With a wave from his sled at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Santa Claus has come to towns across America. Belief in Santa continues to thrive, despite the internet spoiling the myth for children everywhere far more efficiently than “that kid” ever could. Even so, the fear of technology destroying Santa Claus is a concern for many. From Macy’s #SantaProject to Elf on the Shelf, companies keep pumping out solutions to keep Santa Claus alive in the popular imagination. While cynics will declare Santa everything from a marketing gimmick to a manipulative disciplinary tactic, he is also perhaps the last bit of magic and mystery in our increasingly realistic and informed society. Still, if we are to continue perpetuating his myth in the face of information technology, perhaps it is time to refine who Santa is, what he stands for, and how his tradition should function in our culture today.
Many people have raised concerns over the characteristics of manipulation and surveillance associated with Santa. Parents often problematically use Santa’s famous naughty and nice list as a disciplinary tactic. This aspect of the Santa myth is a shallow representation of the hope and motivation Santa could and should inspire. Research shows that students with hope have “greater academic success, stronger friendships, and demonstrate more creativity and better problem-solving.” Children can grow in hope by setting goals, building strategies, and staying motivated. Transforming the Santa narrative of wish lists, good behavior, and hope to focus on these positive steps instead of focusing on manipulation and surveillance would be beneficial, both for the mental health of the parents who often admit guilt and for the children processing myth versus lie.
Given the fact parents today are more lax disciplinarians than past generations, it is interesting that the surveillance narrative has grown more prolific. The rise in popularity of Elf on the Shelf is an excellent and concerning example. The scout elf is a “Christmas tradition” designed purely to monitor children’s behaviors. He sits and watches and reports back to Santa all the child did that day. The next day, he returns in a new place to sit and watch some more. Children are not even allowed to touch the doll. While the popularity of its old world charm is surprising and even encouraging in the face of Nintendo, light up toys, and computers, it is also concerning that surveillance is the main aspect of Santa that companies and parents choose to push. Is it because parents are so inept at disciplining their children now that they rely on these mythical crutches once a year? Elf on the Shelf is supposed to hearken back to a simpler time before technology ruined Santa, but we should be creating toys, books, and activities that support the good, healthy aspects of Santa Claus, not the creepy ones.
One of those healthy aspects is imagination, which many psychologists argue is the key reason to continue the Santa myth, as stirring imagination helps a child develop. Yet others argue imagination requires an understanding of reality versus fiction, a line the Santa myth blurs. Psychologists aside, the truly valuable aspect of the imagined world of Santa that is worth pushing is its inter-generational nature. Grandparents, parents, and children all share in creating the magic and the myth. Particularly at a time when parents use technology to entertain and babysit their kids, the Santa myth encourages parents to put down the iPad and share in a creative—and historical—experience with their children. Continuing to push positive traditions like baking cookies, hanging stockings, and visiting the mall Santa builds memories and relationships in a way technology never could. When parents position Santa as a symbolic part of a grander tradition, not the main event who watches your every move, children hopefully are able to experience his magic as they grow and change without long-lasting trauma.
At a time when even kindergarteners have phones, people often do not give or receive pure and undivided attention anymore. The Santa myth, by contrast, encourages quality time and inspires children to see magic in something other than a screen. If parents, toy manufacturers, and even Macy’s can find ways to stimulate togetherness, imagination, and hope without surveilling and spoiling children, they may have a tradition worth preserving.