How to Talk to Kids About Santa, Part 1: The Extra Adjective

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The purpose of THE SANTA TALK is to prime you for the moment your son or daughter wants to know the truth about Santa. If you're a parent of one of the 32 million American kids between the ages of four and ten, chances are good that you'll have the great fortune (yeah, I said great) to answer their questions in the relatively near future.

Don't worry -- this is an amazing opportunity! Your child's question is an invitation to participate in a memory that may last a lifetime and a chance for you to explain what you love about the holidays. In this blog, I'm gonna talk about what's at stake for kids and about how you can affect the outcome of your future Santa talk today.

One of the things that happens as we get older, gain some perspective on the world, and eventually become a lot like our parents (I have to call my folks after this) is that we forget what Santa Claus once meant to us.

We sometimes forget that we each, once upon a time, had a superhero to call our own, one that tended to us, personally. I know that all sounds pretty fantastical today. The idea that someone was out there, doing the impossible to make our dreams come true, braving the elements, defying time and space to get us the things we need sounds crazy...right? Maybe not. Superheroes, according to your kids, come in all shapes and sizes.

A cool thing happens when you talk to a kid about Santa. Maybe not right away, but give it a little time, ask the right questions, and kids reveal a man who embodies something special, something they experience personally. They describe his rituals, his methods, his quirks even. They describe someone who sounds an awful lot like...well, I'll let them tell you.

Six-year-old Emily was among the first ten kids I interviewed after I began The Santa Talk project in 2006. By that point, I'd already seen how different families celebrate Christmas in sometimes dramatically different ways and I wanted her to describe her version of Santa. To do that without raising doubts in her mind that the Santa she knows may not be everybody's Santa, I shoehorned the question into a scenario she might reasonably encounter. She had not yet had the Santa talk with her parents. She was a believer.

Me: Emily, if a new student came to your class and she had never heard of Santa-- 

Emily: Never heard of Santa?! 

Me: Nope. She came from another country, far away.

Emily: She never got presents, either? Ooooh, she musta been bad.*

Well played, Emily. (*Author's note: at that time, I hadn't yet begun coaching mites hockey and I'd forgotten that kids are like genies: they never give you exactly what you ask for. No, that's not right. Most of the time, they give you exactly what you asked for and only then do you realize that you asked for the wrong thing. Moments like this one proved a fact I would come to rely on over the course of this project: the kids were my best teachers.

No matter how I thought things would go, these interviews always took an unexpected turn for the better. I'd show up with my little sketch pad and pen and leave with a picture so much richer than anything I could have painted on my own. I learned to leave my expectations in the car. The most I could do was to know what I wanted to ask and stay flexible.) I retracted the make-believe scenario I'd posed to Emily and tried again. Take two--

Me: Emily, will you describe Santa for me?

Emily:  Hmm. Well...he's funny and loving, umm...and nice. And he goes, "Ho-ho-ho!"

Me:  You have a great Santa voice, Emily! So, okay, now I know how he acts and I know what he sounds like. What does Santa look like?

Emily: You know!

Me: Let's pretend, I don't. 

Emily: (exasperated sigh) Santa has a white beard that goes to (she indicates mid-torso) and a red jacket and pants with white stripes and boots. And the same hat.

Me: What do you mean by the same hat? 

Emily: Same as his clothes. And he has glasses like (pointing to my glasses) but rounder. He's clean, and he likes milk and cookies but I don't put out milk.

Me: Why don't you put out milk? 

Emily: I hate milk! 

Me: What do you leave for Santa instead of milk?

Emily:  Go-gurt.

Me: You said Santa is clean. How do you know Santa is clean?

Emily: (shrugs) He washed the plate.

Among other examples of "clean," Emily went on to tell me that Santa wraps presents beautifully and, despite entering the house through the chimney, has never once tracked soot on the carpet and must therefore wipe his feet or take off his boots.

I thought this was an odd and fun detail. But I'd heard what I thought I came for,--namely, to hear how Emily and her family celebrate the holiday as she understands it--and I left it at that.

A couple weeks later, I interviewed a boy named Brandon. Brandon was five and an only-child at the time. When I asked Brandon to describe Santa, he told me, in so many words, the same things Emily had: jolly, kind, loving, red suit, white beard, black boots, etc. The basics. He didn't say anything about Santa's cleanliness but, when I moved on to a question about Christmas morning, Brandon stopped me, adding--

Brandon: Santa brings presents to people without houses, too.

Now, that was interesting and meaningful because I'd just had a conversation with Brandon's dad about doing some volunteer work at a local homeless shelter. He was a regular volunteer at a skid row shelter, donating a few nights of his time each month. What was Brandon saying? I kept Brandon talking about it for a bit, eventually asking--

Me: How does he do that? How does he get all the presents to the boys and girls? 

Brandon: He brings a pile of presents and Santa's helpers give them out. 

Me: If they don't have homes he can count, how do you think Santa knows how many toys to bring?

Brandon: He watches over them! And he gets their wish lists.

When I finished with Brandon, I checked with Brandon's dad and one of his regular duties is to help the paid outreach workers in the office, particularly in their efforts to keep records of the homeless families that pass through. In other words, he watches over them. I asked if Brandon knew this was one of his regular duties and he said he thought he did. I then asked if the shelter had a program to provide homeless children with Christmas presents. He said that they once did but not for a couple years--not since Brandon was three, which just happened to be the last time Brandon visited. "But he wouldn't remember that, I don't think..."

This phenomenon is remarkably consistent. I heard it again and again from children. Sometimes it was in describing his look or his affect. Sometimes I heard it in how they themselves behave to win Santa's favor. Somewhere along the way, kids ascribe your best attributes to Santa. I call it The Extra Adjective and children who know the truth about Santa do it, too.

Now, consider that when a child loses Santa, they might think they're losing someone from their lives who: is clean; gives to the homeless; knows what they want more than anything; forgets stuff but always makes up for it; knows what time they fall asleep; likes it when they're polite; makes them feel safe; and someone who does a dozen other special things just the way you do. I heard all these descriptions of Santa from children I spoke with. Santa sounds like someone that matters. Losing someone like that could be a little scary.

Parents, if you want to take the sting and the fear out of the Santa talk, be someone who, when the idea of a Santa Claus in red velvet fades away, is every bit as great as the man they thought was bringing the elf-made goodstuff.

What Extra Adjective suits you today? What Extra Adjective would you like to describe Santa/you? It's okay. It's never too late to make a start.   

Next post, we'll talk about the small stuff you can do today to affect your child's Extra Adjective. And the first installment of Meme of the Week!

Listen to The Santa Talk by Ryan Swanson as a free podcast on iTunes.