What traditions haven’t been altered in some way by the year 2020? Family gatherings delayed indefinitely. Vacations postponed if not missed altogether. Holidays without the whole family around the table. Even regular events like apple and pumpkin picking, made a little less comfortable with masks on. One can only imagine how different Times Square will be for New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see the Year-in-Review montage they put on. It’s impossible to overstate how much 2020 has impacted our most firmly held traditions.

Well… sadly for us we will not get a picture of Tristan with Santa Claus this year as is the case for many other families. I’m sure the old man is in the high-risk category anyway and I think we’d all understand if he decides social distancing is the way to go this year. Of all the years for this to happen though, I’ll selfishly admit this year probably worked out best for us. We got our Santa pic last year for Tristan’s first Christmas. And he’s not quite old enough this year to really understand who this jolly man named Kris Kringle truly is. If he were to miss a year on this experience, this seems to be the best one.

But taking him for his first pictures last year made both Morgan and I ponder, was this Santa Claus tradition one we wanted to continue with our kids? We both grew up with parents who had entertained this tradition with us. Leaving out milk, cookies and reindeer food. Having to stay in our rooms until sunrise. Even opening letters from Santa on the years when we just barely made the cut for the nice list. For many many years the answer to the question, “Is Santa real?” was an emphatic “Yes!” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

But things change for all of us as we grow older. We begin to question the ability of one man to bring gifts to the whole world in one night, how reindeer can fly, and why Mom and Dad have been holding out on Christmas gifts for us all these years. We eventually learned that the story behind the presents under our Christmas trees wasn’t exactly what we were told when we were younger. Instead of a high-octane sleigh ride through the sky to deliver presents from the North Pole, our parents simply survived the brawl in the Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot on Black Friday to get the gifts we wanted. Today those gifts are obtained in more humane, albeit far less exciting ways like Amazon Prime. And on Christmas Eve they were “simply” walked to the tree from one room over in our parents’ closet. The milk and cookies weren’t eaten by big man from the north pole, but the big man we called “Dad.” The answer to the question “Is Santa real?” went from an emphatic “Yes!”, to an equally certain “No!” It was all so obvious now. Why didn’t we see through this hoax all along?

I don’t recall the moment my parents telling me the truth about Santa as being particularly traumatic. I had a hunch for some time but didn’t talk to my parents about it. But once I knew, it was expected that I would take part in maintaining this “secret” to keep from ruining the magic of Christmas for my younger siblings. Was Santa real? It depended when you asked me and if my little sister or brother were around.

It was this same hesitation that made Morgan and I ponder what we would do with our own kids. Cautious about repeating traditions just because that’s what we’ve always done, we wanted to make sure we knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had heard of other parents avoiding the Santa tradition because they didn’t want to lie to their kids or unnecessarily sow distrust in their relationship. Others that saw parallels between Santa and God and not wanting to unsettle their kids’ faith when they would realize Santa wasn’t exactly who they believed him to be. Genuinely thoughtful stances, and opinions that we were considering ourselves. Once you start to look up articles online about this topic, you’re bound to find plenty of people willing to tell you how to raise your kids. This is a personal decision (one we’ve clearly been working through ourselves) and one I do not want to critique in other parents.

But I wanted to offer a new way of framing this conundrum around how you could tell your kids about Santa without the feeling that you’re simply being deceitful. We decided we would continue this tradition ourselves and I thought it may be valuable to share why. One practical reason was that we would rather be the ones telling “lies” than our kids. We didn’t want to have them navigate how to “lie” to their friends who did believe in Santa Claus at such a young age. But there was a second reason, that really convinced me that I wanted my kids to believe in Santa as children.

When we ask the question, “Is Santa real?” what in the world do we mean by that word “real?” I’m assuming when most of use the word real in regards to Santa, it’s to say that the only way he would be real would be if he was a living breathing human alive today, living at the North Pole who delivers presents to all children with his magical reindeer and sleigh. And in that sense, no Santa is not in fact real. But maybe there’s an opportunity to teach our kids that maybe there’s another, and quite possibly a better way of thinking about what is in fact “real?”

Are the only real things in the world those that we physically see or touch? Those that we can measure or quantify? Those that can be explained by the hard sciences like physics, math, chemistry, or biology? The problem is that if these are the limits to what we can consider as real, then what do we make of things like Christmas spirit, generosity, kindness, or love?

Many of us would say that these are also real, yet we can’t see them, physically touch them, measure, or count them. Yet these very “real” things animate us. Move us. Motivate us to live in particular ways. They govern our actions. We can feel them. To give gifts as parents without an expectation of anything in return, even the recognition for giving our children gifts. To behave as children like we are always being watched, even when Mom and Dad aren’t within sight.

Many of the most “real” things in this world are not made of merely material things. Love, joy, wealth, patriotism, ideologies, school and team spirit, are all in their essence devoid of material substance yet they drive people to act in a multitude of ways.

Likewise Santa, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, charity, without expectation of reciprocation, has motivated parents and kids alike, over multiple generations to take part in this beautiful Christmas performance of giving and receiving. A performance that most likely would not occur if not for the story of Christmas and the way that story has manifested itself in the character of Santa Claus.

So is Santa real? I think he’s one of the most real things we have in our culture and I look forward to sharing him and the story of Christmas with our children. And when they are old enough to question the actual existence of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, I’ll be excited to share with them that the story can continue to inspire generosity, kindness and love within us if we are willing to play a role in the magic.

It was never really just about Santa. Santa points to something even more real about the culture it fosters within our families and communities and getting a better glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas.

The most real things are those not bound to temporal material things like gifts or even our lives. They are the those things that are most enduring and that motivate us to live and love well. This cultural adaptation of the Christmas story has lasted long before we were born and will almost certainly last beyond our final days. And it is a story that we are all invited to partake in.

So is Santa real? I would say most definitely “Yes!”

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!!!

Update: After finishing this post, we had the pleasant surprise from none other than Santa himself who happened to make his way into town. Our neighbor captured a fun photo for us to remember this less-than-ideal, yet very special 2020 Christmas season. Thank you to the local fire department for making that special event happen for our son, who was very excited to see the renowned Santa Claus!

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