O.K., admittedly that joke's a little dark, but it made me laugh and kind of leads into the topic of this post, which is Santa Claus. Or rather, what we tell kids about Santa Claus... a hotly debated topic if ever there was one.
As most people know, the modern depictions of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 1823 poem by Clement Moore A Visit From St. Nicholas, or as it's more commonly known, 'Twas The Night Before Christmas. This gives us the plump "jolly old elf" with the white beard, round belly, pipe, coming down the chimney with a sack full of toys. The image was further refined by the 1881 illustrations by Thomas Nast and then, in the 1930's, by Haddon Sundblom's ads for the Coca Cola company.
The original Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop who was noted for giving gifts to the poor. He was later made the patron saint of children (as well as archers and pawnbrokers for some reason). During the Middle Ages, it became a custom to give children gifts on the eve of his feast day, which was December 6th. Eventually, this tradition got moved a little later in the month and combined with the celebration of Christmas... and that's an extremely quick and incomplete history of the evolution of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus. Incidentally, Saint Nicholas seems to have had a bit of a temper. At the First Council Nicaea in 325, Nicholas became so angry with Arius, who was espousing an heretical denial of the deity of the Son, that he struck him in the face. Extreme Santa.
Back on topic: to Santa or not to Santa, that is the question. I never believed in Santa Claus as a child; my parents didn't think it was a good idea to deliberately tell untruths to their kids. In any case, it would, I think, be impossible in a family of nine brothers and sisters to retain a belief in the jolly old elf. Someone would be sure to spill the beans. This doesn't mean that we didn't have Santa Claus decorations, or didn't read stories and sing songs about Santa, because we did, but we just thought of these the same way we did reading fairy tales- fun stories, nothing more. I never felt deprived by not believing in Santa and it was probably a good thing for us, anyway. We never had to wonder why we, a family of eleven living on my father's income, didn't recieve the elaborate gifts from Santa that some other kids we went to school with did.
From what I have observed, however, our family's casual policy of taking or leaving Santa was not the usual one. For a lot of people, this seems to be a bit of a polarizing issue. Most seem to either be avidly and emphatically pro-Santa, or rabidly anti-Santa. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of middle ground.
Those who are for telling their children that Santa Claus is real believe that this belief is a special and magical part of childhood. They don't regard it as lying to their kids, but rather engaging in a harmless deception which brings joy to children and adds excitement and anticipation to the Christmas season. It also gives parents extra leverage in the effort to coerce good behavior from the young'uns. Many's the time I was over at a friend's house as a child and heard the threat, "If you don't behave, I'm going to call Santa. Right now. On the 'phone." Not that I think that this is a deciding factor when choosing whether or not to promote Santa Claus.
Those who are anti-Santa (a much smaller group) definitely regard this as lying to children. They also think that believing in a magical man who will bring them presents can give kids unrealistic expectations. In addition, they think that this can detract from the true meaning of Christmas. Some also think that it can cause disillusionment when the credulous tykes finally clue in that they've been deceived.
I'm not the best one to judge; having never been a believer, I don't know how traumatic it would be to realize Santa Claus was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by and conspired on by every adult in my life. I suspect that I might be a bit embarassed and annoyed by my gullibility but would be otherwise unaffected. Most people don't appear to have been adversely affected by this experience. Frankly, the issue seems to cause parents more anxiety than it does their kids. Certainly, it's less complicated to just tell the truth, because you don't have to keep thinking up further fabrications to explain mall Santas, chimney-less homes and time zones. Although telling the truth can also have its difficulties; last year my five year old niece caused a sensation in her primary class when she announced matter-of-factly that Saint Nicholas was dead. The teacher sent a note home requesting that she keep such information to herself.
Not having children, this isn't something I personally have to deal with. My brothers and sisters who do have kids have by and large adopted the same attitude our parents had- they tell their kids the truth, but encourage them to enjoy the Santa Claus myth. I do have one sister-in-law who was raised in a very anti-Santa family; when she and my brother had their first child- a girl- she insisted that there be no Santa Claus in their home. My niece consequently, when a small child, had no idea who he was. In fact, one day when she was two or three, she was gazing out of a window in December and all of a sudden started jumping up and down saying, "Look, Noah! It's Noah!" When my brother looked out the window, it was to see that their neighbours had put up one of those inflatable Santas. My niece had a Little People Noah's Ark set and the inflatable Santa vaguely resembled little Noah, so she assumed that's who it was. Now with three kids, and subject for years to our corrupting influence, my sister-in-law has given up being anti-Santa and goes with the flow with the rest of us. So, what do you think- is telling children that there's a man sneaking down the chimney on Christmas Eve with presents a good thing? Or is this belief something that they would be better off without? Or does it even matter?