It’s a strange time of year to be of my ilk in America. The houses are mostly decked with lights, although I live in that rare North Texas neighborhood of refreshing ethnic diversity where the smells of wonderful cooking waft through the air to mark myriad holidays that our Christian brethren don’t celebrate. The trees appear covered in tinsel and ornaments in the shopping malls, the school classrooms, and the corporate lobbies. The music is relentless and oppressive. Opposing signs admonish me to not forget the religious aspects of the season, while a large man who curates a white beard year round charges $20 for a picture of small children sitting on his groin. It is Christmas, the time of year when many of you celebrate, while the rest of us decide to what extent we are going to lie to our children.
It’s a debate I’ve had with myself, my friends, my co-workers, for years. I’ve had the discussion in person, and I’ve looked for advice on the Web, on my social networks and on etiquette sites. I don’t celebrate Christmas, so what do I tell my son about Santa Claus? What do I do when he asks why Santa does not come to our house?
For the Christmas tree, the holiday lights, the answer is clear. We don’t have a tree because that isn’t how we celebrate our culture. We have other traditions. We have huge family dinners in the spring and the fall. We go to temple and sing in strange languages. We light candles, fry tasty foods, and give small presents, but not at the exact same time as everybody else. We have our culture, and we can also experience and enjoy the culture of our neighbors.
Seriously, do you smell that? How do I score an invite to a Diwali party, can anyone help me with that? How do I insinuate myself in an Eid al Fitr celebration? I see the catering trucks out front. I can smell the food while I’m walking my dog. You can’t hide it from me any more! I’m tired of the Christmas cookies and the hams and pies and fruit cakes. I’ve never been a fan of latkes and the cheap chocolate in Hanukkah gelt. I need spices and chutneys and pistachios and honey and… But I digress.
What do I tell my three year old son about Santa? I’m sure the parents of his classmates would be happiest if I simply lie. I perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus, while explaining that this magical elf, who flies around with adorable, mythical creatures, one of whom may or may not have a light-up schnozz, will not be bringing us any presents this year. There are two classes of people left off this list: the naughty, and us.
Then, suddenly, it occurred to me that I may not be the biggest problem these parents face in keeping the story straight. I was talking with a friend who is also a single parent. I was talking about my experience with the Terrible Threes, and she said:
“Yeah? Wait until he can Google you.”
Well, I hold up pretty well to Google scrutiny, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and my son isn’t yet four. He can’t read, let alone type, and he certainly can’t Google. I suppose he could use a voice assistant and simply ask the question, but I’m sure asking Siri “Does Daddy have any dark secrets in his past?” hasn’t yet occurred to him. Also, he’s not 100% clear on my first name, yet, and there are a lot of dudes out there named “Daddy.”
What if children ask Google whether Santa Claus is real? Well, I have some good news. For the most part, the first page of Google News will not spoil this mystery. There are some outliers, but you’d have to dig pretty deep into Yahoo! Answers to read a response in the negative. Those are met with serious disapproval, as you might expect.
Even the Wikipedia page clouds the issue, at least for the nascent intellect of a true believer. I doubt anyone who questions the reality of Santa Claus would be able to negotiate the dense text at the top of the Wikipedia entry, and the phrasing is ambiguous enough that a young mind might still leave the page satisfied, though perplexed.
The real question is not whether a child could or could not find the answer his parents wish to keep a secret. The question is whether this is still a relevant expectation in a digital age.
I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I do not believe there is some moral imperative to keep children grounded only in the world of real facts and possibilities. Would I want my child to never believe in magic? Do I spoil the illusion that those are not actors on a sound stage, but rather space pirates flying in a ship throughout a galaxy far, far away? Do I embark on long discussions of how Phineas and Ferb simply could not conjure the level of building materials and expertise to construct an expansive stadium in their backyard? No. No I don’t.
I will not spoil the story for your children; however, I want something in return. I want acknowledgment that I could spoil it at any time, and appreciation that I don’t. I work and live on the Internet. It’s a dangerous place, and dangerously honest. It’s also very easy to change and reroute perceptions. If the Internet could change the very definition of the word Santorum as revenge for perceived political slights, imagine what could happen if we rerouted Google search for the word Bieber to direct to pages with the ultimate truth about Santa.
I’m going to be vague with my child. I’m going to avoid lying as much as possible, and try to help him enjoy living as a minority in a culture that at once tries to paint its beliefs and traditions as secular and insufficiently pious. If the time comes that he finds the truth for himself on the Web, or through some other resource, I’m not going to deny the truth. As we all know, it’s impossible to erase the truth about yourself completely from the Internet, even if you never truly existed in the first place.