It has come to my attention that parents out there are struggling with one of the basic tasks of parenthood: explaining Santa to children. Now, WhyNotSmile is not a parent, but this need not get in the way of dishing out advice, for I hear that there is nothing parents like more than non-parents explaining how to bring up their offspring.
The first important thing about Santa is to decide on your basic approach. Are you going to go along with it, in which case you will need to get your story straight? Or are you going to be straight with the kiddies and tell them up front that it's all a fantastical tale, albeit built upon the legend of an actual person, dreamt up generations ago to add a sparkle of magic and wonder to childhood, but which has now been consumed almost entirely by the corporate machine with the aim of bleeding parents dry because they have a misplaced sense of guilt at not spending enough time with their children? The latter is the favoured approach of many who do not wish their children to confuse Santa with religion, for reasons which just got a little fuzzier.
If you decide to opt for the latter approach, it's all quite simple: you tell your child there is no Santa, and you get to take credit for all the presents on Christmas morning. However, it is important to beware of the pitfalls: namely, that there is a hefty risk of turning your child into the smug little twerp who tells all the other kids that Santa's not real, and then punches them all in the face. Try to sidestep that if you can. Also, there will still be a lot of Santa in your child's life, and you have to figure out how to explain that, without your child feeling that you're depriving them of the glorious truth and then converting to some kind of fat-red-guy cult as an act of teenage rebellion in 10 years' time.
The former approach, of course, is the road more travelled, and we shall devote the rest of our time to it this evening. There are 2 things you need to get straightened out in your own head: the basic, widely-accepted facts, and the lies you're going to tell to answer the questions your child will dream up.
First, the facts. For those whose memory of what Santa is all about is a little fuzzy, he is a jovial chap who lives in a wooden hut at the North Pole, or Lapland (in all honesty, I'm still not completely clear on whether Lapland is an actual real place. It's a bit like the way I still have to pause for thought when someone asks whether unicorns exist). Anyway, Santa is married to Mrs Claus, although she appears to serve no purpose suitable for small children (can I make a suggestion? I think she should cover the administration of the lists. Can we start that?). Santa has 12 reindeer, who can fly and pull a sled. He is assisted by numerous elves.
For most of the year, Santa and the elves make toys; on Christmas eve, the toys are loaded into his sled, which is then flown around the world by the reindeer, to the homes of children who have been good all year. At each home, Santa climbs down the chimney (although exceptions can be made for homes with no chimney, apartment blocks and the like, as Santa has a magic key which allows him to open front doors all around the world). Once he gets inside, he leaves presents of choice for the children, in stockings which have been carefully placed, generally at the foot of the beds or along the mantlepiece. It is accepted that a small snack will have been left for Santa; this usually consists of a mince pie or shortbread, and a glass of milk or mulled wine, possibly with a carrot for the reindeer.
So much for the basic facts of the matter.
This works well as far as it goes, but once a child reaches the age of around 4, they begin to question the perceived wisdom of the tale, and start to ask awkward questions (or at least, most of them do. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker, until dangerously close to puberty). The trick is to answer these questions confidently. Herein, I provide a range of sample answers; of course, every child is different, and your own may come up with further difficulties - please feel free to leave additional questions in the comments, and I will endeavour to reply.
1. What about the Santa in the shopping centre? Is he the real Santa? Well, yes, if you only ever take your child to one shopping centre. Children do not have a terribly good sense of continuity, so Santas at craft fairs, community groups and so on can be explained away as Santa on an outing. However, if they see him permanently ensconced in several shopping centres, they will become suspicious, at which point you may have to admit that that's not actually the real Santa.
2. Who is he if he's not Santa? He's Santa's helper. Santa employs a range of helpers to go out and about to meet boys and girls in the run up to Christmas, because he's very busy making toys. That's why you have to give him a list of what you want for Christmas - Santa will remember, but his helpers may not be quite so good, and in any case, they need the list to pass on to the elves, who are notoriously forgetful, and would make all the wrong toys otherwise.
3. Will I only get toys if I've been good all year? What about the lizard incident? Santa may be willing to overlook misdemeanours if they happened pre-Halloween. The processing takes a while though, so if you misbehave any time after mid-December, expect a sack of coal on Christmas morning.
4. How do they make enough toys for all the children in the world? Most children do not have the manic consumerist attitude of those in the West, and will be happy with an orange. Think about that, child.
5. How does Santa get round everywhere in the world? There's no point in trying to be over-scientific. It's magic. Also, the time zones mean he actually has 2 days to cover the globe.
6. Why does Santa use the same wrapping paper as Mummy? Because Mummy fecked up. Seriously, don't do this.
7. Why, when you spend most of the year telling me to be wary of strangers, do you force me to be led by 2 elves to sit on the lap of a large scary man, even against my clearly strong objections? Because I've paid £7.50 for this, and they don't do refunds, and I promised Granny a copy of the photo.
8. Isn't mid-December a little late to submit the list? If they've been making toys all year, surely a last-minute rush on Gordon The Gophers could tip the system into chaos. Ummm.... yes. That's why there are so many adverts on TV in the autumn; it is an attempt to brainwash children into wanting whatever the elves have a surfeit of.
9. Why does Santa give the neighbours new bikes every year, when I only get chocolate coins and a packet of colouring pencils? He's annoyed with you for asking stupid questions. Life is unfair. Live with it.
I trust this helps.