IT'S no exaggeration to say that what we tell our children about Santa has the power to shape their childhood. What we say – and how we say it – leaves a legacy that affects everything from the memories children have of Christmas to the values they grow up with and the traditions they repeat when it's their turn to play Santa.
So it's no wonder that parents were reportedly outraged last week when a teacher in England told a class of eight-year-olds that Santa isn't real. This bombshell was dropped in the middle of a literacy class, while the children were writing letters to Santa Claus. Talk about timing – only the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge would choose such a magical moment to disavow the existence of Santa. The teacher is reportedly extremely apologetic.
But does it matter? Well, yes, because children are impressionable and take their cues from their parents when forming early values and beliefs, so it's simply not for anyone else to presume to override what might be sacred at home.
Teachers are hugely influential in the lives and minds of children. They have faith in what teachers tell them. My children regularly take me to task if I contradict their teachers, so there's something disheartening about the idea of children losing faith in teachers, never mind the sanctity of Santa. But that's precisely why teachers should be careful not to overstep the mark by devaluing what a child is taught at home.
There's a sinister sub-text to this issue, which is the collusion of adults in the concoction of a myth designed to 'trick' children. As a parent I've wrestled with that conundrum every year whenever my children's fervent talk of Santa gets ramped up. I'll admit I've even been sorely tempted to shout "SANTA ISN'T REAL!" and run screaming whenever the kids start yelling at me to watch every single toy commercial on TV. But I'm convinced that wouldn't help. They'd be much more likely to roll their eyes and mutter quietly that Mum's gone "cuckoo-bananas" than burst into tears and decry the destruction of the very fabric of their childhood.
So I don't think there's any need for parents to throw their toys out of the pram just because of one misguided teacher. There's also a tradition of curmudgeons trying to wreck Christmas for the kids – that's what Dr Seuss's famous story 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' is all about. Fortunately, it seems we can always rely on the good guys to pick up the pieces when children's faith in Santa is at stake – police in Canada last month arrested a man after he ran amok at the town's annual Santa parade, telling the kids Santa isn't real.
No doubt there would still have been complaints if the teacher in question had strung the kids along. When you think about it, there's something weird about fibbing to little kids.
In the long run, children believe what they want to believe, and that's what's truly magical about childhood.