Santa: Magic Or Myth?

The Claus come out as Morgan and Sheree Gleeson set aside peace and goodwill to debate their divided Christmas convictions…


The magical dust of Christmas glitters on the cheeks of childhood so briefly… (Max Lucado)

When I was little, the night sky was deeply mysterious. I wasn’t sure where, exactly, the North Pole was located, but as I looked up at the shower of stars each Christmas Eve, I knew Santa had departed from his icy home and was threading his way through the sparkling silver streets overhead, guided by the glow of Rudolph’s light as he circumnavigated the globe in order to land on the front lawn of my home in Australia.

If the above sounds flowery, that’s okay – my childhood was flowery, awash in a delicious sea of fantasy, parallel worlds, magic… and adjectives. Sparkling. Glittery. Twinkling. Silvery. Blinking. Tinselly. My lips formed around the words as if they were alive, and each time, a tiny catherine-wheel seemed to explode on the tip of my tongue.

Christmas imagery delighted me. It warmed my insides like the eggnog I never tasted but read about in English boarding-school stories. Enchanted my senses like the fireflies I’d never seen in reality but watched as they lit up the scenes in American movies.

On Christmas Eve when I was seven, Mum spotted the distant glow of Rudolph’s nose in the eastern sky. “Is that Santa’s sleigh, do you think?” she asked casually, and Melinda, my sister, and I ran for our bedrooms, a twin tangle of arms and legs in Holly Hobbie pyjamas somersaulting backwards over the lounge and through the hallway as we scrambled to dive under the covers before Santa arrived and, finding us awake, elected to leave a bundle of coal instead of a bonanza of presents under the tree.

Christmas was a bucket of water and a bunch of fresh carrots left on the front verandah, and the breathtaking discovery of tiny hoof-prints on the front lawn the next morning. The long, delicious lead-up to the big day was spent blowing dandelion heads into the wind, hoping they’d lead us to Santa’s grotto, and planning covert trips on our BMXs to spy on the elves as they tinkered away in their giant snowy toyshop.

We stared with enormous eyes at Christmas window displays, transfixed by the trees, the tinsel, the lights, the carols, and above all, the precious engine driving the fun, excitement and magic of Christmas – the idea of Rudolph and his team of reindeer, the North Pole, the elves, Mrs Claus, and Santa.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m convinced the Santa story, in Western culture, is a major antecedent to an appreciation of the arts – to the life-enriching experiences of storytelling, for example, and the ability to open the mind to worlds and ideas that are intangible.

If this is true, then the early myths and beliefs that we pass on to our children give them access to a life that is deeper, richer, more fantastical and wondrous than the surface concerns of survival that a more utilitarian, reality-based childhood would allow. And because of that, I passionately want Liam, Darcy, Rachel, Mason, Elijah and Jasmine to have Santa as a centre-piece of their collective childhood.

There is a teeny, tiny, elusive window in their lives where impossibilities are entirely possible, and allowing them access to it gives them the opportunity, however briefly, to bathe in moon dust.

My memories of what it felt like to believe in Santa are wispy, slipping away before I can grasp them. But the important thing is that they’re there, just below my consciousness, inspiring me to read, write, daydream, and to make sure that my children, too, have the priceless, gossamer, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to believe.


If it is not right do not do it, If it is not true do not say it. (Marcus Aurelius)

It’s important that our kids know that they can ask us anything and we’ll do our absolute best to tell them the truth.

I’ve got no desire to kill their joy, and I understand my gorgeous wife’s concerns about the role of magic and wonder in childhood, but my parents didn’t buy into or encourage the Santa myth, and my childhood was still pretty damn spectacular.

My brothers and I swam, surfed (okay, went out as far as our ankles and tried to ride the whitewash in), fished, raced go-karts, joined the Scouts, and ran around in the bush like a trio of hyperactive, zinc-nosed tiger cubs.

We found magic in the beads of dew that made diamond necklaces along the threads of spiders’ webs, wonder in fog that glowed like melted pearls as it wrapped its early-morning arms around shrubs and tree trunks, and meaning in nature, side-splitting laughter, friendships, relationships and the tender, tenacious circle of life being played out all around us.

A fat man in a red suit and a team of flying reindeer have always seemed so lame to me compared to the real wonders the world has to offer, that I’m constantly bemused at the time, effort and energy adults spend in order to support and maintain the global Santa conspiracy.

It’s like we all throng together once a year to shout to our kids: ‘The world with all its wonders isn’t enough; towering mountains and crashing seas and the whole entire cosmos with its myriad possibilities aren’t enough; we need the “magic” of a nylon beard, rubber boots and a red, synthetic suit.’

If we’re going to spend time educating our kids about the fantastical, let’s tell them about the dancing lights of the southern aurora. Let’s take them out on the ocean at night and let them see the silver phosphorescence that flashes in the spray of the boat’s wake. Let’s describe the strange fluorescent creatures in the deepest, darkest, most secret depths of the ocean, and instead of imagining Santa in the sky, let’s challenge them to be astral swagmen and women themselves, shooting up through the Milky Way in their imaginations. Challenge them to be Orion, facing the charge of the snorting bull. To slide down the Big Dipper. To take a sweet, clear drink of water from the starry, night-time Saucepan.

I admit I’m a realist – short on imagination and fascinated by what’s real, observable and concrete – but even I can create fantasy for my children without having to resort to lies.

To me, perpetuating the Santa myth feels like a lazy attempt to fill the hole in my kids’ hearts – a hole that was designed, I’m sure, with much more substantial wonders in mind – with pre-packaged fairy floss.

I’m all for the meaning of Christmas – the giving, sharing, caring and coming together – but deceit, even wrapped up in the form of a twinkly-eyed, rosy-cheeked philanthropist, is insidious. And relying on the fat guy to provide magic is like giving our kids flimsy tinsel to build their memories on, when all around, pure gold awaits.

Illustrations by Kim Fleming