Every Christmas the story continues. A rotund man dressed in a red-and-white suit, chuckling "ho ho ho," travels around the world, stopping at every house to leave every child a gift exactly suited for him or her and then disappears back to the North Pole until the next year.
Even in this day of Star Wars technology, that story seems far-fetched. But adults tell the story year after year to children. And amazingly enough, the children swallow the whole story--hook, line and sinker.
But is the Santa Claus myth detrimental to children? In an age in which we have the ability to blow the world apart, shouldn't children be considering a more reality-oriented issue than a confusing fairy tale? Isn't it about time that jolly old man retired?
"Definitely not," says Dr. I. Lee Gislason, director of the child outpatient psychiatric clinic at UCI Medical Center. "The Santa Claus story is one of the relatively few myths that our culture has that is overall positive. For young children, Santa Claus is a powerful, shared happy myth and shouldn't be taken away. Reality can be pretty grim without (the need for) rushing it."
Very Benevolent Fantasy
Dr. Judith Ramirez, coordinator of child development at Cal State Fullerton, agrees: "There are differences of opinion, but my personal opinion is that it's all right. It's one of the fantasies that's very benevolent. Normally, it's very positive for children."
"It's part of our culture," stresses Dr. Jean Crawford, a professor of sociology at Cal State, Fullerton. It fulfills wishes that we all have. We probably all would like to be Santa Claus. I think parents look forward to it just as much as children. It's a chance for the parents to be kids again within a framework that allows them to be silly and young."
Gislason believes Santa is one of society's better kept secrets, and adults do like to perpetuate the myth. "There are actually two worlds--the world for children and the world for adults. Santa is in the children's world. It's one of our oldest secrets. It's an understood conspiracy between older children and adults to tantalize younger children with the fantasy. In fact, the myth groups younger children into two groups--those who believe and those who conspire together to continue the myth.
"It's nice to have a myth like Santa Claus in today's society," he adds. "Nuclear disarmament we can't seem to do a thing about. But we seem to pull Santa Claus off real well."
Crawford feels that the myth helps bring out an artistic side in children. "I think that there are probably some people who would like to just teach children straight science and no fantasy," she said. "But society's achievements don't come from test tubes--they come from creative, artistic minds."
In fact, the myth can be extremely beneficial, Ramirez stresses. "It's very good for children as long as the loving and giving and sharing of Christmas is part of the Santa Claus story. To think about others, and to give (while) thinking of Santa Claus as representing that aspect of Christmas brings out the positive nature of the myth."
However, Ramirez feels that there can be a negative side to the Santa story as well, "I think it can be very negative for children who are not in families where there is money to give or who do not receive any gifts. Then the myth of Santa Claus is that you don't get any gifts. There's a big discrepancy then between what you've been told and what you yourself experience."
This undesirable aspect of Santa Claus, Ramirez feels, can be eliminated if the focus of Santa Claus is "on making and sharing things, she said, "that Santa doesn't have to represent something tangible like a gift. That doing something together for someone can be a gift that everybody can give."
"I think that that's part of why it's so important that people give to those agencies that do make sure that every young child gets something," she said, "that they do have the chance to open a gift. With television it's very hard to hide Santa Claus from children. It's so pervasive in our culture. It's hard to have a child not at least be curious about what Santa Claus is. And the younger the child, the more important it is that the child have something if you've given them the story and the myth--to try to find some type of gift for that child to be able to open on Christmas Day.
"Once children get to the point where they're asking questions and are fairly convinced that Santa probably is a myth and really (is) their mother or father, then it's less crucial. Then you can talk to them about 'There really wasn't much money this year' and 'We'll try to find another way to celebrate' and 'Christmas is giving so let's take these cookies to a family who doesn't have anything.' "