© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

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.

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This was written on Tuesday, 21. December 2010 at 13:01 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, holidays and celebrations, myths, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist

    Wow, that’s the most cynical thing I’ve heard all day. So… according to the “Yes, Virginia” crowd, love, generosity and devotion don’t actually exist? Depressing…

    On a more positive note, I got directed today to your original post on Santa and skepticism, and I very much appreciate it. The tentative plan my wife and I had was to do Santa with a deliberate wink and a nod, e.g. I’ll come in dressed in a beard and a hat, but it should be obvious to any three-year-old that it’s really papa and not Santa. Your post gives me good ideas for how to deal with it long term.

    Comment: jay.sweet – 21. December 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  2. This year is probably going to be the start of this whole adventure for us. Our little girl is 3 this year, and really starting to get into holidays. (She’s still asking when we get to go trick-or-treating again.)

    I’m pretty comfortable with the approach you describe, Dale – it makes loads of sense, and sounds like good fun for kids and parents. I’m curious to see how the wider family (read: my kids’ grandparents) reacts to this approach.

    Comment: TimMills – 22. December 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  3. I agree: kids need to be able to trust us to be honest.

    I’ve always told my daughter “the real truth.” She has had no trouble understanding that we are all pretending about Santa Claus — and she delights in the tradition. She herself says she feels that she enjoys the tradition as much as any of her friends, but is very glad not to have been deceived.

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful blog.

    Comment: ClassicalMom – 22. December 2010 @ 7:55 pm

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