The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

A ‘Yes Virginia’ two-fer

Last year I had a go at one of the most execrable things we culturally love — the “Yes, Virginia” letter:

santabelieveOne thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, [in which] a little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry….For two years my son Connor intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.

This is THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right. When asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Now the inimitable Greta Christina has added her voice, penning the answer she would have given Virginia. (For full effect it must be read immediately after reading the original piece of dreck):

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

-Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It’s a story made up by your parents.

Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.

Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults’ or children’s, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they’re told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

Read the full piece at Greta Christina’s Blog

Ho ho ho no mo

(Another holiday chestnut from the Meming of Life vault. First appeared Feb 25, 2010. New posts coming next week. No, really.)

And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

Delaney (then 8 ) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

“Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

“Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

(Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

When I was Laney’s age, I specifically recall looking at the North Pole on a globe, seeing the vast expanse of water, and thinking, Uhhhh…ice floes. That’s it. The workshop is built on unmapped ice floes.

At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

Just before Christmas (2009), Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

“When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

“Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

“Good, because I love Santa.”

“Who said anything about Santa?”

“Never mind.”

Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

“Figuring what out?” I asked.

“Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

“That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

“Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

“What’s up in here?”

Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

“What did you figure out.”

“I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

“What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

“That…well, he isn’t real.”

“Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

“A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

“And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

She beamed.

“Was it fun to figure out?”

“Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

“And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

“Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.

Santa Claus: The ultimate dry run

This year, the annual reposting of my take on Santa is brought to you by Justin Bieber, whose mother didn’t want to do Santa because she was worried that Justin might draw parallels between Santa and another magical being. Now ain’t THAT a kick in the jingle bells…

IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
_______________________
First appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief, p. 87. For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see p. 85.

Time to get your ween on


“JesusWeen is a God-given vision which was born as an answer to the cry of many every October 31st. The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel. The days of hiding are over and we choose to take a stand for Jesus. ‘Evil prevails when good people do nothing.’ JesusWeen is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever, and that is why we also call it ‘World Evangelism Day.'” — From JesusWeen.com

Well alrighty then.

Most Christians roll their eyes at the fearful response to Hallowe’en, but there are always some who consider tonight’s goings-on to be an embodiment or celebration of evil. It’s even been called the birthday of Satan—a particularly weird idea, since the biblical Satan/Lucifer was originally an angel and therefore created, not born.

Also common among evangelicals is the idea that Hallowe’en was born in the worship of “Samhain, the Celtic God of Death.”  Among the many problems with this idea: there is no Celtic god named Samhain.

Celts recognized only two seasons: summer (life) and winter (death).  Samhain (usually pronounced ‘sow-en’ and meaning “summer’s end”) is the name of a month corresponding to November. The “feast of Samhain” on October 31 marks the end of summer and the last harvest of the year. It was symbolized in Celtic mythology as the death of the god (possibly Cernunnos), who would then be resurrected six months later at the feast of Beltane (April 30-May 1). As the website Religious Tolerance puts it pretty neatly, Samhain is not about the God of Death, but the death of a god. In this way, Hallowe’en is rooted in the same mythic impulse as the Christian Easter.

Like the Mexican Day of the Dead, Samhain is a recognition of the relationship between life and death. By equating death with evil, conservative Christianity recoils from and fears it.

Parents who instead recognize death as a natural part of the cycle of life can enjoy digging into the holiday’s origins. At Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was said to become thinner, and the ancient Celts believed the spirits of beloved ancestors could cross that boundary and walk among the living. Food would be set at the threshold for the departed spirits.1

So before the kids head out tonight, tell them how the tradition of dressing as spirits and going from door to door for treats grew out of this old Celtic idea of caring for and remembering loved ones who had died. A very cool bit of context.
_____________________________

1Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs (Mercier, 1972); O’Driscoll, Robert (ed.), The Celtic Consciousness (Braziller, 1981).

Believe it or…look, just believe it.

santabelieveI’ve been in such a good mood lately, and now the Universe is trying to muck it up.

One thing that never fails to pee on my Yule log this time of year is the “Yes, Virginia” editorial. I had so far avoided it, then the wretched thing found me through #@*&% Facebook:

DEAR EDITOR, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON. 115 W 95th St.

The editor replied:

VIRGINIA, Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias! There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

jbNot believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

And so on.

Let’s look at this. A little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight.

I’m convinced that the roughly six percent of kids who feel “betrayed” when they find out Santa isn’t real most likely had their belief perpetuated beyond its normal course, usually by the parents. I advise parents who do Santa to use a light touch and allow kids to find their way out naturally. They start with tentative questions about this or that aspect of reindeer aerodynamics or house entry. When my son asked how Santa’s sleigh flies, as I described in PBB, I gave him the opportunity to work it all out:

“Some people say the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered…But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

For two years he intentionally avoided the obvious direct question, because his desire to know had not yet overtaken his desire to believe. But once he asked directly if Santa is real, as Virginia O’Hanlon did, I answered honestly and congratulated him on his self-propelled journey to that answer.
jc4
“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

Just as I was recovering from the yearly “Yes, Virginia”-induced nausea, a related piece of spam plopped wetly into my inbox from EZSantaLetters.com:

How to Convince Your Child That Santa is Real

One of the major drawbacks of life in today’s world is the fact that children grow up too fast. Belief in Santa Claus is one of the aspects of childhood that is usually first to go. Promoting the belief in Santa is one of many things parents do for their children. Several methods exist to accomplish this, but two of the best are a Santa call and Santa letters.

A call from Santa Claus will go a long way in promulgating the belief in him in most children. Children do not normally receive many phone calls as a rule. Since they are usually a special event to begin with, calls from Santa Claus will be especially well accepted.

As parents, we all want our children to be able to hold onto their childhood as long as possible. One aspect of childhood that we encourage is the belief in Santa Claus and all he stands for. Arranging for a child to receive a phone call from Santa and planting evidence of his visit are two ways to help keep children believing as long as possible. These will add to the child’s enjoyment of Christmas as well.

I’ll let you do the commentary. This Santa spam and its “Yes Virginia” ancestor are like drops of amber with a bit of human nature inside — that urgent human yearning toward belief, and revulsion to disbelief.

What fascinating and funny things we are.

Isn’t it romantic

candycane350I like stories. I like reality. I don’t so much like stories posing as reality.

Two different parents wrote to me recently about a Veteran’s Day flag-folding ceremony in their children’s public school. The ceremony in both cases was filled to the gills with religious language. A few excerpts:

The flag folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our country was originally founded…In the Armed Forces of the United States, at the ceremony of retreat the flag is lowered, folded in a triangle fold and kept under watch throughout the night as a tribute to our nation’s honored dead. The next morning it is brought out and, at the ceremony of reveille, run aloft as a symbol of our belief in the resurrection of the body…

-The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
-The second fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life.

-The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.

-The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
-When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God we Trust.”

My correspondents had reasonable concerns about the separation of church and state. Me too. But I had just as much concern about the separation of fiction and reality.

If there’s an original meaning to the flag-folding ceremony, that’d be interesting to know. Less interesting is learning what someone somewhere dreamt up and applied ex post facto. And that’s what happened here, according to both Snopes and the U.S. Air Force, whence the religiously-saturated ceremony is falsely said to have sprung.

By 2005, the Air Force (apparently tired of having this ceremony falsely attributed to it) wrote a script of their own. “We have had a tradition within the Air Force of individuals requesting that a flag be folded, with words, at their retirement ceremony,” said the USAF protocol chief in the Air Force Print News. The article continues:

This new script was prepared by Air Force services to provide Air Force-recognized words to be used at those times…Individuals who hear [other] scripts end up attributing the contents of the script to the U.S. Air Force. But the reality is that neither Congress nor federal laws related to the flag assign any special meaning to the individual folds. “Our intent was to move away from giving meaning, or appearing to give meaning, to the folds of the flag and to just speak to the importance of the flag in U.S. Air Force history,” he said.

The new script replaces unconstitutional Christian triumphalism with entirely constitutional nationalistic triumphalism. An improvement, I guess — at least in public schools.

The new script includes actual footnotes. References to the flag’s role in the Battle of Baltimore, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the moon landing lead to my favorite:

3Based on historical facts.

I wished I’d known about that source in grad school.

Another parent email:

My son came home from (public) first grade today and told me that they read the legend of the candy cane at school. He told me, “It’s about Jesus.”

Ring a bell? You may have seen this one in your inbox:

A Candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy 

that would be a witness, so he made the Christmas Candy Cane. He 

incorporated several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of 

Jesus Christ. He began with a pure white, hard candy. White to 

symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the church, and the 

firmness of the promises of God. 

The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent the 

precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Saviour.

Red stands for what it always stands for in these things — hemoglobin. The tale goes on, but you can already smell the ex post facto. And sure enough, Snopes has this one debunked as well.

Incredibly, there was a court case about the candy cane legend in schools. A Michigan teacher asked his fifth graders to develop products as a class assignment. One student sold candy canes with the “J is for Jesus” story attached.

A skittish administrator said it constituted religious literature and pulled the project. The boy’s family sued, and a federal judge ruled that the boy’s rights had been violated. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.

Obviously I don’t know the details, but I can’t imagine what the Appeals court was thinking. A teacher reading a book about the candy cane as a tribute to Jesus presents a problem. But a student expressing religious convictions in school is protected speech and has nothing whatsoever to do with government endorsement of a particular religious perspective.

But again, it’s not just the church-state thing for me, but the preference of pretty fictions over mere reality. That’s Romanticism, the declaration that reality just isn’t good enough. Whether it’s candy canes or something Lincoln or Voltaire or Margaret Mead supposedly said, or whether Jesus actually secured us an afterlife option — well two, if you think of it — I’d rather see the world as it is than imagine it as I’d like it to be. Period.

The best epiphany I ever had during my teaching career was that the history of music, the arts, even of culture itself, can be effective understood as a struggle between Enlightenment and Romanticism. The current “culture war” fits nicely into that paradigm.

Inspired by flags and candy canes, I’ll start the New Year with a short series on romanticism, and why I so bloody frigginly hate it.

Ah, but there’s plenty of time for frothing later. First, have a Merry Krismas!

Santa Claus — the ultimate dry run

The annual reposting of my take on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. This year is our first fully Santa-less Krismas, as Delaney declared her akringlism in February (described here).

santa32076IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
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A related post from Krismas 2007
For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

The children of the revolution

yawnOne thing is pretty much guaranteed for any social movement that struggles against the mainstream: the children of the activists won’t understand what the big frackin’ deal is.

U.S. civil rights pioneers often end up with kids who (while enjoying the fruits of the struggle) ask their parents, “Why is it always about race with you?” Second-wave feminists spent their youth breaking glass ceilings, only to have their daughters (who’ve never known a time when they couldn’t vote or play hockey or run a corporation) roll their eyes with embarrassment at Mom’s “obsession with gender.”

Without putting myself anywhere near the same plane as those, I’ve started getting a taste of that second-generation thing myself. It’s a good thing for the most part, a likely sign that our own efforts have made it possible for our kids to transcend our obsessions, to find the next beast that needs struggling against instead of tilting with ours — or just to enjoy living in a better, saner world.

When Becca recently brought up the idea of starting a secular parenting group in our area, my 15-year-old son — a classic apatheist — said, “I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“I kind of don’t get why you need something like that. Just don’t believe. Why do you have to get in a group with other people who don’t believe?”

“You don’t have to,” Becca said. “But some parents who aren’t religious find it helpful to see how other nonreligious parents handle the issues that come up.”

“Like what?”

I offered an example. “I just got an email from a mom this morning. Her family is going to church with her parents for the first time, and she wanted to know what her son should do during communion. You know, when the congregation goes to the front for the…”

“But that’s so obvious!”

“Oh? What’s the obvious thing to do?”

“You just do it! You’re in a church, so you do what the church people do. That’s respectful.”

I remember being fifteen, seeing things so clearly, constantly stunned at the density of others.

“Okay. Do you know what communion is?”

He paused. “Well…not really, no.”

“It’s a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Most important part of a Christian service. It’s a way of saying, ‘I believe in the divinity of Jesus, and here’s the moment I’m closest to him.’ So some people feel it’s more respectful to not do it if you don’t believe it.”

“Huh.” Another pause. “So you told her not to let him do it?”

“Well no, I said I’d explain to him what it means and let him decide what to do. He can see what it’s like to stay sitting when most people go to the front, or to take part in a ritual that means you believe when you really don’t or aren’t sure. It’s good experience.”

Two weeks later we visited my mother-in-law’s Episcopal church. I reminded the kids that they could choose to do whatever they wanted. They could sing or not, pray or not, kneel or not, commune or not. And if they had any questions, they could ask us.

Delaney (9) noticed the Stations of the Cross before the service. I told her it was the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, and we walked the circuit. As a second-generation freethinker (in the lower case), she didn’t have to recoil or push against it. To the kid who was Athena for Hallowe’en, it’s just another cool mythic story.

During the service, Erin (12) was obviously pondering her choices. When the first kneeling moment came, she looked at her Grandma (kneeling), then at the padded kneeler, then at me (sitting), then at the kneeler again. She half-knelt, looked uncertain, then dropped back into the pew. The second time, with a deep breath, she went for the full kneel. Third and fourth times, she sat.

Trying something on for size is classic Erin, and she left the church knowing what both feigned conformity and sore-thumb honesty felt like. Much better than just yakking about it.

Communion came and went, and Connor stayed in his seat. We exchanged wry smiles. Yeah yeah, his eyes said, whatever.

A mindgasm of scientific proportions

This is quite simply one of the most astonishing, original things I have ever seen. Ever.

I’ve said too much. Set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes.

It’s filled with phrases that express what I often find inexpressible. Add your favorites to the comment thread.

(Profound thanks to my step-nephew Dan Nolan for this one.)

Haad yor gobs! The Lambton Worm

lambtonworm1Enough with the seriousness. Time for another bedtime story monster.

Years ago, in northeast England, in the valley of the River Wear (rhymes with “tear”), lived a young man named John Lambton. John wasn’t much for church and one Sunday skipped it altogether to go fishing in the Wear. But instead of a fish, John caught only a strange worm, a little beastie with nine holes on each side of its head. It was too ugly to eat, so he discarded the thing down a nearby well, forgot about it, grew up, and joined the Crusades.

(Now there’s some deep time for you. American folktales are notoriously short of heroes who join the Crusades.)

Lest ye doubt this actually happened, I offer proof in the form of an actual folk song:

One Sunday mornin’ Lambton went a-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s hook
He thot look’t very queer.
But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was young Lambton cuddent tell
He did nae wish tae carry hem,
So he hoyed it doon a well

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined te gae
An’ fight i’ foreign wars.
He joined a troop ov Knights that cared
For neither woonds nor scars,
An’ off he went te Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An very soon forgat aboot
The queer worm i’ the well.

The worm “growed and growed an aaful suze.” Soon the villagers began noticing that their cows had all been milked—this was getting serious—then that the odd cow had gone entirely missing. The Worm (which we shall now capitalize out of respect) had emerged from the well and between bouts of dairy mayhem lay coiled around a local hill—ten times around the hill.

Jes’ the leedies, noo:

But the worm got fat an’ growed an’ growed,
An’ growed an aaful suze;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggle eyes.
An’ when at neets he craaled aboot
Te pick up bits o’ news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Jus’ the lads, noo, nace and lood—don’t be lettin’ the ladies shame ye none!

This feorful worm would often feed
On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,
an’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon te sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aall he cud
An’ he had had he’s fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail
Ten times roond Pensher Hill.

“Little bairns” are children, by the way, swallowed whole by the beastie as they slept.

lambton2Many brave knights tried to kill it, only to be vanquished by the Worm (imagine that on your tombstone) which uprooted trees and brandished them like clubs. In case you were having trouble picturing giant worm battle methodology.

Blah blah blah, John returned from the Crusades and killed it:

The news ov this myest aaful worm
An’ his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears
Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John.
So home he cam an’ catched the beast
An’ cut ’im in twe haalves,
An’ that soon stooped he’s eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks
On byeth sides ov the Wear
Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep
An leeved i’ mortal feor.
So let’s hev one te brave Sor John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an’ calves by makin’ haalves
O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Everyboody noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Doubt ye still? The story is established as historical fact by the existence in Weardale of a hill named Worm Hill, the circumference of which is precisely one-tenth the length of a giant worm. Explain that!

slugElsewhere in the North, you’ll hear tales and songs of the Sockburn Worm, the Linton Worm, and the Laidley Worm. The huge black local slugs might have had something to do with this obsession, but it’s also a prominent thread in Anglo-Saxon legend, this fear of ending up in the diet of worms. I could make the obvious mortality point—we all end up eaten by worms—but I’ll spare us both.

(But we do, you know.)

Conversely, I figure things must get ever less ominous as you dip into Southern Europe. In Italy they probably tell cautionary tales in which magical goats lead children to invest unwisely. Must look into that.


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An etymological note: “wyrm” means “serpent” in Anglo-Saxon, whence “worm”–a little snake. Again with the damn serpents.