WASHINGTON — Christmas is the season of peace on earth and good will toward men, a time for sharing and bringing out the best in the worst of us. It is also a time of year parents all across the country are lying to their children--the Santa Claus lie.
The Santa Claus lie goes something like this: A jolly fat man in a red suit is going to land a herd of reindeer on the roof without making a sound, squeeze his sizable belly down a 12-inch square chimney and leave a bunch of wonderful goodies, no strings attached. Not only that, but he's going to do all this without leaving any soot marks on the carpet.
While it may sound incredible that a loving parent would try to pull a fast one like this on a kid, the facts are that every 4-year-old who hears it buys the whole story--hook, line and sinker.
Relax, Mom and Dad. Even in an age when you're supposed to tell the kids the absolute truth about everything from sex to divorce to that speeding ticket you got last week, the experts say it's perfectly OK to lay out the Santa lie in all its glory.
That's because, as everyone really knows, Santa Claus is not a lie.
"I simply don't consider it a lie," says Dr. Barbara Korsch, head of the division of pediatrics at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. "It's one of those beautiful myths we have in our culture.
"Young children have a lot of fantasies," Korsch adds. "If it's told in a format where it's beautiful and magical . . . then this is an enhancement to childrens' lives."
Dr. Morris Green, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the Indiana University Medical Center, agrees.
The Santa Claus myth, he says, "meets a need of children and also parents. Santa Claus is one of those nice, playful, wish-it-were-true illusions. I think it's a mistake to raise children without any illusions, because then it would be a very barren, Spartan existence."
Dr. Joseph Noshpitz, senior attending child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., says children are most receptive to the Santa Claus myth at about age 3, "when magical things seem very possible, so very real."
Most children, Noshpitz says, should believe in Santa until about age 5 to 7, though many will pretend to believe beyond that age to perpetuate the fun of the myth or please parents who get a great deal of joy from living out the story.
While the experts are all for telling children about Santa, they also add some caution about how it should be done in order to keep it fun and protect the integrity of parents in the eyes of their children.
"It's possible to lie to a child, but there are so many ways to explain things to children that both maintain the value of the story, but avoid the verity that a myth should not have," Noshpitz said.
Noshpitz's suggestion for a parent's Christmas Eve explanation of Santa: "Tomorrow is the time when the great story that we have is that Santa Claus comes and brings presents, and Santa looks likes so and so . . . and you might show the child a picture. And if the child says, 'Is it true?' Mommy says, 'It's one of our most important stories.'
"You don't lie," he continued, "but you preserve it as a story."
Green suggests parents questioned by their children might say, "There really isn't a Santa Claus, but there is in your mind. It's a nice custom."
A Santa Claus who is exploited "either by parents or some of that commercialism . . . can be bad for children," according to Korsch, who dislikes the effect on children of "department stores who present Santa in a way that is commercial and tawdry and cheap."
"I don't think the cultural things should be devalued or belittled," agrees Noshpitz. "They should be treasured. Play the game."