Fear of Santa

By Pam Henderson

I opened my “Column” manila folder to prepare for this week’s column. It’s a file bursting at the seams with a collection of news clippings and Post-It Notes relating to parenting and child development. Topics about how to respond when your child wants a tattoo to teaching your child about managing money are waiting to be referenced in a column. Meanwhile, my favorite topic – mnemonics (e.g. My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas a/k/a the order of the planets from the sun) makes at least an annual appearance.

So, I thought this would be the week to pull out one of those articles I’ve been saving about why it’s important to look children in the eye when you speak to them. But, it will have to wait another week or so. Unfortunately, as I was reaching for the folder, a black, furry critter jumped into the folder. “Silly girl, one little spider” you’re thinking. No, actually it was the brother of the one who just crawled across my keyboard onto my hand. I flung the folder onto the floor of my office where it will sit in quarantine until a braver soul agrees to thumb through it and take the critter outside.  

But, deadlines don’t wait for spiders and editors can’t be sympathetic to the plight of a writer who has millions of imaginary spiders crawling all over her.

Since material oftentimes has a way of presenting itself to me, the stars are indicating that fear is a good subject for this week. With Christmas just around the corner, fear of Santa Claus seems like an á propos discussion. I don’t need my “spider” folder to talk about Santa.

Long before Rick and I had children, we witnessed a child’s encounter with a shopping mall Santa that was anything but festive and magical. The toddler must have been about three years old. When the adults he was with – presumably his parents – put the little boy on Santa’s knee, he (the little boy, not Santa) let out a blood-curdling scream. Then came the crocodile tears and thrashing to get away from this stranger in the red suit.

The notion of Santa, or Saint Nicholas as he was originally known, is really quite sweet. St. Nicholas is the patron saint and protector of children. He is attributed with helping the poor and needy, and showering individuals with gifts. The connection to the red suit, fluffy beard and reindeer friends came much later.

In present day, the visual of a jolly, fat man coming down the chimney while we’re asleep sounds rather frightening. For the person who rationalizes and needs a logistical explanation to put his mind at ease, it is completely unfathomable that a toymaker from the North Pole could make a trip down every chimney in the entire world without waking a soul.

But, many of us in childhood don’t question or challenge the impracticality of Santa’s global trek. And, in adulthood many of us want to hold onto the spirit of Santa Claus.

Not every child is going to fall in love with the jolly old guy, and adults need to be okay with that. Maybe the scruffy white beard looks scary to children. Or maybe it’s the fact that he knows when we’re sleeping; or worse yet, that he knows when we’ve been bad or good. And, after all, we do teach our children not to talk to strangers.

You may want that cute picture for your social media posts showcasing your little one sitting atop Santa’s knee, but is it really worth the drama if your child is terrified of him? Some parents intentionally take their children to see Santa because they think it makes for a funny photo to have Santa juggling a hysterical child. They may not realize the long-term damage that some child development experts say is created by forcing Santa on their child. “You’ll not only likely wind up with a disappointing photo, but pushing the issue can potentially cause some psychological harm to your child,” warns Andrew Adesman, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.

Children may scream and thrash for vaccinations, but vaccinations can be lifesaving and are necessary. Santa, well not so much.

“Is It Okay to Lie About Santa?” was posed by author Laura Lewis Brown. In her article written for PBS Parents, she quoted Benjamin Siegel, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, “What parents should assess is the values they are trying to impart and whether this myth encourages those morals.” A child can still enjoy Santa from a distance – perhaps writing a letter to him or leaving carrots outside for the reindeer. “Every culture has a fairy tale or myth that belongs to its historical identity,” Siegel says. “If the myths are good and talk about sharing and helping your neighbor, then that’s really nice.” Dr. Siegel’s observation resonates with the New York Sun’s editorial response to Virginia back in 1897, “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Yes, Virginia, it’s okay to be afraid of Santa Claus. Just like it’s okay for me to be afraid of a spider who is smaller than the tip of my pencil eraser.