What do atheists tell their kids about the holiday season? Santa? Anecdotes, please.
November 22, 2004 6:53 PM   Subscribe

AthiestFilter: If you have kids, how do you explain the holiday season to them? Do you string them along for the season and pretend Santa exists, so they can have fun with the other kids, or what? Discuss.
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you are an atheist I would think that you would want to raise your children to choose for themselves. It was a choice you were allowed to make and you might consider allowing it to be for them. I have no religious beliefs but I resist calling myself an atheist as the name alone implies organization or affiliation.

Most holidays are so commercial and non-secular as to not need religious overtures. Is your question about the religious connotations of Santa Claus?

interesting username for an atheist
posted by geekyguy at 7:06 PM on November 22, 2004

Santa is a tool for teaching faith. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Temporary whimsy to exercise your kid's critical thinking (the sky is blue because that's the color of angel piss, etc.) is one thing, but stringing them along is quite another. Before you know it, they're pretending they still believe in Santa because they know it's important to you... then you catch them watching Fox News and nodding sternly in agreement. It's a slippery slope.

Far better to explain that people have all kinds of different ways to celebrate the winter solstice, and some people like to believe certain things about it, and they should respect that.

Our son knows that Bubby and Zayda call it Hannukah, and send him Hannukah presents, and Grandma calls it Christmas, and sends him Christmas presents, and we call it Solstice, and he gets a Solstice present, but it's all basically the same thing.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:18 PM on November 22, 2004

I don't have kids, but if I did I would say that here's a holiday that a lot of people use to celebrate their religion and their God (and if my kids believed in God, or came to believe in God, they could certainly do the same) and that others use to celebrate those that are close to them. I am a staunch atheist and was raised in a mostly secular family. My parents were the types that took us to church on like Christmas and Easter. So I have come to associate the holidays-- Christmas-- as a time just to hang out with my family and be happy to have them. As I grow older, this becomes a lot more important to all of us.

So that's what I would say-- just a time to be with your family. And to get lots of schwag!
posted by xmutex at 7:19 PM on November 22, 2004

You can explain how many cultures and religions have holidays at a similar time of the year, including the origination with pagan celebration of winter solstice.

As for Santa, that's a case of your own choosing. Some religions don't bother with Santa, and the kids turn out just fine. More often than not, I find the Santa Claus story to be just as much for adults as for the children.

However you choose to go about things, I suggest that you choose at least one occasion in that time of year to let the kids celebrate a holiday, if only to make sure they don't feel left out.
posted by Saydur at 7:23 PM on November 22, 2004

geekyguy (re: my screen name)- that's cause I'm not an athiest. I was just curious how athiests go about the whole holiday thing.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:37 PM on November 22, 2004

I was raised Christian and my parents told me right from the start that Santa wasn't real. I'm not sure if it needed to be as big of a deal as they made it, but my mother was adamant that she wouldn't lie to her kids about it. I don't feel that I missed out on anything, though.

Related thread in Secular Life section of the Internet Infidels forum
posted by heatherann at 7:38 PM on November 22, 2004

I resist calling myself an atheist as the name alone implies organization or affiliation.

This is not the place for the debate, but it most certain does not imply any such thing.

As for children, a lot depends upon their age. After about six or seven, I say give them all the facts and context they can handle. There's no reason that should lesson the enjoyment of the season—in fact, it can enrich it beyond the materialistic orgy it has become for so many.
posted by rushmc at 7:39 PM on November 22, 2004

Some real-life evidence to support everything said here already:

My non-god-believin' parents raised me to believe in Santa Claus, and I think that worked out just fine. Christmas was about anticipation, food, and making other people happy -- and it still is. Every few years we'll try to redesignate it our late winter solstice celebration, but we always backslide to Christmas.

I remember having a hard enough time as a nonreligious kid, what with explaining to the other children that I wasn't a Satanist, and closing my mouth during the "Under God" part of the Pledge*...I don't think going along with mass culture from time to time can hurt. A Jesus-free Christmas is not only possible but quite easy.

*My own choice, not my parents' instruction

On preview: Exact opposite of heatherann's experience, I see.
posted by climalene at 7:48 PM on November 22, 2004

My Jewish parents were like Heatherann's, above, and I agree that I didn't miss out anything -- yeah, they didn't want to lie to their kids. In fact, I think it imbued their kids with a healthy skepticism. But they provided respectful descriptions of what various people celebrate.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:49 PM on November 22, 2004

Despite technically being Jewish, for all of my elementary school years our Winter Holiday was completely secular. That said, we had a tree, because decorating trees is fun, and we exchanged presents, because that's a fun thing to do when all the other people are doing it, too. There's also a lot to be said for communal Holiday Spirit, even if each holiday is of a different stripe. You don't need to be a Christian to be happy and generous and all together around Dec. 25th.

As for Santa Claus, I was never taught to believe in him, but that didn't diminish my pleasure - nor did it ever occur to me to debate others on the topic! And this is probably just because I never had any stake in his existence, but Santa always seemed to me like an odd but pleasant relic that Other People cared about. I mean, I don't and never did look down on people who had him as part of their holiday celebration, what with the kids believing in him and all, but just that he never entered my mental sphere and it never bothered me that he wasn't part of my holiday experience.

(I have to admit, it does seem a little weird to have this traditional lie we tell to children, but I'm sure it's harmless.)

At any rate, I would say that celebrating some sort of holiday so that your child can have fun, family, community, and presents would be a Good Thing, and that there's no need to string them along with Santa Claus if you don't want to.

(ObWarning: I don't have kids.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:51 PM on November 22, 2004

Atheists do whatever the hell they want. I know some that say Solstice and others that say Christmas. Some play the Santa game and others don't. Its really trivial when you think about it. The larger question is how do non-religious people get by on religious holidays? Or non-Christians get by in non-Christian cultures. They just do. There's no right or wrong way to do it. I seriously doubt there's a consensus anywhere.

Afterall, Christmas is a pagan ritual with baby jesus attached. To aliens we're just celebrating an age old winter holiday like we did thousands of years ago, but with some minor additions and subtractions.

>If you are an atheist I would think that you would want to raise your children to choose for themselves.

Err no. Parents are free to teach their children whatever cosmology they like. Be it Xtian or Scientific. I'd write more about this, but the green is not for debates.
posted by skallas at 8:12 PM on November 22, 2004

Lifelong atheist, but raised in a Jewish home with Hannukah/menorah/etc.

Once I grew up, however, I played along with the Santa meme for my two kids when they were ~2-5 years old, and then let them understand what Christians believe regarding the holiday.

We've always had a decorated holiday tree, and we delight in the gift-giving and the pretty lights and such. Very secular, very festive. Pretty much like this.
posted by davidmsc at 8:14 PM on November 22, 2004

I was raised Jewish, and was also taught to believe in Santa. My parents didn't want me and my siblings to feel 'left out.' It was a holiday about presents and trees and familiar animated TV specials, none of which mentioned Jesus. I don't think I could have told you who Jesus was, even generally, two years after I found out that Santa wasn't real.

As tempting as it is to say that Santa is a tool for the shaping of compliant minds willing to accept any bullshit that's thrown their way, it certainly wasn't true in my case. I just got more presents than the other Jewish kids.

on preview, I see that davidsmc has already touched on this.
posted by bingo at 8:20 PM on November 22, 2004

I don't have kids. When I do, I will tell them the truth - Christmas is a very very old festival which is about having a good time during the winter, and today many people mistakenly believe it was Jesus's birthday, and that Santa Claus delivers presents. These are fun stories, but they're not true. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a good time and celebrate it, and it doesn't mean you should hate people just because they're brought up to believe things that aren't true. Fantasy is fun, Christmas is a fantasy, and the healthiest thing is to let them appreciate that.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:26 PM on November 22, 2004

I tell my kids that there are families that believe these stories, that some of them may be true, but that I don't have any good evidence of them. Having said that, I don't really celebrate Christmas, although I do put on a solstice feast as a matter of tradition and give gifts throughout the month of December. Any excuse for giftgiving is good.
posted by majick at 9:08 PM on November 22, 2004

Keep in mind that if you tell your kids that there is no Santa, they will most likely get in an argument with their friends who have been told that there is a Santa. You may end up hearing from some angry parents in regard to this.

I'm not making the case for or against, I'm simply bringing up the point that your ultimate decision may have a bearing on the larger social sphere of your child's life.
posted by spaghetti at 9:14 PM on November 22, 2004

I think learning the truth about Santa was the beginning of my scepticism about many things adults had told me in my first seven years of life -- including the Christian illustrated children's books my grandparents gave me every year.

I'm still glad I got to believe in magic for a little while, however.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:14 PM on November 22, 2004

I discovered that there was no "Santa" the hard way: my parents wrapped an additional layer of superstition around it--they had 'santa" find the Baby Jesus from the nativity set and place the figurine in said nativity set. One year, I foudn the hiding place of the Baby Jesus figureine and hid it myself. When Santa, who saw everything, couldn't find the figurine, I knew he was fake. Tears and eight-year-old soul searching followed.
No point, really, except to be careful with the Santa stuff.
posted by notsnot at 9:49 PM on November 22, 2004

When I have kids, I will tell them the truth. It sounds somewhat silly, but finally "finding out" when I was younger was really hard on me, because I could not comprehend why everyone had been lying to me for so long, and it really bothered me. I just remember getting into HUGE arguments with kids in school (well, as big an argument that someone in elementary school could have) when they told me that my parents put the presents under the tree, and just feeling so cheated and stupid when I found out.

I think I am probably more of the exception rather than the rule, however, I feel like my child could still have a magical holiday experience, even without believing in Santa.
posted by ilovebicuspids at 9:54 PM on November 22, 2004

Historically, both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus existed. Santa Claus is just a variation of the name of Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, who was noted for his generosity. He died about 346AD.
The commercial Santa selling things has more to do with the retail economy than "peace on earth, good will to men". The real spirit of Christmas could be carefully explained to children of any or no religion.
posted by Cranberry at 10:27 PM on November 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

I think that lying to your kids for no good reason is always wrong. I will never understand why so many people think that drawing attention to kids' gullibility and ignorance is cute and adorable. They depend on adults to give them accurate knowledge of the world. It just doesn't seem right to lead them astray intentionally.
posted by juju at 11:22 PM on November 22, 2004

My mom's a New Ager, and my dad's an agnostic, and they raised my brother and I to believe in Santa. We always had a decked-out tree, cookies and milk, nativity scene (funny, it was always my dad's job to set that up!), etc. We were raised without any sort of religion -- to us the holiday was about gathering together, giving each other presents, eating a shitload of food, and basically just enjoying the, well, coziness of it all! Sure, we were exposed to the Jesus story a lot, but it was never something that my parents had to talk to us about at great length -- as we grew up, we decided if we believed in it, and how we wanted to approach the holiday.

As I got to about age six or seven, I started thinking that maybe Santa probably wasn't real. My suspicions were confirmed when I was about nine, and on Christmas eve I saw my grandma walk by my bedroom door with an armload of presents, crying merrily, "Tiiime to put presents under the treeeee!" I didn't feel duped. I didn't cry out, "AH WUZ FRAMED!" and sob myself to sleep. And, unlike what ulotrichous says up there, I developed critical thinking skills and a measured skepticism just fine, thankee!

Lately I've seen so many parents take the whole, "Explain to kids in great detail every aspect of the holiday/tradition, and don't coddle them with lies and fantasy" approach. Sure, I can understand that you want to treat your kids like respected, important, thinking little people, and perhaps you're trying to save them from any confusion or disappointment you may have felt as kids. But jeez, as bright a kid as I supposedly was, if my parents had given me a long discourse on the meaning of the holidays and debunked Santa when I was a littlun', I would've thought they were tremendously boring and silly, and I probably wouldn't have paid them any attention.

I don't know, I'm sure you guys can obviously tell I don't have kids (although I plan to have them in about ten years or so), but why not raise them with a little magic? So much of it is dead these days, especially to kids. We seem hellbent on extracting the joy and mystery from everyone's lives, kids included. Can you honestly say that any fantasy you believed in as a youngster ever hurt you? I sure can't. I enjoyed those times, and sometimes I wish I could recapture that way of thinking.

Why not let 'em clap if they believe in fairies, huh?
posted by fricative at 2:57 AM on November 23, 2004

What does the holiday of Christmas have to do with religion?

We give presents. We put up a tree and decorations. We send cards. We spend time with family. We eat turkey and mince pies. We have excruciating office parties. What's religious about any of that? Maybe Christmas is just different in America to the UK.
posted by salmacis at 3:13 AM on November 23, 2004

Another athiest here raised by non believers who went to elaborate Christmas/Santa lengths. I was a toddler in Germany, which is ground zero for Xmas hoopla. We had a tree and lots of (indoor) decorations and stockings hung on the fireplace etc....We left cookies for Santa (it was explained to us that Santa would prefer a nice glass of Bordeaux to go with the biscuits rather than the milk he got at other houses) .
My parents loved to tell the story of the year my dad got out one of his snow boots and left footprints in ashes and glitter coming from the fireplace and how utterly thrilled we were. I don't remember that at all, but it's one of their favorite holiday memories, suggesting a lot of it is for the parents.
I don't remember how I found out Santa wasn't real so it clearly wasn't traumatic. But I vividly remember the all-consuming excitement of 6 a.m. Christmas morning.
When a woman I know told me she planned to never lie to her kids about Santa, I was just really sad for them and wondered how they would deal in school with the other kids.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:53 AM on November 23, 2004

Keep in mind that if you tell your kids that there is no Santa, they will most likely get in an argument with their friends who have been told that there is a Santa. You may end up hearing from some angry parents in regard to this.

Of course, that can also be a good time to teach your kids about being tolerant of other's traditions... my parents, while they told me that Santa wasn't real, also told me that most of my classmates believed in him and that was okay and they'll find out eventually, just let them do what their family does. I don't remember ever fighting with other kids about it, though I do remember arguments between kids who had found out the truth and those who were still hanging onto the Santa story.

Come to think of it, that is probably one of the first things that went against what I was being taught at church -- tell everyone (especially those who disagree!) about Jesus, but when it comes to Santa, don't worry about it. Interesting.
posted by heatherann at 6:14 AM on November 23, 2004

I agree with salmacis. The true meaning of xmas is presents, time off work, masses of food and booze and trying to get your end away with drunken secretaries. Naturally, you may have to hide some of the truth from the kids until they are old enough to understand.
posted by biffa at 6:18 AM on November 23, 2004

My husband's family is a bit rabid about their Santa hating. They're firmly in the camp saying that telling your children about Santa is lying to them. Part of it, I believe, is that they don't realize that the Santa myth is based off a real person as Cranberry noted above.

I was raised with the whole Santa wonder. I have some great feelings of nostalgia connected with Christmas and Santa.

So, we now have a son and I've agreed to not pretend that Santa leaves presents for him. However, he's three and has started talking about Santa because of what he hears at daycare and sees on tv. I'm not going to squish this or let my husband's family squish it. I will tell him the story about Saint Nicholas and his giving nature. He may not understand it this year, but hopefully he can recognize that the man existed and not get into a scuff with other kids about it. I don't want my son to be the one who causes other kids to cry because Santa "isn't real."
posted by onhazier at 6:23 AM on November 23, 2004

Athiest, raised by formerly Catholic parents. We had Santa AND St. Nicholas (and Hammantaschen and Easter baskets filled with books). My brother and I figured it out on our own, eventually. It's like Climalene said: food, family, making people happy. Perhaps the (contemporary) Santa myth is a way for parents to indulge their children without the kid thinking they're mystical gimmegimme fonts?

We left cookies for Santa (it was explained to us that Santa would prefer a nice glass of Bordeaux to go with the biscuits rather than the milk he got at other houses) .
Your parents are awesome!
posted by mimi at 6:27 AM on November 23, 2004

I was raised by pretty secular Iranian parents and the only reason we celebrated Christmas was because of my sister. When she was a kid, she was sent to boarding school in England and that's how she found out about the holiday. When she returned home to Iran, she convinced my parents to celebrate it. We have a similar holiday in Iran but it's during our New Year (Nowruz, on the first day of Spring) but there's just something different about spending time with family and friends during the winter, it has a different vibe to it.
Growing up in Canada, I found learning about every religion's different holiday to be very interesting, and as an agnostic I didn't feel excluded because everyone does very similar things (see family/friends, eat good food, give presents, etc) during the holiday season, religious or not.
posted by Menomena at 6:32 AM on November 23, 2004

My three-year-old has started talking about Santa and insisting that he is real...even though neither my wife nor I have ever brought up the subject of Santa with her on our own. They are obviously talking about Santa at her daycare.

Everytime she says Santa is real, I tell her that he is not. Nor will I allow Santa-related holiday trappings. We do celebrate Christmas with our families, though if I had my way we would not. I have had to back off of my "No Christmas Ever" policy to placate my wife, my mother, and my in-laws. But I do not want anything to do with Santa in our house.

Unfortunately, it appears I will lose this battle.

I hate Christmas to death.
posted by briank at 6:57 AM on November 23, 2004

What I have done in the past is taken my daughter (she's seven now) down to where the panhandlers and homeless folks hang out, and bought food for them, talked to them a little bit, and wished them happy holidays.

The overall "reason for the season" is compassion and helping others, and it's important to me that giving is stressed, and getting is not emphasized.

Similarly, when I was younger, my dad used to sign up for ringing the bell for the Salvation Army and take me with. Regardless of your feelings of that particular organization, the idea of doing charitable work is an easy one to communicate this time of year.
posted by rocketman at 7:08 AM on November 23, 2004

When a woman I know told me she planned to never lie to her kids about Santa, I was just really sad for them and wondered how they would deal in school with the other kids.

And that's a real trick, actually. A friend of mine who is a devout Catholic has a lot of difficulty with Christmas. She realizes the existence of a 4th Century Turkish bishop who provided the basis for Santa Claus (and perhaps more interestingly, the semi shocking Cinter Klaus) . Despite this, she feels that it really does constitute lying to her kids. The only reason she has somewhat played along so far has been for the sake of cordial relations with other parents in her community, i.e. not wanting her kids to be the ones who drop the dime on the Santa racket.

On preview - the mother's attitude is more like that decsribed by Rocketman.
posted by Verdant at 7:34 AM on November 23, 2004

Wow rocketman, what a wonderful tradition. I think that regardless of where one stands on the issues of either religion or Santa, the kind of things you are talking about are really magical, especially in these times.

I sort of dream that this kind of selflessness in the holiday season will some day give way to a general state of being for all of us as people. Perhaps someday we will all learn to keep this spirit alive throughout the year.
posted by spaghetti at 7:50 AM on November 23, 2004

Historically, both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus existed correct, but (as i learned one day years ago while talking with a rabbi) you might have people take issue with the "christ" bit - evidence says there was a guy from nazareth named jesus, but whether or not he was the christ (embodiment of god on earth) has not been proven.

this was news to me; raised a catholic i never considered the meaning of the christ part. just sort of thought it a synonym. anyway.

back on thread, is it any harder for someone raised religious to find out there is no santa than it is for an atheist? you can't hide the santa from them, so you might as well do some explaining before they hear it from friends.

atheist, agnostic, polytheist... either way, raising a kid in a family with one of these mindsets means you will need to spend a lot more time explaining the opposition, as it were, for them to understand things well. teaching tolerance, understanding and acceptance of those who choose to think differently is nice, as it seems to be something that a lot of kids raised in devoutly religious families never get.

and briank: jeez, ya grinch... :) seriously, the commercialism, yes i agree with you there. but the whole "spend time with family and eat yummy stuff" bit? how can you dislike that?

rocketman, RE: giving vs. getting: hey, all in favor of that. but i dislike the fact that too many people only think of giving at thanksgiving and christmas - there are poor, needy, hungry people year round. i know that in terms of compassion it's probably easier to nudge people into caring at these times of year, but still... i'd love to see communities and individuals try to organize voluntary help for the needy more often than twice a year.

on preview: nailed my thoughts exacty, spaghetti.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:11 AM on November 23, 2004

Why not let 'em clap if they believe in fairies, huh?

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? —Douglas Adams
posted by rushmc at 9:01 AM on November 23, 2004

I'm always surprised by how big a moment the disclosure of santa's ontological status is for so many people. My family is basically secular/atheist; mom's a bit of a hippie spiritual type but no jesus et al... but we always did christmas, as the secular holiday - the solstice, basically. Decorate an evergreen to remind us that nature will make it through the cold barren winter again; drink hot cider and egg nog and eat warm food and sing and give each other things - it's a nice way to make it through the darkest part of the year.

Anyway, I think my relationship to santa has always been more or less the way it is now, which is, I enjoy the story - it's a fun idea, and it's one of the few seriously universal public domain myths we've got going, that is added to year after year as new imaginations update the idea. So that is cool. I don't remember if I ever actually took him literally - I rather doubt it - but who needs to take things literally? I loved narnia and charlie & the chocolate factory and all the rest of that stuff, without having to believe it existed in actuality.

I don't think my parents made an effort one way or the other to handle the santa factor, and I don't even remember discussing it with the kids at school. But getting too excited about santa being "lying" seems to me to put you in trouble for reading stories to your kids before putting them to bed. Maybe you need to think about the way santa is presented rather than what precisely is said about him - there's a difference between science and literature, and if it's made clear in the presentation, that this is kind of a game, a drama we all get to play part of, a story we collectively tell, rather than a double blind laboratory study, perhaps it could work without distress.
posted by mdn at 9:29 AM on November 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

I was brought up Christian (Episcopalian/Anglican) and went through the whole believing in Santa thing. I remember how my belief of Santa was ruined, but it's not fit for this forum.

Anyway, since my mid-teens I no longer consider myself Christian (not an atheist either). However, I still love "doing" Christmas. This thread has made me feel less weird (guilty?) about participating in the holiday.

As for kids...that's a tough question. I hate lying but to take that little bit of magic away from kids, that would be pretty harsh. I'm glad it's one more thing I'll never have to decide.
posted by deborah at 10:25 AM on November 23, 2004

Well I hope no little kids read this thread, or the cat's out of the bag.

Me, I had fun believing in Santa, even though it came to end. Was a good time.

Also a good time was sneaking into my parent's attic and looking at all of the stuff we were going to get the next week.

I like Christmas!
posted by xmutex at 12:14 PM on November 23, 2004

it's one of the few seriously universal public domain myths we've got going

Yeah, Coca-Cola really screwed that up, letting that slip away. It would never happen today, though...
posted by rushmc at 2:46 PM on November 23, 2004

Wait, there isn't a Santa?

posted by kamylyon at 6:27 PM on November 23, 2004

« Older Nightly News Clip   |   Childhood Toy Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.