© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

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.



This was written on Monday, 19. December 2011 at 19:33 and was filed under critical thinking, holidays and celebrations, My kids, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, PBB. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I do this kind of thing with my 5 yr old daughter all the time when she asks me questions. They are sort of straw men I guess but like yesterday she asked me why the sun goes up and down an I told her that “some people believe that there is a man with a bird’s head instead of a regular head who drives a chariot across the sky and the sun is in the back of the chariot. What do you think about that? Does that sound right?” She told me that was silly because animals can’t breath in space and beside the sun would probably burn man and his chariot up. Some times she asks me what I believe and then usually accepts that answer. At the very least it is a fun little game that hopefully teaches her that lots of people believe different things and she can decide what she believes in.

    Comment: ConorMcG – 19. December 2011 @ 11:10 pm

  2. Ever since reading the book Parenting Beyond Belief and then finding your blog, this has been my favourite essay/blog post about Christmas. It set me free to re-create the magic of Christmas I experienced as a kid except with the added benefit of using it as an education tool over time. I finally put my thoughts together about the subject on my own blog (and gave kudos to you).

    Thanks for all you write and do – you made my foray into secular parenting a little less daunting with your books and blog.

    Comment: Dea – 20. December 2011 @ 12:29 am

  3. My wife and I have the same strategy with our kids (9 and 6 years old). Our older child seems to be a true believer in Santa. Or perhaps he’s simply a pragmatist who doesn’t want the gravy train to stop.

    Comment: Andrew Hall – 20. December 2011 @ 6:35 am

  4. We had already started with the Santa thing before I let go of my religious mythology. I was conflicted about what to do about it, if anything. I read PBB and decided to try Dale’s strategy of using it as a teaching moment. I was skeptical, but decided to try it so I just let it go. I’m so glad that I did this. My son was 6 when he decided that the every kid had a guy assigned to their house and came dressed in a bunny suit and left the candy. He felt comfortable with this for a few months then all of a sudden one day he said, “Mommy I know the secret of the Easter Bunny…it’s you and daddy.” About 15 seconds later a new sparkle came into his eyes and he looked suspiciously at me and said, “I know the secret about Santa and the Tooth Fairy.” The look of pride on his face was priceless. My daughter was 5 when she figured it out. Her reasoning was that when mommy locks the door to the bedroom, presents come out. Of course, the knowledge means that they feel the need to share it with other kids.

    Comment: DNAmom – 20. December 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  5. Hi Dale,

    We have three children … 5, 3, and 1, and although they are quite young, we encourage free thinking, ask questions and let our children come to their own conclusions on a lot of things. We’ve already been through death and dying with the death of my grandmother this past October, and my older daughter decided she was comfortable with the existence of a heaven and that is where Grandma was now. My middle daughter decided she was on vacation and would be back in 10 days; she’s three, so that, for the time, was fine, as hours, days, months and years don’t mean a whole lot to her yet.

    As for Santa, we do admit to behaving on the premise that there is a Santa this time of year. Until questions come up, we’re happy to do so, revel in the magic this season offers, and talk about the Christian faith with our oldest who has taken a keen interest in church and why others go and we choose not to. On that note, my wife and I really liked the way that you broached the subject with your son, and will likely do the same with our girls as they get older and begin asking those questions, however, we both stopped a little as we were reading about the comparison you used when your son began asking the same questions about religion. Can I ask if there is a reason that you chose to word your question as “Does that sound right to you?” vs. “What do you think about that?” Do you feel that you are in any way leading him toward a certain belief or system of beliefs by asking in one way vs. another? By provoking thoughts from your kids and asking them to form their own opinions, if they choose a belief system different than your own, how is that handled?

    Thanks for your input.

    Comment: gda – 22. December 2011 @ 1:27 pm

  6. @gda: I don’t see a significant difference between “What do you think?” and “Does that sound right to you?”, and I use them interchangeably, though the second is more active.

    If you search my blog for the word “indoctrination,” you’ll find a good deal about my serious aversion to leading my children to my beliefs. I know too many good, smart, decent people of other worldviews to think mine is the only acceptable outcome. The only thing I ask is that their eventual decision is a choice, not a lifeline driven by fear of the alternative. And the best way to do that is to give full permission to examine all claims in the light of day.

    Comment: Dale – 22. December 2011 @ 2:17 pm

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