Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Little Guy and The Big Guy

My wife has a friend/co-worker whose father is part the volunteer fire department in our town, and said fire department traditionally goes out in one of the big engines on an evening before Christmas with a Santa handing out candy canes to little kids. Our inside connection not only let us know which night this was happening, and furthermore called us with a heads up that the engine was in our neighborhood (so that we were sure to delay bath time and have coats at the ready by the front door for the moment when we saw the flashing lights) but above and beyond that mentioned to her father where we lived and our names. The end result being we were able to whisk the little guy out to see two things he loves – a fire engine and Santa – and SANTA GREETED HIM BY NAME RIGHT OFF THE BAT. I think the little guy was delighted by the whole spectacle, although he was also a bit dazzled and overwhelmed by the strangeness and suddenness of it all. I was delighted, at any rate.

I love that at his age of not quite two-and-a-half he can absorb and process the idea of Santa in all its various forms and get that it’s all (supposed to be) the same entity. The kindly old man who really does have a nice set of ivory whiskers and posed with my little guy for a photo at the mall doesn’t really look much like the fellow in an obviously fake beard who goes around with the firemen, and there’s myriad depictions of the Big Guy around our house from the sides of gift bags to the CGI version on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the Disney channel, but the little guy never misses a single opportunity to point him out to us: “Santa! Santa! Santa!” He also does a passable impression of Santa’s “Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!” in the best approximation of a deep, jolly voice that toddler-sized vocal cords can duplicate. And he more or less understands there are certain peripheral but meaningful accessories to Santa. Every time I get him talking about meeting Santa on the firetruck he insists “And they had a reindeer on the back of the firetruck!” Which ... uhh ... I don’t remember either seeing or even talking about, so somehow he grafted that idea on himself. And it is an awesome idea so clearly I haven’t been arguing with him on it.

Awesome in every incarnation
As we were heading into this holiday season and realizing what level of cognitive capabilities we were dealing with this time around, my wife and I realized we really needed to have the Santa discussion, and have it we did. We both wanted to feel that we had made an informed decision about what role Santa was going to play in our family celebrations of Christmas, and not just fallen into following along with whatever the little guy picked up from school or television or whatever. And in the course of this deliberation we did seriously consider the notion, raised everywhere from Miracle on 34th Street to the episode of HIMYM where Barney’s brother finds his dad, that Santa is a lie parents tell their children. At the time of the conversation I admitted as much but said that I really didn’t care, because it’s a harmless lie, and even a good lie if your value system can accommodate such a paradox (mine very clearly does). I think there’s an exaggerated tendency amongst my generation to look with skepticism and suspicion on everything our parents did raising us, and I admit I do that all the time, but I’ve never second-guessed my mom and dad encouraging me to believe in Santa. I did for a while, and it was awesome, and then I stopped, and I don’t recall any particular stabbing sensations of betrayal at the time, nor do I bear any traumatic emotional scars as a direct result. I not only survived the big lie about the Big Guy but enjoyed it, and I will try to make sure my little guy does, too.

But I’ve continued to think about it even after the matter was settled, and at this point I’ve reached a slightly different conclusion. Santa isn’t a lie; he’s just a metaphor. I think the whole “Santa equals lying to your children” thing is one of those overtly clever, contrarian memes that people like brandishing because it’s provocative, but it kind of misses the point. If you are the kind of person who despises Shakespeare and would characterize Romeo as a pathological liar because he says Juliet is the sun and, you know, that’s not true she’s not really a massive sustained fusion explosion in space, then you and I would probably have a hard time finding a way to communicate and I guess I’m not really talking to you, anyway.

I love metaphors. I love that human beings have this capacity to encapsulate abstract ideas inside concrete imagery and I think it’s entirely appropriate to do that as much as possible with little kids. Santa Claus just happens to be one of the most detailed, fleshed-out icons we have in Western civilization, and there’s lots of cynical, commercial reasons for that, but I think the reason so many people have been able to exploit it so often and so well is because of what’s at the heart of it. Santa symbolizes generosity, both material and spiritual, and we need that. Children need to learn that things like altruism and compassion and selflessness exist, and if we start them down that road by saying there’s a kindly old man who sometimes gives free gifts to children just because, it’s just a hyper-specific kind of anthropomorphization, right? Sometimes at night my little guy asks me where the moon is and I say it’s hiding behind the clouds; if he grows up to think I abused his trust because I unrealistically assigned volitional action to an inanimate satellite, I’m totally screwed on a long, long list of charges.

So yeah, my conscience on the whole “Santa’s coming!” thing is pretty clear, because that’s how I roll. There’s a celebration of giving and magic and wonder and love coming, and I’m pointing to a personally meaningful avatar when I talk about it to my child, and as time goes by I trust him to sort out what’s literally true about that story from what’s figuratively true – but I don’t think either of those halves is a lie. Of course, my wife and I still haven’t gotten to the point where we’re trying to enforce behavioral codes with the threat that if the little guy is naughty then Santa won’t come, nor am I looking forward to it. Because that is some straight-up messed up disinformation right there.

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