Monday, December 10, 2012

No, Virginia

The Holiday Spirit

Christmas is two weeks away and many young children are anticipating presents from Santa Claus; the myth remains. Is there any harm in parents perpetuating a story that has been around for generations? Prof George Jochnowitz thinks so: "The business of children is learning about the world. It is a job that can never be completed. The business of a parent is helping a child to grow up— to learn what reality is and how to deal with it. When a parent lies to a child, the essential role of parenthood is subverted."


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by George Jochnowitz
Christmas is a beautiful holiday. One aspect of its beauty is the custom of exchanging gifts. It is wonderful to have an excuse to give presents to those we love—generosity is something we find embarrassing if there is no occasion for it. It is especially pleasurable for parents to give Christmas presents to their children and for children to receive them.

Yet parents, almost universally, lie to their young children about Christmas. They say the gifts come from Santa Claus, who lives in a cold climate but has a warm heart. I cannot imagine why parents choose to depersonalize Christmas in this way. Isn't it better get presents from Mommy and Daddy instead of from some remote philanthropist whose benevolence extends to millions of children? Or is it benevolence? Our popular music tells us that "he's making a list and checking it twice. He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice." The gifts are not gifts at all; they are positive reinforcement. And who is this man who "knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake"? A walking data bank!

Children, like all human beings, should be treated with respect. When we consider their ignorance adorable, we are using them as playthings and depriving them of their dignity. The business of children is learning about the world. It is a job that can never be completed. The business of a parent is helping a child to grow up— to learn what reality is and how to deal with it. When a parent lies to a child, the essential role of parenthood is subverted.

Sooner or later, the truth must come out. No one can grow up and still believe in Santa Claus. Finding out that there is no Santa Claus is not only disappointing but destructive. The child learns that the parents are morally flawed—guilty of pointless falsehood. Perhaps our society would be less cynical if parents were more honest.

Once there was a little girl named Virginia who asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?" (New York Sun, Sept 21, 1897). It was a simple, touching question. She wanted a simple, honest answer. Nobody could give it to her.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 1, 1987.  This post can be found on George Jochnowitz. It is republished here with the permission of the author.