I was walking in Pasadena yesterday and happened upon a local holiday fair, with live music, food, lots of people and a good long line to sit on Santa’s lap.

I walked by the entryway near the line and saw Mrs. Claus sitting in a chair, but no one was sitting on her lap. For a minute I thought, oh that’s very cool to turn the tables a bit, but the people weren’t waiting for her.

They were waiting for the big daddy in the sky who drops presents for little children one night a year. That mythical benevolent figure who wants only to make everyone’s dreams come true. It’s a darling myth that most of us grow up with or at least hear about, even if it’s not your tradition. It’s one of the most ubiquitous myths there are.

Yet there are deeply problematic things about both the myth of Santa and the ways we uphold the tradition of sitting on Santa’s lap to ask for what you want.

First of all, there is no benevolent white dude with a beard deciding who has been good enough to deserve what they want floating in the sky, whether you think that’s Santa, God or Jesus or some other imprint of the celestial patriarch.

Why do we carry this on the way we do, teaching children a total lie that is not true?

And what does that lie actually teach them?

It doesn’t teach them that they have control over their own destinies–but that they’ll need an older man or daddy figure to get what they want.

Let’s break down a bit why this is problematic.

Messages in the Santa Myth:

  • You have to be well-behaved or “chosen” to be worthy
  • Naughty and nice are the only options–well naughty can be fun if no one is getting hurt, and nice is manipulative so how about we encourage “genuine and caring” instead? (Since we are already in a lie here, we sure aren’t modeling genuine.)
  • You can just sit on some man’s lap and poof, it will be so. What does that teach children about women? About power? About how their own effort matters? It’s always an old white guy that will be able to give you the goods you want. And you don’t have to do anything but charm him into thinking you’ve been a good boy or girl…but you gotta sit on his lap too?
  • It’s a good idea to sit on a big stranger’s lap and let him touch or hold you, even if you don’t want to because it seems to make your parents or other people happy. So you have to give something of your own bodily autonomy/agency in order to get the goods or to please others. Don’t we battle that myth enough in adult relationships?
image

Me and my siblings with Santa.

My youngest had been crying just before, not wanting to do it. We did always love the photo and my Mom blew it up poster size and hung it in her house for years.

Pushing children to sit on Santa’s lap, especially when they cry and make it clear they do not want to do it is an assault on their bodily autonomy and agency. Of course a lot of kids cry when they are pulled away from mom or dad’s arms and put on this stranger’s lap, who’s wearing a big red suit and looks like a scary clown!

Why would we push our children to do that?

Given rates of child sexual abuse and the many ways children learn that they don’t get to have agency over their bodies, we must realize that this does not help, and in fact, may contribute to children thinking they do not get to say “no” to unwanted touch.

It’s another way we say, “Yeah big grown men can touch you when you don’t want it and you have to cooperate, or there might be consequences…you might not get your presents…better be quiet now and be a good boy or girl.”

Maybe you have rooted your family in the myth of Santa and your kids are all in. Okay, so ASK THEM “Do you want to go sit on Santa’s lap?” If they say “no,” let it go. If you don’t and you push them to do it anyway, then it becomes about you and what you want–a cute photo to send everyone or to feel like you’ve done your parental duty around the myth of Santa.

If they DO want to, then ask if there is anything they need around the experience, and make sure they know they can change their mind, or stand next to him if they prefer. If you model these tenants of bodily autonomy and consent early and frequently for your children, they will learn that they have control over who touches them and under what circumstances. Make it a practice to make sure your children know they never have to hug or touch someone they don’t want to.

No more of the “Go on now, and hug your Auntie.” Ask if they want to. I never just touch or hug a child. I greet them verbally and ask if they want a hug or a high five or neither. And I honor what they want. Even if I feel close to that child, I am not going to assume I have access to their body, as much as I might love a hug. If they have their arms stretched out to greet me, they are in the lead.

By teaching children that they get to have control over their own bodies, we are providing them with the agency they deserve over their life and what happens to them. And that means Santa too. Maybe especially Santa.

And if someone ever tries to abuse them, they will be far more equipped to push back, state their boundaries, say “stop” or to speak up about it later. They deserve and need this skill set. Model it for them.

I know it can feel like a bubble burst for some folks who care about these Christmas traditions and love to play the game of Santa. Sometimes traditions need to be updated. In an era where we are doing as much as ever to end childhood sexual abuse and we know the statistics are high for it to happen, we owe it to ourselves to question this one.

And if you child is truly traumatized by being forced to sit on Santa’s lap, know that it could indicate they are being retraumatized–it would be a good idea to investigate whether something has already happened and they are being reactivated by this experience. Note of caution: That is not necessarily the case and they might not want to for a whole variety of reasons. And it’s important to pay attention to those cues.

I hope your December is starting brilliantly. I want to thank everyone who attended the Sex and Money Masterclass last week.

With a twinkle,

Amy Jo