A friend of mine recently told me this story about when her children, now grown, were still very young.
My friend was going through a divorce at the time and working hard to be honest with her children about what was happening. It also happened to be near Christmas. One day her daughter came home and said she'd been hearing from friends at school that there was no Santa Claus who brought presents at Christmas time, that it was just parents who did that. And my friend, in keeping with what she had been trying to do by staying honest with her children, and assuming her daughter wanted to know the answer to the question, explained that yes, indeed, although Santa was a historical person, her friends at school were telling her the truth. At which point, her daughter's lower lip started trembling and her eyes filled with tears as she asked in a quivering voice, "And the Easter bunny...?"
My friend still feels terrible about what damage she might have inflicted on her daughter, even as she was trying to do her very best for her. And as I watch article after article appear, as it does this time each year, debating the merits and the how-tos and when-should-yous of “telling your child the truth about Santa Claus,” – well, first I found myself very glad that I’m not a parent facing that ethical dilemma. But then I started to ask myself, how should we approach this question from a faith-formation standpoint?
I honestly didn’t have a clue, and so I turned to my colleagues at Forma for wisdom. And they provided what I think is the key to the mystery: we may not need to provide the answers; we may simply need to be there to talk through the questions.
One colleague put it very well:
The key here I think is to ask the child first - What do YOU think? Listening to their response can help steer your conversation to what the child wants to hear. They may or may not be ready to make that leap. Asking I wonder questions too can help to try to clarify what they WANT to believe in that moment.
One of my other colleagues reported about the time when the priest in her parish decided to announce during chapel that there was no Santa Claus, resulting in mass trauma and immense distrust of the church. Clearly, that’s not the way to go. But I think that illuminates the trap we fall into, about Santa Claus or any number of topics.
I suspect that one our temptations when we teach about issues of faith is that we somehow think we are arbiters of capital-T Truth that we can dispense like Pez in preset amounts at the appropriate time. And to be sure, there are things we know that children do not. But for issues of faith, we don’t learn the Truth by being told; we learn the Truth through our own experience, through our senses and our developing understanding. And the best way for us to learn it is by working through the questions ourselves, struggling with the challenges of faith and doubt, and coming to a deeper understanding.
And this is true not just for children trying to figure out the deep and abiding myth that is Santa Claus. It’s true for us as well as we grapple with our own abiding myths about our faith and who God is and God’s actions in the world and our place in it.
It may be that we want to go to someone and say, “Tell me the answer.” And goodness knows there are people who will be happy to do so. But I believe without a doubt that it is far better for us to come to our own terms of understanding in our own time. Because when we work to answer our own questions, the answer (when we finally reach it) will belong to us in a way it never would if it were simply handed to us, wrapped up with a bow.