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“Are you really alive?” asked  Margaret Mead ,   20th century’s most influential anthropologist. Mead  was interviewing Santa Claus in 1977 in a book co-written by Mead and Rhoda Metreaux.

“I certainly am,” replied Santa Claus, “and very busy these days, too.”

Note that Margaret Mead never stated that Santa Claus was “real”.

Few things rattle the fine line between the  magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, when,  and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, the Margaret Mead  addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception:

One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the Babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.

Mead’s hope was that:

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little Babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Mead’s guidance to adults was to be able to speak poetically to  children, with sacrificing magic for reason:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:

Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow-men is expressed in a symbol.

It is possible to speak the truth without “lying”.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell also weighs in on the subject:

As for Santa Claus, he is a symbol that speaks to the unseen reality. He represents the spirit of giving to all children, the virtues of good will and  charity. He symbolizes what St. Francis of Assisi talks about  when he claimed ,’that which is essential is unseen.’ That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are.

My own reboot of the legendary wizard, Merlin Ambrosius, sums it up when a student asks him, “Merlin, is that real?”

“Oh, it is so much better than real, “Merlin replies. “It is true.”