Santa loves the kiddies
Santa – a bit like a creepy uncle

For children, Santa Claus is a sometimes frightening magical figure, far closer to superheroes, wizards, or genies than he is to the kindly old bishop of Asia Minor behind the legend. Naturally, the greedy little beggars want to figure out his tremendous powers that so much of their happiness depends upon. Their growing understanding reflects not only the evolution of their view of Santa but of the entire world as well. Here then, is how to grow up through the seven life lessons of Santa Claus.

1. This stuff is real!

The first realization is probably the biggest. After going through their first three or four Christmases, kids suddenly understand this thing is for real. What a concept! They really can get what they want if they play the game right at this time of year. But there are rules, timing, and personalities to consider. Instead of being subjected to whatever the grown-ups want to give them, they perceive that their own choices can have far-reaching effects. This strategic lesson will last a lifetime.

2. The stakes are very high.

Life teaches kids pretty quickly that if good things can happen, something equally bad or even worse can too. Power is power; and just like with superheroes, Santa’s tremendous abilities that bring such pleasure could also bring great pain. In fact, kids savvy beyond their years might realize that Santa could actually destroy the world.

Part of the American Christmas tradition since the mid-1950s is Santa Claus’ sleigh being tracked and escorted for at least part of the way by the North American Air Defense Command, NORAD. It’s been shown every year on TV for over a half-century and now over the Web to reassure the young ones that Christmas is safely on its way.

But how comforting is that, really? Could Santa cause World War III? There’s all these missiles here on hair-triggers ready to turn Russia into glass if they try anything, and on the other side of the world, they also have rockets aimed at us. And in the middle of this confrontation, there’s some guy in a red suit flying straight towards us from the North Pole.

How reassuring is it that they send up armed fighter jets to make sure? You don’t have to be very old before it dawns on you that Santa could either accidentally start World War III or get shot down in flames, dead reindeer everywhere.

Now as an adult, consider this happy thought: if the prospect is not as scary today as it was back in the Cold War, it’s not because of any fundamental change in the global situation; it’s just that we don’t want to think about it. Merry Christmas!

The Air Force — Keeping us safe from mythical flying elves since 1955

3. There’s no stopping Santa or his home invasion.

Santa must to be able to enter any house, apartment or living space anywhere, whether in a cave or a skyscraper. Kids therefore soon realize that for Santa, chimneys are not necessary but at best a convenience. Sure; it means you don’t have to leave the door unlocked – but you couldn’t keep him out if you wanted, either.

These days, children, especially those in a home that had sometime been burgled, might well be concerned that the man with the big sack is actually some Grinch come in disguise. But while American kids might worry about getting a little coal in their stockings, in parts of Europe it’s far, far worse, even now. There, St. Nick is accompanied by Krampus, a terrifying, long-tongued devil whose sole purpose is to whip and otherwise terrorize bad children. And from Santa’s minions, there can be no escape.

Good elf, bad elf
Santa always brings his enforcer along – just in case.

4. He knows.

By this time kids might be seriously worried about Santa’s power to detect naughtiness. Are their parents in on it? Do they secretly report to the North Pole? How closely are they watching you? What if they get it wrong, or are mad at you for some reason?

Worse, what if Santa doesn’t even need their help? What if he just knows somehow, maybe by reading your Christmas list, exactly how bad you were? After all, you probably didn’t get caught every time you did something wrong. Does not owning up to your misdeeds make them worse? Does he know when that happens? Because somehow he knows. The fat man always knows who’s naughty and who’s nice. How does he find out? HOW DOES HE KNOW?

Better leave out a really big plate of the best cookies this time, just to be sure.

His eyes are everywhere
Just pretend you don’t notice

5. Bad stuff happens.

Sooner or later, disappointment is inevitable. You didn’t get the bike or the BB gun you wanted – it might be you were too young and would fall off or put your eye out, but you didn’t know or care. Maybe you got clothes instead or something else boringly practical. All you know is that you did everything like you were supposed to: you were very, very good, and you nicely asked for exactly what you wanted, and yet, you still didn’t get it. It isn’t fair!

Of course, adults know that Santa’s task is simply impossible. Kids can’t conceive of just how impracticable it is, but they do realize that there are a lot of children wanting a lot of stuff. And that Santa’s got to get it all done in one night. So even with Rudolph guiding, there’s a real chance that some snowy night he could goof up like all grown-ups do sooner or later. He’ll deliver the wrong toys or maybe miss your house altogether. Santa won’t have time to correct mistakes, either. And all the goodness in the world won’t help.

6. Things are not always what they seem.

Then of course, one day, the unthinkable truth dawns on every child. They find out just who has been buying all those presents and sticking them under the tree.

This bitter but necessary disillusionment is one of life’s great hard lessons. But the shock can make any child remarkably cynical. After all, the same adults who told you about Santa told you about the Magi and the Baby Jesus and a bunch of other fantastic stories. Is any of it real? What can you trust?

How do you restore faith when you know it is in a lie? Even if the discussion were handled gently, many people never get past this point. This is probably why there are so many Scrooges and Grinches out there. For those sad people, once the magic died, they’re stuck; all the Hallmark specials will never bring it back. Only the magic of a child’s belief might be able to do so.

Just don't look in Dad's sock drawer, kid.
And there goes childhood

7. The sack passes.

The last realization leads to a kind of enlightenment. It might happen as a result of younger siblings, for most people it probably comes about when they become parents themselves. But suddenly you realize it’s all up to you now. There are tiny eyes wide with wonder, looking at you not just for protection and nourishment but happiness. How could you disappoint them?

And so the cycle begins again for a new generation. You’ve arrived at a certain maturity, understanding at last that not all lies are necessarily unkind. The fact that your little ones are loved and cherished beyond what they will ever know is the essential truth of Santa Claus. It’s a love letter in the form of a silly old fairy tale about a geezer and his magical reindeer, passed down through generations as you would a precious heirloom.

Maybe that’s why Santa’s pictured as an elderly fellow. Maybe it takes years, decades, to wear away the sharp disappointments and erode the inevitable cynicism before we can fully savor the truth.

Perhaps it requires a full experience of life to realize that in giving joy, we receive joy. No wonder then, that Santa is a merry old soul with a twinkle in his eye. It’s a joke on us, all right, but one that we can share in if we can somehow put our hard-bitten skepticism aside for a while. For a brief time each year, we can at least try to touch the magic again or make it real for somebody else.

And that just might be the real gift of Christmas to young and old alike.

Fun is better.