With the prevailing circumstances bringing such hardship to so many, it can be difficult to embrace the holiday spirit. While it’s certainly uplifting to observe the beautiful decorative lights transforming area homes and businesses, festive details are not always noticed or appreciated by those who are alone, suffering, compromised in any way. It’s important to acknowledge how different this year has been, as we transition into what traditionally is a time of warm gatherings, gift exchanges, magical celebrations.

Many parents maintain the belief in the mythological Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) for their children. Supporting the presence of Santa or the tooth fairy must never be a reason to abuse our children’s beliefs by manipulating their behavior. “The Elf on the Shelf” is a holiday addition I’ve heard described as “mischievous, playful,” with parents moving this creature around each night, so children discover him in a different place each morning. I understand some parents find him a useful tool for enforcing good behavior in their children, at least during the holidays. Thus, the elf’s role: “Every year at Christmas, Santa sends his elves to watch you. And they go back and tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, what you say and what you do. The Elf on the Shelf is watching you, each and every Christmas.” A misbehaving child is quickly reminded the elf is reporting to Santa.

I suspect most parents identify Santa Claus as a positive character. Now that some families have adopted the “elf on the shelf,” this little helper assumes different roles for families. I completely support children believing, for their capacity in make-believe will be a useful part of their development. With today’s surreal challenges, their growing imagination can soften the sharp edges of reality. Although they eventually realize you’ve been providing the gifts, there’s magic for children holding on to those beliefs. My own childhood, and that of my children’s, was never tainted by these apparent “untruths.” Whether or not you keep Santa alive in your family, there is no right or wrong, good or bad; rather, parents must choose what works for them. One of my children discovered our “deception” at age 9, with an overlooked price tag on a gift blowing our cover. “There really isn’t a Santa?” Yet, the falsehood was never a problem, not in revealing our Santa tracks nor in being “lied” to all those years. Despite needing to grieve, my daughter appreciated the magical stories woven into her childhood. We all agreed that the anticipation, the Christmas Eve preparation rituals for his arrival, and the excitement of Christmas morning had been worth keeping Santa Claus around. Those memories are lovingly cherished.

I do have a problem with wielding power over children to enforce good behavior, manipulating their belief in mythological characters, such as Santa, the tooth fairy, or the Easter bunny. Threats that Santa or the “elf on the shelf” is watching, to stop sibling battles or meltdowns, are damaging. It may be helpful in the moment to curtail unwanted behavior; yet, by promising future reward, we’re missing the valuable connection sustaining our children’s faith. This harmful practice, perhaps the easiest, is the worst way to get children to do what we want. We expect them to learn impulse control, doing what’s right for its own sake, rather than behaving only because The Elf on the Shelf will report any lapses to Santa. What makes us think this punitive approach teaches them to behave for the rewards they will receive? Learning the truth about Santa under those circumstances certainly would feel like a betrayal.

Maintaining the holiday magic and strong connection with our children is undoubtedly what we want. However, exerting threats of rewards and punishment through the elf’s influence with Santa will not achieve that. I believe this myth isn’t intended to shape good behavior, or to acquire as many gifts as possible. To the contrary, the elf symbolizes the joy of giving, of imagination, magic, and is all about love.

At a time when we need as much magic, connection, and happiness to offset the hardships so many are enduring, we certainly don’t want to eliminate Santa and the Elf on the Shelf from Christmas! Instead, embracing the spirit of giving, being of service, and love is what the holidays are about…. Believe!

“If young children have been able in their play to give up their whole loving beings to the world around them, they will be able in later life to devote themselves with confidence and power to the service of the world.” — Rudolf Steiner