When does childhood end? Many answers are possible, but the holiday season brings a tempting response to mind. Childhood ends when we are told that there is no Santa Claus, because learning "the truth about Santa" also teaches other lessons - lessons that are springboards toward maturity.
What lessons are these?
For one, Santa Claus means that toys can be had without toil. To be sure, Santa's elves work hard, but it's usually assumed that they don't view their labor as drudgery; otherwise, we'd expect them to unionize or strike against Santa Inc. for better benefits.
The "truth about Santa" thus carries with it a lesson about thrift:
Goods and goals cannot be won without work.
A second lesson concerns fairness and charity. To a child, Santa Claus means that saints and sinners receive their just deserts. Good boys and girls are rewarded with gifts; willful children find coal in their stockings. And Santa never errs in his tallies of naughty and nice.
But once Santa is retired from children's imaginations, the world becomes morally nuanced. Brats' cups can (and sometimes do) runneth over, while children whose hearts brim with goodness find their lives empty of blessings. The dream Santa represents is replaced with a hard reality:
Life is often unfair.
In the face of this harsh truth, two reactions are possible. We can become cynical, accept the unfairness as "the way things are," and merely seek our own selfish security.
But there's another way. We can continue to cherish the ideal Santa represents: that all children deserve to know the joy of benefiting from another's thoughtfulness. But since no Jolly Old Elf exists to enact this ideal, we must take up the job ourselves. It's up to us to make the season special for those less lucky than ourselves and help realize the virtues of benevolence, charity and goodwill.
A magical thing happens on the heels of such a commitment: We see how Santa can still be real, even if he doesn't exist.
Rarely has the substance behind this sentiment been better expressed than in the delightful story, "One Christmas," by Truman Capote. "Of course there is a Santa Claus," he wrote. "It's just that no single somebody could do all he has to do. So the Lord has spread the task among us all. That's why everybody is Santa Claus. I am. You are. Even your cousin Billy Bob."
The same insight can be found in newspaper editor Francis Church's famous reply to an 8-year-old skeptic: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," Church declared. "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist." For after all, Santa is merely the fictional face we paint upon these very real virtues.
In just this way, we learn a better image of Santa Claus: He might not exist at the North Pole, but he can be realized within us all. This might be the most important lesson the "truth about Santa" can teach young people.