This is the first year that my son, August, has been totally enthralled with Santa Claus.
The questions started after Thanksgiving. How will he get into our house, through the door or the window? How will he know I live here, will he look at my face? Will he recognize the back of my head?
We already live in a very imaginative and playful world, but when the questions started, it felt different to me than pretending to be dinosaurs. I was spinning a tale that will one day unravel. What will he think of me then? What will I think of me now?
In Buddhism, right speech is the third step of the eightfold path that leads us to the end of suffering. Engaging in right, or wise or virtuous, speech is a mindfulness practice that “gives rise to peace and happiness in oneself and others,” writes Beth Roth, a nurse practitioner and Vipassana teacher. We practice right speech by refraining from saying things that are untruthful, harsh, unhelpful, or idle, and instead engaging in speech that is “well spoken,” “just,” “endearing,” and “true,” according to a translation of the Subhasita Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Santa Claus, of course, did not live in ancient India, so we don’t have any advice from the Buddha. He didn’t live at all, though his composite character is based on saints and other historical do-gooders. I couldn’t find anything about truth-telling and Santa in the vast Tricycle archives, and because his presence (and my aversion) is constant in our house this month, I decided to ask spiritual friends, Tricycle colleagues, and dharma teachers about this predicament.
At first, I felt a little silly asking a monk about Santa Claus. But I’ve never met a monastic who didn’t provide a timely response to a dharma question, and Tenzin Peljor is no exception. Tenzin is a German Tibetan Buddhist monk who lives in Berlin and often teaches in Leipzig, where I live. In addition to his dharma teaching at Tibethaus Germany, he teaches schoolchildren about Buddhism and meditation.
“Oh, oho, complicated question,” he wrote back with his answer. Uh-oh.
Peljor explained that before he took his vows, he would make up imaginary stories with kids that he knew, about things like the white trails a plane leaves in the sky. “They loved it, and now, as adults, they still love me for telling these stories. One of them, a psychologist now, said she would entrust her children to me. So, obviously, it was good and funny for them and didn’t harm them or our relationship.”
Peljor says that, as a monk, he is now “very strict with not-lying,” and if confronted with the Weihnachtsmann (German for Santa Claus; literally, “Christmas Man”) would ask the child questions to continue their fantasy, thus not telling an untruth and also not shutting down a child’s imagination.
A Middle Way response appeared in all the responses I received. Santa is truly a balancing act. And while August must know I don’t know everything, he knows I know a lot of things. Often, when I turn a question back on him, he replies: “You know, Mama!”
Sumi Loundon Kim is an author and the Buddhist chaplain at Yale University. She also has two teenagers of her own and founded Mindful Families of Durham.
Kim says that Santa wasn’t a thing for her growing up in a Soto Zen community, and she remembers “struggling” when her kids were younger. “In the end, I caved,” she told me, and she too helped her children write letters to the North Pole and disguised her handwriting when addressing gifts from Santa.
The deciding factor, Kim said, was “because we lived in the South and Christianity was more embedded in the culture … Santa was a widespread, shared story.”
It is this “collective buy-in,” as Kim puts it, that makes me purchase and conceal a “Santa Claus only” wrapping paper. It’s why we left our shoes by the door earlier this month for St. Nikolaus, who also left a present in his sock in kindergarten (there were many questions on sock versus shoe). Who am I to insist that he go against the collective grain? Withholding Santa seems unnecessarily cruel and alienating, even more so because I’m technically an alien, a non-native German speaker who messes up grammar and occasionally asks embarrassing (but, I hope, charming) questions in the parent group chat. Going along with Santa stories seems more kind and endearing than harsh.
August has no interest in my childhood hardcover edition of The Polar Express this year. Instead, every evening, we read A Present for Santa, a curious book inherited from a neighbor, about a little girl named Molly who wants to give Santa a present and is blown to his North Pole Grotto by the North Wind to deliver it on Christmas Eve. She meets Santa, who turns her stuffed animal, a rabbit named Pickles, into a real rabbit, and they hop on his sleigh to help deliver gifts. August’s favorite part is when they’re all standing next to a chimney, Santa’s toy sack packed to the brim. I don’t feel like I’m lying by reading this very mediocre tale; the lying comes in when we talk about sending him letters or how he’ll get in our apartment without a chimney.
Night after night, as Molly and Pickles travel to the North Pole, I find myself hoping August will want to give Santa, or his friends, presents too. So far, no go.
Kim and I also talked about the opportunity that Christmastime presents in both practicing generosity and in kindly and respectfully responding to different beliefs and viewpoints, both “fraught and hard-core.”
Santa is an “important educational moment” that is similar to a larger problem we have to navigate: “what do we do when people believe something, have a view about the nonmaterial world, about God, Shiva, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, what social and conversational position do we take when there are true believers in something you can’t verify, that isn’t a part of your culture or world. How do you work with that?” Respectfully listening and acknowledging that God exists to some people, though possibly not to us, is important, Kim says. Then she mentions the tooth fairy, which I hadn’t even considered yet …
I found out early on in parenthood that all the parents who have become parents before you are keepers of precious knowledge, priceless wisdom that can help to make you feel connected, supported, and less alone. My parent-colleagues proved this once again with their Santa strategies. Tricycle’s art editor, Nina Buesing, comes from a lapsed Protestant German family, and her own family is now multicultural and multireligious, her kids having been exposed to a number of traditions and customs. “Our approach is to meet the kids where they are, to teach them to be respectful and to figure out what works for them, offering them a full buffet to choose from, but we do not tell lies or fibs,” she told me. Alison Spiegel, a Tricycle contributing editor with three young children, says that Santa is “so fantastical that it really feels more like a story than a lie, and I know when my kids reach a certain age, they’ll figure this one out on their own.”
Our publisher Sam Mowe has a 6- and 3-year-old, both of whom are in prime Santa time. “When it comes to telling the truth to my kids, it’s easy because I believe in Santa. I don’t mean that flippantly—I think the songs, stories, and traditions that we share around Santa make him real.” Like me, Mowe is conflicted about his children’s literal beliefs and his role in going along with them.
Santa is also real to our executive editor, Phil Ryan. “My father always claimed to have seen Santa Claus at a certain time and place, and so—case closed, he was real, end of discussion. But every year, my conversation with my kids was about it as a great mystery. This worked well for my kids because they were (and remain at age 12) strong believers in spirits and the supernatural.”
These notions, that Santa is real and that there are mysteries beyond what we know, are helpful. I also know this magical window of wonderment is very short—and that at least one of the older kids in August’s class has figured it out. And I already catch glimpses of August playing along, like his blasé attitude toward the Weihnachtsmann visiting his kindergarten last week on a fire truck. Is he in on this too? Is he playing along for my benefit?
Going back to right speech, the eightfold path is a “path” for a reason. It’s not linear, nor is it an open-and-shut assignment. This whole month has been a reflection on how much truth I’m actually telling on a day-to-day basis, like when we do have ice cream, but he’s already had ice cream, and I’m too tired to give a good reason as to why he can’t have more.
The Santa stories might set me back a few karmic notches, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. August didn’t consent to becoming a Buddhist or a little kid in a corner of the world where everyone waits for Santa on Christmas. Maybe he’ll have a problem with me as an accomplice one day, and if it’s not that, he’ll likely be upset with me for something else. Maybe he’ll tell me he knew all along that we were pretending. I just hope he knows that I chose joy, generosity, and flexibility over rigidity and harshness in the darkest time of the year.
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