© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

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.
A related post from Krismas 2007
For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.



This was written on Tuesday, 07. December 2010 at 07:57 and was filed under action, critical thinking, holidays and celebrations, My kids, myths, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Hi Dale –

    My son, who will be five in March, has been asking all sorts of questions about Santa this year – how does he get out of our house? how does his sleigh fly? why is he magical? how does he know if I’m good or bad?

    Developing KringleDoubt?

    Comment: darwinsbulldog – 07. December 2010 @ 10:36 am

  2. And so you firmly believe that Santa Claus and God are fictional?

    Santa is there, in spirit, created many centuries ago to bring joy and happiness through gifts to children in a limited geographical area. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. We, the descendants of those times, have made Santa a moneyed object and prostituted the feeling or intent of the act.

    And what to my wondering intellect should appear, but a man who thinks he is, was, and shall ever be the omnipotent power in the world, controlling all that he sees …

    It is too bad you see the same modern logic applied to God. Live well and proper in the world you created…

    Comment: mschaub – 07. December 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  3. Loved this the first time I read it, Dale. It makes such good sense!

    Comment: niftywriter – 07. December 2010 @ 4:56 pm

  4. @darwinsbulldog, you may have the beginning of KringleDoubt there. Both my boys gave up on Santa being real by age 6. That said, we still do stockings and the boys help out with the stockings both for each other and for the adults in the family. We’ve set up the stockings as a vehicle for anonymous little gifts to each other on the big day.

    Comment: awolfga – 08. December 2010 @ 9:43 am

  5. @darwins: Right on schedule! And if he follows the pattern of all three of mine, he’ll probably grab any opportunity to continue believing for a while before pushing the point. I recommend letting him guide the process as much as possible. The result is amazing and gives the child both self-knowledge and empathy for others. Good things.

    Comment: Dale – 08. December 2010 @ 9:57 am

  6. Very insightful! Oh how I wish Christians would get this. Tell your child that Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, Leprechauns, etc. are real…have every parent play the same exact game…and ah yes, tell these same trusting children that Jesus is real and God is real.

    It doesn’t take a mental leap to understand when they realize the myths aren’t real that they will make the same assumption about Christ. You lied about Santa after all…that invisible being that you sold them on. Why would you expect them to continue believing in God at face value?

    The difference of course is that one is a myth, the other is truth.

    Lose Santa parents! And, focus your energy on things that actually do exist. Human beings, the world around us…and yes, God.

    Comment: stephen – 09. December 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  7. Dale, thank you very much for posting this again. I am reading your blog for years and it is really very helpful. But perhaps even more important, it is always a joy to read.
    I have just snatched your post and translated it into German for publishing on my own blog, which I started recently: Evidence-based Views. I have added some laudatory remarks about your blog and your books.
    I hope you don’t mind 🙂

    Comment: Harald – 10. December 2010 @ 6:28 am

  8. Ausgezeichnet, Harald, danke! Ich schätze dass sehr viel. (Das fast erschöpft mein Gymnasium Deutsch, übrigens.)

    Comment: Dale – 10. December 2010 @ 8:34 am

  9. Last Sunday I went to a brunch with my family that was put on by their church (which I used to attend and participate heavily with before my de-conversion) because A) I like food and B) my wife wanted me to be there to see our very credulous daughter meet Santa. Her meeting Santa was fantastic (though she told me later “That wasn’t the real Santa. That was just a guy in a suit”), the highlight for me was when my old pastor got up to say a few words.

    He spoke about some of the x-mas songs he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like Silent Night because there was a birth and it was highly unlikely it was anything resembling silent. He also doesn’t like Santa Claus is Coming to Town because: “I don’t like the idea of ANY guy who is watching everything I do and deciding if I get rewarded or punished based on if he thinks what I did was right or wrong.”…. and in one fell swoop he broke my irony meter AND my humor gauge (because I couldn’t let out the much deserved laughter).

    Comment: CharlesP – 14. December 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  10. My son will be four in February. He knows who Santa is…sort of. He recognizes him but does not exhibit any understanding or “belief” in a man watching him being good or bad, he does not mention anything about Santa bringing gifts and while I have not said anything about Santa not being real, I have not indicated that he will receive gifts from “santa” from me…because he won’t. He’ll receive gifts from me and others around us because while I generally find the story harmless, I’m not about to pass off my hard work at trying to even be able to provide Christmas this year to some made up dude who apparently is better at getting my kid to mind me than I am!

    Dale, you were once a part of Religious Roundtable on Ning, but that folded, however if you’re interested feel free to check out my own link (though, I’m sure your time is quite limited.)

    Thanks for all you do!

    Comment: thelittlepecan – 21. December 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  11. This year I added to our tradition that Santa will ‘passover’ any house that does not have a wreath on the front door. Couldn’t help myself.

    Comment: Mark – 24. December 2010 @ 9:53 pm

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