After my last Santa blog, I was surprised by one of the reader's comments that Santa is "a lie" that endangers children's ability to reason. That comment and my subsequent dialogue with this disenchanted reader led me to ponder two questions. Is imagination detrimental to children; and how can we address "the Santa question," which every child eventually faces.
Imagination is often pitted against reason and the scientific method. However, if we consider what scientists say, they indicate that imagination is key to the science. Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, said, "Again and again the imaginary plan on which one attempts to build up order breaks down and then we must try another. This imaginative vision and faith in the ultimate success are indispensable. The pure rationalist has no place here." (http://goo.gl/rwtlQ). After a dream about a snake biting its tail which led to the discovery of the benzene ring, August Kekulé said, "Let us learn to dream, gentlemen." (http://goo.gl/KZCA0s). To make scientific discoveries, imagination is a necessity. Pitting the imagination against the science and reason is a false dichotomy.
The Santa question is basically the question of how to deal with the imagination as children grow up. Is imagination a detriment to be put aside as children mature or should imagination grow and develop as our children do? Is our own ability to deal with the Santa question a measure of our own knowledge, imagination, and empathy? What do you tell a child who asks the Santa question, which we should welcome as an indication of a child's development—an open door to a deeper understanding of Santa and Christmas that involves a vision as well as imagination.
There are many ways to address the Santa question. The simplest is to think of what Santa represented for you as a child. If Santa brings back memories of hope, imagination, and joy, you were a lucky child. These memories represent someone's love for you. Parents attempt to create a magical moment for their children in which dreams come true— a perfect world for one fleeting moment. Ideally, parents help children expand this fleeting joy beyond receiving to giving; so that the child can experience the same happiness in giving that the parents experience. How well parents succeed in creating this feeling of joy in giving influences how children will think about giving, receiving, and creating throughout their lives.
On another level, Santa Claus represents a story that many of us have forgotten or never knew—the story of Saint Nicholas (Sinter Klass) who became known for his charity—a man, who gave away all his wealth, even to the clothes on his back. Over the centuries, St. Nick's story was associated primarily with giving gifts to children, who, thus, received gifts just as the Christ child received gifts from the three Magi. Just as St Nicolas modeled his life on that of Jesus, the hope is that a child who has experienced the joy of receiving a gift will become a giver of gifts. The story of Saint Nicholas is an allegory that illustrates how one person can literally change the world by giving.
On yet another level, the Santa story is not simply about giving but about empathy—the ability to identify with others. This dimension raises giving and the Santa story from the individual to the universal level. Charity, i.e., generosity, is one of the basic precepts of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as is the golden rule.
When a child asks the Santa question, his entire world is about to change because he is moving from a world that is self centered to a world where he must reach out to others. This moment is the perfect opportunity, an empowering moment, for the child to begin to use her imagination to find her place in the world as a "doer"—a giver. This step is an awesome responsibility full of wonderful possibilities to be created by the child's imagination, which he will need throughout his life. When all is said and done, we are remembered for what we gave to the roles we played in life as children, parents, relatives, friends, workers, inventors, artists, dreamers—for what we gave using our unique gifts and talents to whatever it was that we chose to do.
How you answer the Santa Question is entirely up to you, depending on where your heart and your imagination take you. The challenge is to keep the spirit alive, which requires imagination. Armed with the golden rule and imagination, we could, indeed, create the earthly paradise mankind has always dreamed of.