Santa’s Supply Chain

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Ah, Christmas. Arrived once again, on the doorstep, with SO much baggage. We never questioned whether we would raise our kids with the Santa tradition or not. As a young child, I was a true believer. My mom produced beautiful Christmas mornings. One Christmas evening before I turned five, I have a physical memory of waking up in the night and hearing the sound of sleigh bells–a sound of pure joy. That morning and I recall receiving a plastic trumpet in my stocking, and a spring-suspended rocking horse that left me wondering if somehow Santa had gotten a key to the door. I was the type of kid that worried about embers being left in the fireplace, and whether they would set Santa’s coat on fire.
My extended family took the gifting of Christmas quite seriously, and with nine aunts and uncles and ten cousins, the sprawl of presents extended ten feet from the branches of the tree–designated ‘runners’ were required to pick their way through the wrappings and bows to ensure that each gift found its recipient. My Grandmother, (and then my mother, after my grandmother died), hand-needlepointed beautiful stockings for each new member of the family, with pictures of rosy cheeked Santas, smiling children, and snowy windowpanes. This year, my mother in a burst of handcrafting prowess completed a 3 ft long stocking for my 7 year old, and then a second one for our new baby.
How could I possibly deny my children this tradition?
But as my 7-year old gets older, I have my doubts about it. For one, facilitating his belief requires a substantial amount of subterfuge on my part. Oliver, like me, is a believing (gullible?) kind of person, but not unthinking enough to buy into just anything. With many friends who are Jewish and Muslim, the possibility that Santa’s work is done by parents in the night has definitely come up. There have been moments when the subterfuge has been fun; for years, Oliver’s primary wish from Santa has been the power of flight. I had to devise an elaborate story to explain why the gift of flight was one Santa could not bestow–something about how the king of the birds made a pact with Santa where, in exchange for flying around the world in a sleigh on an annual basis, that Santa wouldn’t extend the power to other humans (jeopardizing the preeminence of birds). After taking this one in stride, he was willing to switch to the more do-able wish for an entire child sized suit of samurai armor. (Wooden katana from the cheap Japanese import store saved the day).
I think the primary reason that I now wonder about the wisdom of our household Santa hoax is that it undermines the reality of what it takes to produce, consume, and dispose of the gifts we receive on Christmas day. After a recent watching of ‘True Cost’, the possibility that the toys and clothes my kids get on Christmas morning were produced by children themselves, or came at the extreme expense of other children’s health, can’t help but to be at the front of my mind. Adding insult to injury, here I am telling my kids that these gifts are somehow produced by magical elves in a (melting) north pole. In many other aspects of our life, I’ve worked to articulate the cost of our decisions in a way that is fair, and comprehensible. So it feels a bit disingenuous to have this one part of the year that is completely divorced from the realities that the other 7 year olds of his world are experiencing.
I remember how I realized that my mother wrapped Santa’s gifts. Shopping together before Christmas, I had fallen in love with a fat, round stuffed animal penguin at the department store. And on Christmas morning, there it was– from ‘Santa’ but wrapped in the wrapping paper I knew to be my mother’s. Though I rationally understood that my Mom did Santa’s work, the bells I’d heard as a toddler still rang in my ears, and it took a long time for the warmth of the belief in Santa to fade entirely. But I did become increasingly annoyed (and I think inquisitive) about how Santa acquired gifts from Mattel, or Hasbro. And, ironically, I think it fired up my initial curiosity in where these things were made, out of what, and by whom. Could elves mold plastic? What was plastic made out of?
The loss of innocence and that dawning awareness of industrial production processes has informed my adult performance as Santa. Generally, I give gifts that could conceivably have been handmade, or actually have been handmade. Hilariously, my 7-year old has responded by increasingly asking Santa for gifts that he knows it will be a pain for me to handmake– on the premise that it will save me the effort to have the elves do it. This year Quittich Pads and faux chain mail pants are on the list–neither is commercially available unless you want to contract with a Cosplay expert. Stacked amongst those gifts, though, are some products that were likely made with what can only be understood as slave labor. A stuffed animal puppet for his brother, a plastic car that runs on an a balloon– who made this stuff? When will I talk honestly to my son about the many people whose misery subsidizes our morning of joy?
So this year I’m not working as hard as I might to hide the truth. I know the day he stops believing is soon upon us, and half of me relishes the sweetness of his last innocence while the other half is morally shocked by the ‘true cost.’ I hope that as he grows, we can scale back (and scale back again) to a Christmas that was not produced through slave labor, or the labor of other children, or at the expense of his future.

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