collects letters to Saint Nick from needy children around the country, sends his responses stamped with an authentic-looking North Pole postmark. A company called Letters From Santa provides customized letters from Kris Kringle to children all over the United States. Santa has his own official Twitter account, which has never been flagged for false or misleading statements. No less an authority than Dr. Anthony Fauci publicly announced last month that Santa can’t get COVID-19 because he has “a lot of good innate immunity.”
In the midst of a global pandemic, with life disrupted more than usual for children, parents have felt a special pressure to keep a belief in Santa going. Some letters submitted to Operation Santa, shared online by the USPS, have contained heartbreaking requests, including one that asked for an “end of COVID-19, world peace, climate control, new Xbox.” Others ask for masks, or apologize for being bad, explaining that “it’s really hard because of COVID and online school.” A 5-year-old from California asked for the pandemic to be over “so we can hug.”
Disrupting the belief in Santa presents a serious conundrum for parents of young children. Stacia Campbell of Evanston, Ill., has a 7-year-old son who’s beginning to doubt — he claims that Santa is “scientifically impossible” — and a 10-year-old who’s not so sure anymore “but I still want to believe, so I do.” Campbell plans to hold onto that magic as long as possible.
Meanwhile, Autumn Bennett of Plattsburgh, NY, said she never intends to lie to her 18-month-old daughter about Santa. “My family thinks I’m a monster,” she said.
But Bennett’s discomfort with the Santa fairytale is understandable. The first international “Santa survey,” in which researchers spoke to 4,200 Christmas-celebrating people from around the globe, was full of disheartening evidence that bursting the Saint Nick bubble is trauma-inducing. A third of respondents said they were crushed after finding out that Santa didn’t exist, and 34 percent wished they still believed as adults. The disappointment of losing Santa could be so upsetting that it creates a “JFK effect,” the researchers write, in which people can still vividly recall where they were and what they were doing when they first learned the awful news.
What’s more, a 2014 study from the University of California–San Diego found that children who’ve been lied to are more likely to cheat, such as sneaking a peek at something they’re told not to, and then lie about what they’d done.
I myself am struggling with the Santa question. My son is 9 years old, right at the sweet spot when he should be figuring out the truth. But he’s still all-in on Santa and shows no signs that his belief is wavering. I don’t even want to bring up Saint Nick for fear he’ll start asking questions and I’ll have to decide whether or not to let the whole Christmas house of cards crumble.
Kira Tomsons, a philosophy professor at Douglas College near Vancouver, believes honesty is the best policy from the start, especially in today’s world of misinformation. “Now more than ever, we need kids to be thinking about what is true in the world and teaching them that they can trust us to be telling them the truth,” Tomsons told The Post. “We have duties to ourselves as moral people to cultivate the virtue of honesty and trustworthiness, which I think that lies about Santa can undermine.
“Any benefit to be had from lying about Santa could be gotten from other traditions,” she added.
You have to prove to him that Santa is inside each of us, that we’re all Santa’s helpers.
Santa Claus (literally his legal name) on how to let a kid down easy
But Rohan Kapitany, a psychologist at Keele University in the UK who recently published a study on children’s belief in fictional characters like Santa, has a more optimistic view of the jolly one. “To characterize Santa as a ‘lie’ is to miss the point of Santa,” he said. “Santa encapsulates a wide range of normative, cultural and social values. He’s a simple way to incentivize widely accepted pro-social values: Be nice, be kind, share, and do good.”
His advice is to let kids have Santa and encourage them to discover the truth on their own. “You might begin asking your child to think through the implications of what a real Santa might be,” Kapitany said. “A gentle stepwise process might open the door for greater critical thinking.”
Frank Pascuzzi has strong feelings about the importance of believing in Santa Claus, probably because the Long Island native legally changed his name to Santa Claus in 2012. The 62-year-old Claus — the name is on his driver’s license and credit cards — spends most of the Christmas season in full Santa garb, making public appearances and meeting with kids.
Claus claims he wasn’t personally traumatized after learning that Santa doesn’t technically exist, but it is a memory that stays with him. “I don’t know how old I was, but I received a present under the tree labeled from Santa,” he remembered. “When I opened it, it was things I already owned that somebody took out of my drawer and wrapped.”
His mother told him, “If you didn’t miss this stuff, you should try cleaning your room once in a while.”
I asked how to break the news to my own son.
“It depends on how much you tell him,” Claus said. “You have to prove to him that Santa is inside each of us, that we’re all Santa’s helpers. That’s how Santa can be everywhere and deliver to everyone.”
It’s not that easy for many parents. In 2012, Kelly Walker of Easton, Pa., wrote a long note to her 10-year-old revealing the facts, “but adding how it’s everyone’s responsibility who knows the truth to do the good work of Santa.” Her daughter did not take the news well.
“She read the note while sitting on my lap and then promptly burst into tears,” Walker recalled. “I broke her heart, and mine, in one fell swoop. I’ve made a number of poor choices in life, but I would, without hesitation, say that telling my daughter the truth about Santa is my biggest parenting mistake.”
How children are told the news is a struggle, even for a truth-teller like Leviton, who’s now 40 and living in Brooklyn. When I asked the author how he would (or wouldn’t) tell the truth to his own kids if he has any in the future, he seemed as conflicted as his own mother did back in his youth.
“I’ve heard of parents who describe Santa as a spirit that possesses parents and makes them give gifts,” he told me. “That doesn’t count as a lie to me; it’s just naming the spirit of charity which does, in fact, sometimes possess us.
“I read a wonderful story about a parent who told their child that anyone can be a Santa if they give a surprise gift without taking credit. This also doesn’t read to me as a lie; it’s just identifying with a fictional character, like saying anybody can be a Scrooge or a Grinch.”
In other words, Santa is inside all of us. Apparently, that’s one belief that both a Jewish truth-teller and a guy who legally changed his name to Santa Claus can agree on.
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