Among those of us who celebrate the Christmas holiday, I would wager a bet that most of us grew up on some version of the same Christmas Eve storyline:
It's the one about Santa chilling up in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, the elves, Rudolf and his reindeer gang, eating cookies and perusing a gigantic list of names of allll the boys and girls of the world and, for a full 11 months and some 3-ish weeks, judging the behavior of kids worldwide to make the ultimate decision as to their "nice" or "naughty" status so that the "nice kids" could be rewarded and the "naughty kids" delivered a stocking full of coal on Christmas Eve.
I have no idea where that precise storyline originated. (Was it the song??? That vintage, animated TV special? Or, did it preexist all the mass media messaging?) And I'm really not certain why millions of parents, parents of all types, spanning multiple generations, were so eager to jump on board with it.... Clearly, there is the advantage of the opportunity to shift disciplinary responsibility to someone other than themselves as parents. (Which is a pretty crappy parenting strategy for several reasons.) But really, it seems like everyone truly believed this was an a-okay message to send.
So, you have this symbol, this character in Santa who represents the spirit of Christmas, who embodies the joy of the holiday season, and kids get ridiculously, out-of-their-minds excited for him to visit their home. And that's fine! The idea of Santa brings joy. It's magic. Lord knows, the world could use more of it. We all could!
But then, you have generations of parents who take that symbol of spirit and joy and magic, and they place a condition on who and how it can be accessed. They warn kids against behaving "badly," which of course is mostly a subjective measurement that can, and does, change drastically from generation to generation, between countries and cultures, between families, and even between individuals within the same family.
Sure, there are a few pretty objective standards of "bad behavior," though the very large majority of kids will likely never come close to even grazing them.
Rather, the idea of "naughty" behavior is thrown around as a threat, often for the smallest and most insignificant of behaviors that pose the slightest inconvenience to parents. (And sometimes behaviors, or even character traits which manifest due to diagnoses such as ADD/ADHD, are lumped into this category of "bad" behaviors, which is then, according to parents, judged by Santa. So, yeah sure, let's throw some ableism in here for good measure!)
And, really... if a child is behaving in a way that is obviously dangerous to themselves or others, or contrary to important social norms and expectations, should that really be something we leave up to the concept of Santa to address? Or... should we, as parents, look closely at those behaviors, talk to our children, if possible, about any underlying issues that may be contributing to behavioral changes, and seek the type of support and services that our children actually need. And I mean things like medical support, mental health services, etc., not the elevation of a single, magical man to the position of judge and jury over your child.
This is also why I find the Elf on a Shelf craze ultra cringe-worthy. Because clearly it is not enough to threaten kids with the judgement of Santa Claus. Now, thanks to the good people who brought us that creepy ass elf, we can terrorize our kids all month long with the ever-present loitering of an elf character living in our homes with us. (Do not get me wrong. I think there is absolutely a "fun" way to go about harboring the elf, but also, I don't see that happening very often. It is very much used as an extra tool to check behavior and force compliance. It's weird.)
So, do we tell our four-year-old son the story of Santa?
Absolutely! I love everything about the magic of Christmas. I love the joy and excitement that the Santa story brings to kids. I live for that holiday magic!
But, do we share the part of the story where Santa holds court over the children of the world, spying and judging them based on their behaviors all year, and deciding if they are worthy of a gift during the most joyful season of the year.
I will never pass on that storyline.
Our son is told that Santa is a wonderful person, who is friends with elves and reindeer (and probably polar bears), and he rides in a very cool sleigh, and he visits every kid who celebrates Christmas, all over the world, and he can bring them all gifts. Because every kid is worthy of a gift. Because every kid tries their very best all year long, and Santa knows that and that is what Santa celebrates.