Why does Santa treat different families differently?

I have heard this question, in all its forms, so many times. A child whose family can barely put food on the table wonders why she received a hat and scarf from Santa when her schoolmate received a most-coveted Rainbow Loom and dozens of packets of circlets. Another family wonders why Santa skips his house, not understanding the differences between his Christian neighbors’ celebration of Christmas complete with Santa, and his on Jewish family’s decision to celebrate only Hanukkah. Another family struggles to explain how Santa left footprints on their friends’ fireplace and reindeer poop in their yard, while leaving no sign of his presence at their house besides the presents.

All parents must decide how to explain Santa, at some point. The man in the red suit who shows up in the mall, on decorations, and in movies must somehow be explained to little ears who want to know who he is. This post is for those families who are willing for their children to believe in Santa, whether you include him in your celebrations or not.

In the world of adoption and foster care, the questions are sometimes even harder.

A child who was abused by her babysitter’s boyfriend might say: “NOOOOOO! I don’t WANT a strange man to come into my house. MOMMY NO! You said this house was SAFE and noone could get me!”

A 3rd grade boy struggling with ADHD and low self-esteem might say: “Dad, I’m sorry. I forgot my homework at school. I’m so stupid! I can’t remember anything right! I’m gonna get coal in my stocking.”

A child in foster care for the first time might burst into tears at the sight of Santa in a book and sob “Why couldn’t Santa find me last year? Mommy said he couldn’t find us so couldn’t give me my presents. Why couldn’t he find me? Will he find me this year?”

Or on the other hand, a child who was in foster care last year, who you have adopted might wonder: “Why didn’t Santa bring presents this year? Why do I have to write thank-you notes to grandparents? Santa brought all the gifts when I lived in my other home!”

The stakes are so much higher when you are parenting abused or neglected children, or ones who have memories of different homes and different parents in years past. Regardless of your personal beliefs about Santa and how much “reality” to use when explaining him, sometimes children arrive in our homes with opinions and past experiences that have shaped how they already think about him.

Noone reading this blog is going to insist to that abused child that Santa will come down the chimney, unknown to even the adults, in the face of such “stranger in my home” fear. But especially if there are other children in the home who expect Santa’s visit, just how do you handle it? Or the child who was accustomed to Santa before, if you do not celebrate him in your house? Or the child to whom you have to explain Santa’s absence and the parent’s fib last year, whether or not you have him at your house?

Many years ago I read a story about one little girl’s fear of the Tooth Fairy. She desperately wanted the dollar the Tooth Fairy would leave if she put her tooth under her pillow, but equally desperately she wanted to save her tooth to show her mom at next week’s visit. Her dad was a smart one, and said he’d talk to the Tooth Fairy and make a deal with her so that his little girl got her dollar AND got to show her mom the tooth. And suddenly, peace reigned at their house.

Can we do that with Santa Claus? Can we, as parents, decide that not only do we each get to celebrate Santa (or not) in our own way, but also explain to our children that it is the parents’ decision that makes Santa do what he does?

I propose a Santa Contract. Each family makes their own, and takes ownership of it. In one family the contract can state that Santa brings the most wished-for items. In another family, it may state that Santa brings the most needed items. When I was growing up, our family’s contract would have stated that Santa would bring identical items for each of the children, since that is what we received each year. Another family’s contract may state that Santa not leave presents at their home, because they choose to give gifts to each other themselves.

The Santa Contract can also state where the gifts may be left. Sure, it’s often fun to think of Santa sliding down the chimney, but it is no less wonderful to receive gifts discovered on the back porch if that is where your contract said to look! (And this eases the fears of children who do not want strangers in their home while they are sleeping.)

A contract with Santa can also take care of “mistakes” he made in the past. I know of one family who adopted two little girls from Tanzania, who were sad that this Santa they had heard of had never visited their orphanage – that they had been so “forgotten”. On their first Christmas, under the tree Christmas morning were multiple presents for each girl – one for each year of their lives. They were labeled with their names, and the year they would have received them. So in the package marked “first year” each girl received a rattle. In the one marked “second year” each received a pair of baby shoes. And so on. Santa also left a note that explained that houses in Tanzania don’t have numbers or names on them, so he couldn’t know where each girl lived. That he loves everyone, and now that they have parents and now that he does know where they live, he wanted them to know that he had always remembered and never forgotten them. What a boost to a little child’s way of thinking about their worth!

This little idea can not fix everything. No single idea can. But if you are struggling with your child’s questions about Santa and the different treatment they notice around them, it may be something to consider. Because we each want our children to feel loved, and valued, and keep them from unnecessary trauma, don’t we? And even if Santa is just a game in your home, it’s never fun to miss your turn in a game, so this Santa Contract idea may be one way to make past hurts feel a little less sharp.

I hope this helps someone, in at least some small way.

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2 comments on “Why does Santa treat different families differently?

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