Published January 5, 2017
Like parents all over the world, I spent my December this year spinning an elaborate web of deception. I am a two-faced swindler who in the same breath tells my six year old daughter that it is wrong to lie and that, yes, Santa can still get into our house even if we don’t have a chimney, because he is magic.
Before they were born, the Icelandic father of my children turned to me one Christmas and said, “We aren’t going to lie to our kids about the whole Santa, reindeer, North Pole business, right?” I replied, “Well, let’s decide what kind of lies we tell. Will we tell them that if they are good, a jolly happy elf-man will bring them presents, or do we tell them that if they don’t get clothing for Christmas, a giant cat will steal and eat them?” Thus began my adventure in raising bicultural children. As it happens, my kids get double lies at Christmas. Their December is full of shoes in windows for Yule Lads, and wish lists to send to the North Pole.
Christmas lies are the best lies. There are few stories in our culture that are as thoroughly fantastic as the tall tales we tell at Christmas. The holiday brings with it a whole set of backstories, songs, rituals, and grandiose lore built up around our myths. As we tell these stories to our children, singing songs about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Grýla and the Christmas Cat, we play with their imaginations.
Lying to children is good for them
Lying results in the two important gifts we give children over the holidays that can’t be wrapped up with shiny paper: magic and critical thinking. Do you remember what it felt like to believe the Christmas lies? It is extraordinary. A vibrant magical imagination is one of the most pleasing things about being human, and it doesn’t stop at childhood. We get stories about a wizard boy who goes to a special school, or hobbits, dragons, Jedi, and robots with human feelings, all born from the minds of adults with vivid magical imaginations.
Young people are constantly puzzling out the world. When we are small, it is unclear how much magic actually exists in the world, and we are ready to believe what we are told. My children are five and six, and a lot of my job as their mother these days surrounds explaining the earth, humans, history, and biology. The truth is sometimes so fantastic and wonderful it seems like magic. If you have ever spent an afternoon with a five-year-old explaining what dinosaurs were, or flying fish, or how people used to believe the world was flat until they built large ships (because there were no airplanes) and set out on the vast open ocean with only the stars at night to guide them, you know what I mean. A city full of elves isn’t all that unbelievable.
Kid logic is wonderful
Which brings me to critical thinking. As I lie to my children about Christmas over the years, they are developing logical mechanisms to prove what is real, and what is imaginary, and determining on their own what must be true. Kid logic is wonderful! Sometimes, evidence leads to exactly the wrong conclusion. As a child growing up on a small hobby farm, I applied fierce logic to the evidence at hand each Christmas, and found compelling results. Item one. Cookies we left for Santa were eaten in the morning. Item two. The note for Santa was always answered. Item three. We left hay for the reindeer, and in the morning, it was all mussed up, because obviously, the reindeer had needed to fuel up for their long journey. At that point, it seemed that whole Santa thing must be real. I don’t remember the moment I realized there was a much simpler and more likely explanation for all these occurrences, but at some point my brain developed the ability to analyze the facts at hand and land at a more realistic conclusion. I wasn’t told that Santa isn’t real. I didn’t need to be told, because I had practiced the skill of critical thinking and formulating my own ideas.
As we grow up, and even as adults, there are a lot of authority figures telling us what is true. Advertisers, politicians, and religious leaders are all selling their versions of reality to humanity. The Christmas lies are the first practice we give our youngsters in thinking independently and questioning authority. Given the current state of political rhetoric and the constant bombardment of modern advertising, we could all use a bit more of that.